Part retrofit, part new-build, Bloqs is a huge industrial shed adapted to provide makers with low-cost workspace and equipment as part of Enfield’s £6 billion Meridian Water regeneration programme, writes Fran Williams. Photography Timothy Soar and Claudia Agati
South-west Enfield is bleak. On an ‘island’ bordered by the North Circular, Banbury Reservoir and the River Lea, ‘spatial design agency’ 5th Studio’s latest meanwhile development – for social enterprise Bloqs – sits on a sparsely populated slice of post-industrial land with leftover warehouses scattered about, all waiting in line to be developed. Just a couple of hundred metres to the north is Netflix’s giant new 21,000m2 production site, Segro Park.
I get there by bike. Cycling up the River Lee Navigation towpath past the recently completed bricky silhouettes that constitute phase 1 of Hale Wharf by Allies and Morrison and much of Tottenham’s vibrant canal life.
On arrival, the giant shed that is Bloqs is abuzz with activity. Only that morning, London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, Jules Pipe, opened the facility – the UK’s first open-access factory and the largest in Europe – in the heart of Enfield Council’s Meridian Water development in Edmonton.
During my visit, it is running with factory-like efficiency yet is a hub of creativity – a hard balance to achieve
It is the most recent in a growing network of rentable workshop spaces across London and the home counties. The website Open Workshop Network now boasts 38 on a moveable map, highlighting an assortment of makerspaces, Fab Labs and hackspaces, all meeting a growing demand among professional makers.
Bloq’s model provides flexible pay-as-you-go access to machinery, workshop space, training and business support. Its new workshop expansion builds upon the success of its previous live-work space, the Chilli Works.
The organisation was set up in 2011, originally occupying a ramshackle series of smaller sheds, with the simple intention of ‘sharing tools’, as 5th Studio director Tom Holbrook describes it. It provides facilities for woodworking, metalworking, fashion and sewing, engineering, spray finishing, as well as courses, classes and hireable meeting rooms for thousands of local small businesses.
With this latest expansion, its users now have access to almost £1.3 million-worth of light industrial equipment usually inaccessible to most emerging businesses, including mills, lathes, sanders, saws, CNC routers, laser cutters, 3D printers and embroidery machines. It’s like a candy store for makers. State-of-the-art equipment includes a Cube Plus automatic four-head planer, a Streamer 1057 XL Edgebander and a Dynestic 7505 flatbed CNC router. It’s more than enough to bring out the woodworking nerd in anyone.
The meanwhile workspace sits in the Meridian Water masterplan, an incredibly ambitious £6 billion, 25-year London regeneration programme led by Enfield Council itself and right next door to Lea Valley Regional Park. It aims to bring 10,000 homes and 6,000 jobs to the north London borough and has been masterplanned by Karakusevic Carson Architects with 5th Studio and CGL Architects since 2015 and before that by LDA Design from 2010.
5th Studio has been mainly responsible for the Meridian Water ‘meanwhile masterplan’, with which it has been involved for about five years, leading on the creation of its interim uses. Part of this is the delivery of key building projects and public realm components, such as Bloqs, aiming to make changes ‘on-the-ground’ and make Meridian Water ‘great from day one’, as the council’s vision for the area puts it, placemaking being at the heart. The partnership with Bloqs is a strategic fit with the overall development’s ‘Your Place to Make and Create’ pillar, one of three set out in its vision document, intended as a remedy to the growing sense that ‘making stuff in the city is under pressure’, as Holbrook puts it.
On an individual level, the expansion of Bloqs was enabled through a £4 million investment by the GLA and Enfield Council. It’s allowed for original operations to treble in size for its members – which include fashion designers and set designers, playground makers and commercial kitchen-counter makers – and allows for makers to scale-up, take on larger and more diverse commissions and learn from each other. Once registered and trained, members can book spaces and facilities as they need them.
The project’s slickness means the line between what is new and what was there before is blurred
The physical structure for all this activity remains essentially a huge shed formed from the reuse and extension of an abandoned vehicle testing facility to create an 8m-high, hangar-like space. It is entered through a reception with a shop selling tools and materials to its members, its external signage hard to miss from the canal towpath.
The main space is vast. It is in parts a new steel-framed building but built upon an existing language of industrial forms. During my visit, it is running with factory-like efficiency yet is a hub of creativity – a hard balance to achieve, especially when designing an environment that is almost clinically clean and safe. This factory-like atmosphere is translated into its subtle architectural interventions by using, where possible, standardised components and ordinary materials to adapt the existing. Materiality is mostly industrial profiled aluminium and translucent polycarbonate, with flexible, moveable ply dividers to create internal partitions where needed.
When given the brief of designing an open-access factory, Holbrook says the practice asked itself from the outset: what does this mean? With keywords ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ being thrown around, the practice has referenced William Morris, who lived less than a mile from the site and was an advocate for better working conditions for makers. In his 1884 pamphlet The Factory As It Might Be, he wrote: ‘on their outsides what they are for, reasonable and light work, cheered at every step by hope and pleasure’ – words that Holbrook stands by; Bloqs aims to be a ‘safe, pleasurable place to work in’.
The building ‘matches the way we think about things as a studio’, he adds. What makes the space appealing is that it is warm, light, and clean – a far cry from the unheated sheds, exposed yards or back of vans that a lot of makers were apparently using previously.
The existing structure’s damaged windows have been replaced with polycarbonate panels to create an incredible even light throughout the space, even on a grey day. The space between the existing structure and a new shed added to the rear is used for storage and has been created out of an ‘as-found’ agricultural structure. The project’s slickness means that the line between what is new and what was there before is blurred.
Given the scheme’s big simple shed-like form, the architecture here feels almost to be as much made up by the activities as the structure that contains them. But there are other elements that make it more of a community than a generic workshop. The café plays an important part. Its kitchen-bar-deli is run by Marianna Leivaditaki, former head chef at Moro and Morito restaurants, and supplies a variety of fresh local ingredients to take home. In February it hosted a photography exhibition by David Cotteridge, including some shots captured locally in the Lee Valley Park. It’s a city in microcosm that is putting down roots.
The kitchen opens out on to an exterior social space furnished with seating, planters and an outdoor stage that will hopefully play host to music events and performances come summer as part of a growing evening economy.
Central to Meridian Water’s constantly evolving masterplan is sustainability through the adaptive reuse of buildings – with Bloqs setting the precedent – and materials and landscape aligning with circular-economy principles. A biomass plant to one side converts the facility’s woodchip and sawdust waste to supply the building’s entire heating and hot water needs, while an extensive sustainable drainage system redirects rainwater into the canal. The building’s comprehensive servicing strategy is expressed externally in the sculptural forms of a silo-like structure, playing on the site’s industrial history.
This project is a great example of stretching a low budget across a vast physical area. In that way it makes sense to feature it alongside our Small Projects Award, which has always been about celebrating projects that use a small budget carefully and intelligently. But what Bloqs particularly represents is the move towards adapting our existing large-scale industrial landscape, making the less-is-more attitude to adaption the norm, and essentially providing maximum social utility at minimum financial and environmental cost.
It’s about the idea that ‘architecture isn’t just something finished’, says Holbrook. And he’s right, it’s an ongoing discussion. It’s about making room for change and adaption. Right now, in that location, Bloqs is exactly what is needed and is fulfilling its function in enabling Enfield to develop a skilled creative industries cluster with the potential to be regionally significant for makers. What its future holds is another question.
Part new-build and part adaptive reuse of a former vehicle testing facility, the light-filled, hangar-sized building is 8m tall with direct access to a service yard. New amenities open to the public include a café/event space and a shop stocking tools and materials.
The design and delivery of Bloqs follows the environmental sustainability strategy for Meridian Water, led by Enfield Council, which focuses on the adaptive reuse of available structures, and establishes a material library for structures that need to be dismantled, aligning with circular-economy principles.
The plan addresses social value through the delivery of skills and training, and in the delivery of green and blue infrastructure. Bloqs provides training in the use of machinery and processes for local schools as well as a programme for upskilling professional makers.
The scheme represents a key step in a staged development masterplan by 5th Studio that embeds the long-term principles of Meridian Water – a major £6 billion, 25-year programme led by Enfield Council to bring 10,000 homes and 6,000 new jobs to the borough. Bloqs plays a vital role in defining the character of the emerging district with making and creativity at its heart. Tom Holbrook, director, 5th Studio
When I step back to consider these glorious buildings and all they mean to us, I can’t help but reflect on the astonishing journey our community has been on. In our earliest days it was a somewhat madcap, hand-to-mouth existence as we set out to build a new model of workspace with precious little money and barely any precedent. But we found it easy to recommit to our purpose as time and again we witnessed people changing their lives and building their businesses under our roof.
The old buildings we called home were rough and scruffy, a warren of dimly lit sheds with pocked floors, leaky roofs and not nearly sufficient room for us to grow in. But they were enough that we could demonstrate a need, prove our concept, and so speak with the confidence needed to win the London Regeneration Fund grant, capital that has found fruition in our splendid home. As our purpose is to design and make, it was vital that in engaging an architect we as the occupier would have partners to work with so that the home built for our concept would be in proper service to its function.
Once 5th Studio was appointed, we were able to develop a close relationship with it, particularly as we saw its flair and willingness to collaborate. With the practice on board, we have achieved a home that is not only fit for purpose – light, bright, with decent clearance and smooth floors – but that celebrates and supports our makers by giving them a space with the function of a factory yet the aesthetics of a gallery. We are here to empower makers and manufacturing as a necessary and intrinsic part of any vital city. With this home, this open access factory, the first of its kind, we now have buildings that match the creativity and brilliance of our makers, a home that sells our model, pointing the way to what is yet to come. Al Parra, co-founder, Bloqs
Arup provided design support in structures, building services, civil, sustainability, and environmental impact. We focused on helping to develop a retrofit sustainability strategy, reusing as much of the existing building as possible.
Balancing embodied energy and carbon against operational emissions is crucial in all developments, and in 2018 the project team presented a combined design strategy. Bloqs was a key driver behind the adopted approach and as a result was able to heat its new facility with a waste-powered biomass furnace. The Arup team developed a dynamic thermal model to demonstrate the quantity of waste material would be sufficient to maintain the workshop temperatures throughout the year. This was achieved without significant additional material improvement to the existing buildings, keeping embodied energy and carbon to a minimum.
Our structural team conducted surveys to highlight potential challenges with the existing derelict buildings and developed designs to improve and upgrade components, minimising the use of new materials.
This whole-life energy and carbon strategy worked because the full team – Bloqs, 5th Studio, Arup, Enfield Council and Building Control – all understood its importance and worked together to make it a reality. Since COP 26, strategies like this are high on the agenda and this project demonstrates how effective they can be. Greg Chandler, senior mechanical engineer, Arup
A new steel-framed building extends an existing built language of industrial forms, elevating standard components and ordinary materials, such as profiled aluminium and translucent polycarbonate with carefully considered architectural detailing.
The project reuses a derelict vehicle testing building and has worked with its found qualities. An example is the retention of the windows with chain openers, originally used to ventilate vehicle exhaust fumes during the testing process. These were condemned but we found a way to refurbish the frames and opening mechanisms, and inserted polycarbonate panels in place of broken single glazing, which flood the space with light.
Materials were scavenged from across London, including windows and CLT panels, collected and reused by Bloqs in an amazingly inventive way, using available making skills.
Bloqs is solely heated from the biomass waste of timber machining processes, removed from each machine and stored before being fed into a biomass boiler. The scheme also includes a sustainable drainage system whereby rain gardens capture water run-off, which is stored in a giant underground tank to be released over time, preventing an overburden on the drainage system.
The project upcycles a successful social enterprise and is a good example of working with the existing ecology on the site. Tom Holbrook, director, 5th Studio
Start on site October 2020 Completion October 2021 Gross internal floor area 3,140m² Construction cost £2.36 million Construction cost per m² £750 (excluding fit-out) Architect 5th Studio Client Bloqs Structural engineer Arup M&E consultant Arup Quantity surveyor Stace Project manager Stace Principal designer Stace Approved building inspector London Borough of Enfield Main contractor Ashe Construction CAD software used MicroStation Annual CO2 emissions 8.47 kgCO2/m²
Bloqs has received an Energy Perfomance Certificate (EPC) rating of A and score 0f 12 but no other information has been provided at this stage. Post-occupancy monitoring will take place over the next year to collect more information.
Tags 5th Studio Enfield Meridian Water workshop Workspace
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