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Design Talk: Tim Bennett, Sonnemann Toon Architects

Midford Place: Sonnemann Toon Architects

Economic and environmental pressures have led to a huge surge in up-cycling of late; the process of getting new from old, with a little TLC and inspiration. In the property world, though, this is no emerging trend.

Midford Place: Sonnemann Toon Architects
Midford Place: Sonnemann Toon Architects

People have been re-imagining buildings, sites, and structures since the beginning of time. With each passing age and era comes new demands, not to mention changes in priorities, and this brings about a vast wealth of opportunities for architects.

Whether the process of breathing life back into something is more satisfying than creating that life from scratch really depends on the individual circumstances. But, even as bystanders, few would argue that watching a forgotten or undervalued address returned to something like its former glory is a marvelous experience.

Midford Place: Sonnemann Toon Architects

Tim Bennett, at London-based Sonnemann Toon Architects, understand this only too well. The award-winning practice lays claim to an impressive portfolio- ranging from residential to healthcare and office facilities and the London Stock Exchange (a scheme currently shrouded in secrecy and legal gags)- and his time here has been defined by taking what once was and realising what can be. Refurbishment and redevelopment, as some might over-simplify it. 

Midford Place: Sonnemann Toon Architects

“I’m an associate here and have been with the company nearly five years. My role is largely focused on commercial and residential projects. High-end residential, London based commercial, although we are working on some projects outside the capital at the moment which is quite exciting,” he explains when we grab five minutes on the phone.

“Midfield Place, which was shortlisted for the Architects’ Journal refurbishment award, is a great example of our commercial side. Essentially, we’re taking an existing building that’s tired and underachieving, and realigning it to current market expectations. We’re constantly on the hunt for opportunities to gain net internal area, without taking anything away from the original building. With most of the buildings we’re stripping them right back to just the concrete shell and then rebuilding them to modern standards.”

One of the huge differences between commercial buildings of the past and present- at least in so far as ambience, aesthetics and therefore also the experience of working there- is lighting. Today we take a contemporary build with oceans of natural light for granted. Due to restrictions of bygone days, though, this wasn’t always the case. Hence light being a significant consideration in Bennett’s work.

“Lighting is always a big part of the process. I try and use Deltalight on the areas that are what you might call critical to the project- reception areas, showers, anywhere that has a focus on it. Again Midfield Place is a great example of this.”

With commercial only representing one part of Sonnemann Toon’s overall offering, the conversation moves on to residential properties.

“Our most recent domestic work was for the Howard de Walden Estate, and again it is similar to the commercial stuff. You start with a tired property and we will take the building to pieces, then essentially rebuild it completely. A big factor in this is the EPC ratings, often they will go from C, D, or E, to B+. I think Harley Place achieved a B+, which isn’t bad going for a building that started life at 150 years old.

“8 Harley Place is a Victorian terrace mews. The only bit of the building that was actually retained is the brick facade on the main elevation. The rest of what’s there now is completely new. It has a basement, which was completely reconstructed, we have totally changed the layout.

Sonnemann Toon Architects: 8 HarleyPlace
Sonnemann Toon Architects: 8 HarleyPlace

“It also now has this beautiful light well, which floods the kitchen with natural light. We’ve introduced a lot of high tech artificial lighting too, to make the rooms feel really bright and airy. The front of the building has a walk-on glazed panel, which lets more light in from the street. We worked very closely with specialist joinery firms to develop an oak window front and bespoke sliding shutters.

“The construction methods we use are quite high tech. Easy joists to allow super-fast fabrication, and as a practice all our projects use BIM, which allowed us to get this delivered on time and on budget because we could create a full 3D model and explain the build to the contractor, which is quite unusual for something on this scale- a lot of practices wouldn’t have the same level of information as we did, but it meant every bit of space in the house was maximised, which is obviously important in Central London.”

Sonnemann Toon Architects: 8 HarleyPlace

The prohibitive price of doing pretty much anything in the UK capital that involves bricks and mortar means we not only need to use every inch possible, the maintenance, upkeep and running of a property also needs to be as cost effective as possible. Bennett is quick to point out that 8 Harley Place meets these requirements.

“Well the energy rating for this jumped from F to B. We did that by using solar panels, heat recovery unit, and all the lighting throughout is LED. I think about 90% of it is Deltalight again. In fact the lighting in the whole building is quite special- the kitchen has a light track that wraps around the light well, and this is the first time Deltalight has done that. We worked closely with them, creating 3D drawings, to make sure this would work, and it’s been really successful. It’s a unique approach, I’m not sure if anyone has done this before in the UK.”

With work starting in December 2014, and running through until September 2015, for a job with such complexity Harley Street is an example of producing high quality work at an equally high pace. This is usually only possible when you have passionate people working on the team, bringing us back to our opening point. The sense of accomplishment that comes with crafting old from new cannot be understated, but there’s more to Bennett’s interest in this side of construction than the challenge alone.

“Taking a building that is completely unloved and almost at the end of its life, to be able to unpack that, re-organise it and put it back together in a state that is not just presentable but has that wow factor, I think that’s a very sustainable approach to construction.

Sonnemann Toon Architects: 8 HarleyPlace

“We do new builds as well- for example, a golf course that I’m working on. And that’s a different sort of project as you’re starting from scratch- so there can be no excuses. In some ways using an existing building is more complicated, certainly, if it’s listed because you’re dealing with the parameters and limitations of the fabric. But what you’re trying to do is maximise and create really good, naturally lit space.

“A lot of the projects we do in the practice are amazing really- you go there on day one and can see the potential, then when it’s done you walk away with immense satisfaction because, you know, the building could have just been demolished, and someone could have just put something new on top of it. Midfield Place is a great example- it looked very tired, and now it looks fantastic, a real showpiece.”

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