Greenwood Balustrade, London

Client: Natural Shoe Store

Location: Covent Garden, London

Sustainability/Materials/Narrative/Building Control   

In 2001 whilst still a green woodworker, I built a greenwood balustrade for the first Natural Shoe Store in Covent Gardens.  In 2007, the owner contacted me again; he had a new shop and wanted me to build another balustrade. By now, I was as a designer rather than a designer/maker, and the challenges of this project were very different.

Using timber from his own land was important to the owner of the store. He understood the link between the provenance of materials and their impact on both the environment and on the narrative and ethos of his business. The requirement to use non-standard materials in a public shop raised interesting problems, which called for an unorthodox approach in order to meet the statutory requirement for building control.

The loads imposed on the balustrade could be substantial as, both the size of the shop and the opening around the staircase meant that it should be treated as a place of assembly. With limited data for the strength of greenwood, our engineer Phil Cooper produced a set of loading required to meet the requirements of building control. The strength of each piece of green timber is different, each growing in its own way. To prove they were up to the job, on-site, we built a scaffold, loaded each element to double the required strength, and measured its deflection. This was sufficient for Building Control to sign off the works.

In preparation for the project, I spent a weekend felling trees with the client on his farm in Kent, selecting sections of timber in the round of the right form and finish for the balustrade. On the Friday night after felling the trees on the client’s estate, whilst talking about his time as a cobbler in Massachusetts and drinking whiskey, we heard the news that Leeman Brothers Bank had collapsed.

Places, materials people all have stories to tell some personal and some with wider impact. Architecture can and should embed both narrative and knowledge in the very fabric of the work.