How do you create a meanwhile building that doesn’t feel meanwhile? The team behind The Hithe community hub explore how they created a high-quality demountable space with a small budget and big ambitions.
In this PX Conversation, Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Programme Manager for Property X-Change, welcomes four project stakeholders of The Hithe:
- Sarah Castle of IF_DO architects, who designed the building;
- Emily Berwyn of Meanwhile Space, who developed the site and now operate the space;
- Rumi Bose of Southwark Council, who was joint funder/client, landowner and planning authority;
- and Mark Darnell, Director of Un-fold Projects, a current tenant in one of The Hithe’s micro units.
At the crossroads between Albion Street and Railway Walk, a 340 sqm vacant plot stood at a pivotal point between the river to the north and Canada Water to the south. In 2016, Southwark Council was searching for partners to help bring an engaging meanwhile use to the site – a new community hub for a neighbourhood undergoing rapid change.
“There is a reason that meanwhile sites are available, and it’s not because they are easy to develop.”Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space CIC
The conversation starts with the challenging site constraints: the Rotherhithe Tunnel shaft to the north and the live tracks of the East London Line at the western edge, a 1.5m clearance zone required for 24 hour servicing, and a two-three storey limit on building heights. Sarah speaks of the varying requests from the community in addition to these physical constraints. There was a need to create something meaningful, not a gesture. But how do you create a meanwhile building that doesn’t look like a meanwhile building?
“How do you build a meanwhile use that doesn’t look meanwhile?”Sarah Castle, IF_DO Projects
The project was carried out in two phases: first, a scoping study and second, the establishment of the brief. The scoping phase relied on varied and extensive public engagement, consultation and research. This was both to understand the community’s concerns and needs, as well as to help build capacity for the future. The output of the scoping study then informed the brief and business case, ensuring that proposals reflected local needs. It was decided that the 200 sqm building would provide ten studios for local start-ups, arranged around a central ground floor gathering space with links to the kitchen and yard to the north of the site.
Mark testifies that the unit is serving him and his company very well. After the pandemic, his former office space fell through and it was hard to find a small unit for three to four people. The affordable space at The Hithe is conveniently accessible by public transport, private, and yet part of a wider community both within the building and along the street.
The group talk about the timescales – six months to planning, 22 months for Transport for London approvals, and five months to build! Sarah explains the challenge of designing for demountability – and the level of detail required – down to the nuts and bolts. The fact that structural engineers Eliot Wood and fabricators Weber Industries worked closely with IF_DO was absolutely crucial, and the mutual trust and reliance on each other’s skillsets made the design process truly collaborative.
The council acting as enabler was key to the success of this site – Rumi explains how community value and high street activation were at the top of the agenda, over and above commercial return. The vacant plot was hard to develop but had been costing a lot to maintain with issues of fly tipping and squatting – collaborating with design and activation experts has offered a great solution to this whilst also testing what is possible in terms of reuse and demountability.
Happily, Mark tells us about how the building is becoming part of the street life. The long-standing hoarding now gone, local people have the opportunity to interact with the playful frontage, not least the schoolchildren who enjoy sitting on the steps or scooting past each morning. Emily tells us how the community garden helps to continue the dialogue with local people that started off the project five years ago. At a recent gardening day at The Hithe, local children came back to plant their flowers in the yard, grown from seeds that Meanwhile Space had given them a few weeks earlier.
We have heard how this playful little landmark building has come into being, and we have high hopes for its future – not just that The Hithe will bring value for the people of Rotherhithe over the next decade, but also that it will pioneer an alternative new build solution to temporary use projects that is replicable elsewhere.
“We’ve got to be good at overcoming those barriers if we want to make use of these kind of spaces.”Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space CIC
- Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space
- Rumi Bose, Southwark Council
- Sarah Castle, IF_DO architects
- Mark Darnell, Un-fold Projects
- Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Hassell