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The Black & White Building: a truly sustainable London landmark

It’s wood, but not as you know it. The Office Group’s first ‘built from scratch’ workplace is a lesson in mass timber, inside and out.


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Black & White Building, The Office Group - reception

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors #224

Words: Chloe Petersen Snell
Images: Jake Curtis

After almost 20 years of retrofitting and rejuvenating buildings in the UK and Europe, the first TOG workspace to be built from scratch had to be impressive. The tallest mass-timber office building in central London, the new Black & White Building in Shoreditch rises from the site of a former timber seasoning shed no less – a union of style and substance, and then some.

Named for the tired black and white painted building that once stood in its place, the concept behind the seven-floor timber building also references the notion of ‘no grey areas’ when it comes to sustainability. In a city recently named one of the greenest in Europe (in terms of parks and trees), The Black & White Building is a lesson in mass-timber as an alternative to carbon-radiating concrete and steel – using 37% less embodied carbon than comparable structures and powered by 100% renewable energy sources.

As TOG’s Charlie Green comments, as he cuts the hypothetical ribbon for the building, sustainability and commerciality are no longer mutually exclusive. Reacting to workspace demand in Shoreditch and with the previous building unviable for extension or renovation, the TOG team were determined to create the most sustainable building they possibly could. Taking lessons learnt from the sustainability efforts at their property next door at 81 Rivington, their research led them to Waugh Thistleton Architects – a firm responsible for pioneering timber designs for over a decade.

Since its inception, Waugh Thistleton has been pushing for change within the industry, to shift building practices away from mineral-based construction towards advanced, biogenic material systems. In 2009 the practice pioneered the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) as a structural solution for high-rise residential buildings with Murray Grove, demonstrating that there is a viable alternative to concrete and steel. Since then, Waugh Thistleton has delivered more than 25 buildings using engineered timber across scale and typology, exploring the properties and boundaries of this replenishable, sustainable building material and, importantly, demonstrating that low-carbon construction is possible. “Mitigating our impact on the environment is central to everything we do,” explains Andrew Waugh, who is all too familiar with the environmental impact – and challenges – the built environment faces.

“There are currently no mandated limits on the embodied carbon of a new building – the emissions caused by the extraction and manufacture of the materials and the construction process itself,” he continues. “Successive sustainability assessment methods, such as LEED and BREEAM have consistently failed to account for the embodied carbon; and frequently energy-saving measures are implemented without any calculation of the carbon cost of their production. Given that buildings are responsible for around 40% of global CO2 emissions and 10% of this comes from the embodied carbon, it is fundamental that we actively target zero-carbon construction.”

Thanks to its structure built from the ground up using cross-laminated timber (CLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL), the building minimises carbon in both its construction and operations. The engineered wood saves thousands of tonnes in C02 during production, is high-performing and highly-durable – and at the end of its life, the building can be disassembled, and the materials reused.

“Fundamentally working with materials that can be grown, not extracted, is our future, leading to a more harmonious relationship with our planet,” says Waugh. “Building buildings that are made of natural materials, that are healthy environments for us to live and work in, and that are adaptable over time, can be refigured, and ultimately de-constructed, represent the forms of relationship with our planet that we need to evolve towards.”

Inside, the honest and functional approach found throughout this project brims with personality and nostalgia, set against natural materials. TOG approached Daytrip for a local design studio in East London, a fiercely independent hub for creatives and makers. Typical Daytrip tropes of striped cushions and a rich material mix fill the ground floor space and lower coworking spaces, contrasting with exposed timber walls that could scream ‘sauna’ anywhere else, but here blend seamlessly with the rest of the space for a light, warm feel.

“We explored artists’ studios and makers’ workshops as playful and informal working environments and looked at how these could influence the coworking and office spaces at the Black & White Building to create an appealing backdrop and respite from generic office interiors,” explains Daytrip co-founder Iwan Halstead. “TOG was particularly interested in exploring new ways to connect people, asking how the interiors could be designed to aid and benefit multiple ways of working.”

The practice drew inspiration from different decades and styles, playing on nostalgia with nods to the 70s, 90s and today. Warm institutional tones hark to the 1960s interiors of Hotel Okura in Tokyo, Halstead explains, whereas more attention-seeking patterns and colours stem from the studio and residence of furniture and textile designer Antti Nurmesniemi in Finland.

“One recurring theme is the importance of craft and artisanship in opposition to mass production,” co-founder Emily Potter adds. “The majority of furniture pieces are bespoke designs from British makers and artists, selected for their originality and integrity.” Armchairs in the coworking lounge were created especially for the project by Sebastian Cox, using British sycamore and upholstered in fabric derived from T-shirts by Yarn Collective. Andu Masebu’s Union chairs are artfully constructed using a single plank. “The power of these crafted elements is that every piece has its own story and in this project there are so many to tell.”

Lounges of various sizes and layouts sit between break-out areas and pockets of outdoor space, culminating in a decked rooftop terrace offering cityscape views. Louvres shaped from tulipwood maximise energy efficiency and natural light throughout the spaces, and a lightwell runs the full height of the building – from a rooftop terrace down to a courtyard.

For TOG and Waugh Thistleton, the structure stands as a proof of concept that will inspire a shift towards thoughtful, innovative engineering – and a positive future for construction in 5, 10, 15 years and beyond. “The future of construction is timber. The carbon burden of manufacturing steel and cement is immense and, with the inevitable implementation of carbon taxes, it’s only a matter of time,” Waugh contemplates. “I think that the beauty of buildings made of timber will become the attraction that drives the change.”

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