Albert Island: Revitalising industry

This is a guest post by Mandar Puranik, Area Renewal and Regeneration Programme Manager at LB Sutton and FoL Alumni Rep writing about how Albert Island can be a model for revitalising industry in urban brownfield land across the UK.

Albert island: revitalising London's industry credit Haworth Topkins
Albert Island. Credit Haworth Tompkins

The new London Plan set an ambitious policy objective to protect London’s industrial sites and industrial capacity, but only a handful sites provide a blueprint to achieve this.

At the eastern end of the Royal Docks on the edge of the London City Airport runway is Albert Island – an island of marshes and marina being transformed and repurposed to fit 21st century industrial demand. The site area is over 10 hectares and it is a hugely challenging undertaking without precedent in the UK at this scale – the scheme should accommodate 1,200 occupants when fully operational. It has the potential to demonstrate how new industrial communities integrate within the city.

Public and private partners

For this Alumni-led discussion, we invited Suzi Lane from the GLA’s Royal Docks Team, Richard Gibbs at London & Regional (L&R) and architect Hugo Braddick from Haworth Tompkins to explain how they’re bringing the vision for the site to life.

Suzi Lane set out the context for this joint initiative between the GLA and Newham Council. Although surrounding North Woolwich and Royal Albert Wharf are now predominantly residential, the policy requires this site to retain industrial uses with building heights constrained by the airport’s flight path.

L&R were appointed as development partners in 2018 and secured a planning permission in 2021, the scheme is based on a strong public-private partnership and will deliver a new boatyard and stacks different industrial typologies and functions in a way that is reportedly not currently found in the UK.

This proactive public-sector role in shaping the brief, appointing the right partners and staying involved in the delivery was inspiring to see. Hopefully it encourages more local authorities to take an active, long-term stake in their industrial sites to ensure they avoid delivering what can become ubiquitous industrial sheds, dotted near motorways and surrounded by surface car parks.

Strategy: People, place, purpose and potential

Between 2017 and now, industrial sector demand has shifted away from industrial units to last mile logistics and light industrial intensification, said Richard Gibbs. L&R’s research into London-wide trends and macro-level opportunities around the A13 and East London shows the impact of the pandemic on workspace demands, and opportunities presented by climate change, de-carbonisation and circular economy. This equals renewed interest in East London’s tech, prototyping and manufacturing sectors.

The space opens in 2023 and Albert Island’s marketing strategy will be structured around around four Ps: People, Place, Purpose and Potential. This makes it easier to understand different components of the scheme and their purpose. For example, a key project objectives is to construct a shipyard and marine hub and the strategy links to the nautical industry (people), is a design centrepiece (place), provides critical infrastructure (purpose), and aims to be the leading marine hub in East London (potential).

Managing industrial typologies

Industrial sites can be land hungry and engineering requirements take priority over fine grain people-centred design issues. But L&R wanted to put people and place at the heart of the scheme and as Hugo Braddick put it, this was only possible with the help of Ashton Smith, specialist industrial architects and LDA Design leading on the landscape design.

The team started with the public realm to celebrate the unique site setting and history around the marina and shipyard. Next  was site connectivity and accessibility challenges, managed through good cycling and walking links and enhanced river frontage.

albert island: revitalising London's industry credit Haworth Tompkins
Stacking different industrial typologies. Credit Haworth Tompkins

Hugo Braddick’s presentation highlighted two innovative industrial space designs achieving density and diversity by co-locating and stacking different typologies and functions.

The first is a raised table top warehouse space above with double height small and medium manufacturing units located at ground level. Ramps and HGV access are cleverly contained within the building envelope and with minimal impacts along pedestrian routes.

Building design and architectural detailing breaks down the elevation to human scale bays and uses carefully crafted materials such as brickwork at lower levels. Upper levels use materials common for industrial buildings but long, flat potentially blank walls are textured with corners and chamfers to break up the expanse and cast shadows.

The second is a building designed to meet the new demand of micro manufacturing: A loose-fit, flexible factory and workspace, which can easily and quickly shift its capabilities. There is well-established demand for logistics and warehousing in East London but less so in makerspaces, studios and flexible commercial spaces.

Flexing with changing demand

This is gradually changing and L&R commissioned a five-six storey solid frame and industrial grade concrete slab construction with advanced vertical and horizontal circulation as its backbone to demonstrate their long-term view. This was feasible due to the public-sector partnership where land value and upfront infrastructure funding can be reprofiled for later years.

These are both super-large buildings typical of maritime industrial heritage of the area but with well-thought through designs, sitting comfortably alongside the expansive dock. There was good discussion about the importance of inclusive growth, and that such schemes should provide benefits to local people, support local employment and upskilling.

The GLA and Newham Council are working in partnership with L&R to ensure this and the proposal goes a long way to meet Newham Council’s inclusive economy agenda and it is committed to support local entrepreneurs and East London start-ups.

Making the most of what we have

There is a finite supply and increase in demand of industrial land in London. Where the land assembly and infrastructure delivery at scale is feasible, we need to see more such examples of long-term public-private partnership.

Albert Island is a refreshing and inspiring project that has overcome significant constraints and responded sensitively to its context. It surely demonstrates the potential for industrial intensification and how urban brownfield sites can revitalise industry.

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