The Hithe is a building conceived as a piece of social infrastructure for Rotherhithe. One that will both support local businesses and the community to forge connections. The design had to meet a challenging trio of objectives – high design quality, demountable and a low build cost.

In this conversation, Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Programme Manager for Property X-Change, welcomes four project stakeholders for The Hithe: Sarah Castle, IF_DO architects who designed the building; Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space who developed the site and now operate the space; Rumi Bose, 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 340sqm 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, in a neighbourhood undergoing rapid change. 

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 hr servicing and a 2-3 storey limit on building heights. Sarah speaks of the requests from the community in addition to physical constraints. The need was to create something meaningful here, not a gesture. How do you create a meanwhile building that doesn’t look like a meanwhile building?

The Hithe Albion Street Mike Massaro 039 v1
Credit: Mike Massaro

The project was carried out in two phases: a thorough and carefully considered scoping study – varied and extensive public engagement, consultation and research. This was both to understand the community’s concerns and needs, and to help build capacity for the future. The output of this study informed the brief, business case and ensured proposals reflect local need. The 200sqm building will provide ten studios for local start-ups, arranged around a ground floor central 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 3-4 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 the street.

The group talk about the timescales – 6 months to planning, 22 months for TfL approvals, and 5 months to build! Sarah explains the challenge of designing demountability – and the level of detail required – down to the nuts and bolts. Structural engineers Eliot Wood and fabricators Weber Industries working 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 Hithe Albion Street Mike Massaro 175 v1
Credit: Mike Massaro

The council acting as enabler was key to the success of this site – Rumi explains how community value and high street activation to the were at the top of the agenda, over and above commercial return. The vacant plot was hard to develop but was costing a lot to maintain with issues of fly tipping and squatting – collaborating with design and activation experts has offered a great solution whilst 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 relate and interact with the playful frontage, not least the schoolchildren sitting on the steps or scooting past each morning. Emily tells us how the community garden helps continues the local dialogue that started 5 years ago. At a recent gardening day at The Hithe, local children come back to plant their flowers in the yard – Meanwhile Space had given them all seed packets 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.

“There is a reason that meanwhile sites are available, and it’s not because they are easy to develop”.

Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space CIC

“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

“How do you build a meanwhile use that doesn’t look meanwhile?”

Sarah Castle, IF_DO Projects

Contributors

  • Rumi Bose, Southwark Council
  • Sarah Castle, IF_DO architects
  • Emily Berwyn, Meanwhile Space
  • Mark Darnell, Un-fold Projects

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