Colin Davies admires Ashton Porter Architects’ office in the garden.
Working at home is becoming so common that people are starting to talk about something called a ‘workhome’. One of the commonest types of workhome is the suburban house with a shed at the bottom of the garden fitted out as an office. It’s perfect for the small business that needs to be flexible and limit overheads – an architectural practice for example. But what about when clients visit? They’re not going to be very impressed by a garden shed. It needs to be made into a piece of architecture, a demonstration of its occupants’ skills. This is the logic of ‘suburbanstudio’, which is Ashton Porter’s north London workhome and just about the slickest garden shed you have ever seen. Clients can’t fail to be impressed. They can see what kind of architects they are employing and might even begin to think about their own commission in more ambitious terms.
So how do you make a garden shed into a piece of architecture? The first thing is to get the spatial relationships right. Our Workhome Project at London Metropolitan University has traced the history of this old but neglected building type from medieval times to the present day in England, and analysed its contemporary form through a close scrutiny of the lives and premises of 76 home-based workers, resulting in a series of typologies and other design considerations. Suburbanstudio is what the Workhome Project classifies as a ‘live nearby’ configuration. This means that the work part of the workhome is a separate building (the garden shed) with its own entrance and basic facilities – a WC and a small kitchen. Employees and visitors needn’t have anything to do with the domestic part of the building, which is mainly accommodated in the original 100-year-old two-storey semi. But Ashton Porter has gone further and created a separate little world of work. Entering by the door marked ‘Studio’ at the side of the house, one is suddenly in a vaguely Japanese garden, with a goldfish pond, a Eucalyptus tree, a large area of painted decking and a tiny circular lawn, no more than a token. This is in effect a walled garden – a secret garden even – enclosed by dense hedges of bamboo and ivy, by the black-painted slatted timber over-cladding of the existing brick house, and by what its designers call a ‘floating fence’, also slatted but painted grey, which turns out to be the wall of what we should begin to call the studio rather than the ‘garden shed’. Its entrance is at the side where a narrow path continues round the back, giving access to a linear store with sliding doors.
It is important for the work part of a workhome to have its own separate identity, but there is a family living here – the two partners and their nine-year-old twin girls – who shouldn’t be deprived of a garden. In the evenings and at weekends, therefore, this is family territory. Hatches in the decking lift to reveal a paddling pool and a sandpit, and the girls are eager to use the computers in the studio which are more powerful than those available in the house. But there are more dimensions to this ambiguity of function. The dining room of the house overlooks, and opens directly onto, the garden. It is lined with bookshelves and therefore makes a perfectly satisfactory meeting room to be used in conjunction with the studio. In fact the ceiling of this room, with exposed joists and flush light fittings, is exactly like the ceiling of the studio, so it is as if we are in the same piece of architecture.
And there are more ambiguities. One might expect the studio to open up generously onto the garden, with big windows, perhaps even a glass wall. But no: the floating, slatted fence is a definite barrier, maintaining a discreet differentiation between work and domestic territories. From inside the studio one can see the garden through the slats, but it is a view into someone else’s territory. At certain times of the day, the children can play in the garden without fearing that they trespass on the adult working zone.
On the other hand, garden and studio are also subtly unified by the low-level strip of frameless glass which even turns the corner a short distance on either side. This is pure ‘Architecture’. The floating fence is really a deep box beam spanning between cantilevered projections from the side walls.
All this is, of course, not cheap, but it makes financial sense when other factors are taken into account. Ashton Porter has a perfectly presentable, indeed prestige, office for the cost of three or four years’ central London rent. It saves the time and expense of commuting and it offers flexibility for the future. If the practice expands it can remain as a satellite to a main office in town. If the practice shrinks, either the studio or the house could be let out to somebody else. With the addition of a shower, the studio could even become a granny flat or young person’s pad. Suburbanstudio is, so to speak, the proper way to do a shed at the end of the garden – a building type for which there is a huge and expanding demand. About eight of Ashton Porter’s close neighbours work at home, including an interior designer, a PR consultant and another architect. They now meet occasionally for coffee and in June they going to have a street party as part of Tim Smit’s ‘Big Lunch’ initiative. Working at home doesn’t have to be a lonely way of life, it can bring people together in all sorts of productive ways and it can bring life back to suburbia – the workplace of the future.
Of course, the garden shed is only one of many common types of workhome, including the study in the loft, the desk on the landing, the workshop in the garage, the shop in the front room, the flat over the shop, the hairdresser’s salon in the back extension, the vicarage, the caretaker’s house, the converted factory – the list is endless. Home-based work is a popular, family-friendly, environmentally sustainable practice. It is good for both the economy and the city, creating busier and therefore livelier and safer local neighbourhoods. And it is growing rapidly. Architects should begin to design for it in a more systematic way.
Colin Davies is an architect, teacher, writer and historian. He is a former editor of the Architects’ Journal, and his books include The Prefabricated Home (2005). He is a team member of the Workhome Project (www.theworkhome.com).
Architect: Ashton Porter Architects; design team: Abigail Ashton, Andrew Porter; contractor: self-build; structural engineer: Brian Eckersley; photos: Riddle-Stagg.com.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Sedum roof: Bauder Extensive system; skylight: Glazing Vision; cladding: Corus corrugated aluminium; windows: Magnet Profile series; purpose-made joinery: Balken; specialist ironmongery: Elite Metalcraft; beam and block floor: Millbank; rubber flooring and tables: Freudenberg, Nora; sanitaryware: Aston Matthews, Vola; custom lighting panels: Haymar Acrylic; wood stain: Sadolin Classic, Cuprinol; plywood cladding: Finnforest.
AT218 May 2011 p48