Project
Thames Tunnel Mills
Location
Wapping
Client
L&Q
Planning authority
London Borough of Tower Hamlets
Started
1977
Completed
1983

On the River Thames at Rotherhithe next to famous Mayflower is the towering Victorian edifice of Thames Tunnel Mills, named after Brunel’s famous tunnel which was dug almost alongside. Before the red braces, big earrings and even bigger mobile phones swept in to the docks, Hunt Thompson Associates were working with the owners of Thames Tunnel Mills to establish the feasibility of its conversion for a new use as social housing. Shortly after it was listed Grade II.

In use until the early 1960s it was decaying and fire damaged but its substantial brick walls still stood, redolent of the 19th Century working river. Half was a six storey flour mill of 1850, the rest of 1890 a storey taller. Its internal structure of cast iron and heavy timber created the big open spaces of a warehouse. Conversion called for smaller spaces, natural light, privacy, security and comfort. Space standards, cost limits and the 20 metre plan depth called for deep plan apartments along the external walls, living and sleeping spaces combined at the existing windows, and a new atrium brought light to entrances and bathrooms.

It is all about community. The building was designed for single people and key workers, and with all the flats leading out into the atrium, it really pushes people together. It is perfect for housing.

Ricardo Mandarin, resident

I love the flat. It’s a great little space. 

There is never any trouble here, not really. I wonder if it’s because this building is so solid? I think the river keeps everyone a bit peaceful.

Natasha Santos, resident

The atrium was an innovation addressing the challenge of the deep plan; a communal space to encourage social interaction as well as bringing natural light and ventilation. Access galleries line the atrium and distribute services as well as people. An existing brick silo in the middle of the plan was adapted as a lift and stair core with visual connections to the atrium. The proposal included a flat for on-site concierge, a laundry, a common room with terrace, and a spectacular roof garden with views of the Thames and across the Rotherhithe conservation area. The existing brick chimney, cast iron crane were retained and a rebuilt timber jetty recalled the industrial riverside heritage. Planning approval for 71 flats accommodating 119 people was secured in 1978.

In the detailed design the existing floor structures was reconfigured to achieve the required compartmentation. After transfer to London and Quadrant Housing Trust the contractor, Eve Construction, secured the brick elevations, gutted the building and then introduced the new structure tying back the existing walls with resin anchors. Some of the cast iron columns and heavy timber beams were re-used in the galleries evoking the Victorian warehouse aesthetic. Windows were replaced with replica metal framed windows. 

Construction was completed in late 1983. Hunt Thompson Associates provided the full architectural service from inception to completion. The opening party coincided with the 10th birthday of L&Q, so to celebrate a the association joined with Hunt Thompson to co-host a lavish opening party. Guests arrived by a Thames barge embarking from Tower Pier, sailing under Tower Bridge which was opened to allow the boat to pass downstream. After arriving at the jetty there was a fireworks display, and in the atrium a tightrope walker entertained while a Jazz band played. The final theatrical flourish was a helium balloon lifting the cover on the dedication plaque unveiled by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, one of the founding Partners of Hunt Thompson Associates. 

The first residents were typically in their mid to late twenties having ties of family or employment in the area. The on-site management of the building encouraged a sense of community that has developed and grown in the decades since the building was opened. Though one of the earliest warehouse conversions it is the only one that remains affordable housing.

 

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