05 March 2014 – House Builder
Merchant Square is the final stage of the redevelopment of Paddington Basin in London. Suzie Mayes visits one of the carefully designed apartment buildings and finds out more from development manager European Land.
What springs to mind when you think of Paddington? Maybe the iconic train station, swarming with commuters, or possibly the famous bear, originally from deepest darkest Peru?
What is sometimes overlooked when it comes to this patch of west London is its rich history of trade and innovation. Trade via Paddington’s Grand Union canal which once made the area a business hotspot and innovation through the great discovery of penicillin at Paddington’s St Mary’s hospital.
It is this cutting-edge version of Paddington that is being reclaimed as part of the regeneration of the basin area. And Merchant Square, a joint venture development between the Reuben brothers and the Jarvis family, is a key part of the revival story.
A short walk from the station, this statuesque mixed use scheme is being delivered where trading wharves and warehouses once stood. In the late 18th century into the 19th, Paddington’s Grand Union canal was used for transporting goods from northern England and the Midlands to London.
This lively business hub eventually fell into disrepair. But its aquatic history is being honoured through Merchant Square’s masterplan which is full of water-related fare. The focal point is a waterside garden square, with a new waterside event space; this converts to a water maze when the performance space is not being used.
A stunning lifting bridge will open across the canal in the shape of a fan. The aim is very much placemaking and to recreate the vibrant “heart” of the area, sorely absent for many years, explains Richard Banks, chief executive of European Land who is development manager on the project.
“The scheme will be visible from the station,” he says. “As we create public access to it, it will become an important way-making point.” Indeed, Merchant Square is situated at a key arrival point into London – the elevated A40 Westway road.
Merchant Square consists of six buildings, currently at varying stages of completion and arranged as if on a clock face. (A “logical approach,” says Banks). 4 and 5 Merchant Square were finished in 2010, with number 4 containing 93 apartments and retail units, and number 5 partially occupied by the offices of Marks and Spencer. Construction begins on the 17-storey 2 Merchant Square, an office block, this year.
European Land has marked out 1 Merchant Square as a landmark building, set to be a towering 42-storey skyscraper – apparently the tallest in Westminster – which will sport 222 apartments and a “sky bar” at its pinnacle. This is slated for completion in around 2019 along with 6 Merchant Square, another residential phase offering 119 apartments of different sizes. The wider Merchant Square estate features three other buildings which completed in the early to mid-2000s.
Merchant Square has walked a long road. European Land acquired the former site of derelict buildings in 1996 and in the ensuing years multiple planning applications were submitted and three major masterplans drawn up. In the beginning, plans were skewed towards office buildings. “As people’s perceptions of what makes a place have changed, more residential space and shops came in,” comments Banks. “Changing policies have sought to increase housing.”
“We want Merchant Square to be synonymous with Paddington as an ideal place to meet and relax, and of course live.” Richard Banks, CEO of European Land
There is no shortage of housing at 3 Merchant Square – the block that Housebuilder came to visit. These 21-storey twin buildings house 201 apartments (159 private, 42 affordable), built from glass, bronze anodised aluminium and GRC – a form of reconstituted stone. Completion is expected in the summer and – quite ahead of time – 94% of the apartments are sold, to people right across the age spectrum.
Why so popular? Apart from their proximity to the delights of London’s west end and easy transport links, the apartments are impressively designed with an almost fanatical attention to detail. The developer and its chosen architect Robin Partington Architects have been quite considerate towards their residents. As one example, the position of the handrail on the balconies is above minimum height. Banks explains: “Usually if someone is in bed, they would just be able to see the handrail. But if it’s higher, it won’t obstruct the view even if the person is lying down.”
And the master suite is carefully crafted to bring a “home within a home” – the bedroom, balcony, walk-in wardrobe and en-suite shower room all interconnecting.
Bathrooms have ample storage space, cleverly concealed in the wall, and plenty of room for shaving and applying make-up, Banks says. “The bathroom cabinet is big. We wanted to combine beauty with practicality and pre-empt what people need.”
Residents will probably like the fact that the main bathroom and shower remain the same size whether the occupant has opted for a one, two or three bedroom apartment. Even the smallest apartments still have a dressing area. Tiny homes are not the developer’s style, says Banks. “We like to let them breathe a little.”
The interconnected theme of the master suite runs through each apartment, with clearly defined living, kitchen and dining areas flowing together in an openplan set up. Within these spaces, residents can master “apps” for the lighting system, heating and air conditioning.
Inside space blends easily into outside thanks to the dual aspect balconies in most of the apartments, which exploit the views of the capital. Residents can also admire the scenes from the first floor roof garden. And being sensitive to the consumer’s needs, European Land has picked a neutral colour inside the apartments so that the occupant can customise to their heart’s content. “We know that people want choices so we’re offering personalised living,” Banks explains. “Our passion is designing well. And our ethos is making the experience of living in a building pleasurable.
“It takes just a miniscule amount of effort to achieve these things so that you end up with an attractive package for tenants or home owners.”
European Land carries this apparently “minimum effort” philosophy to the communal areas. These are a little different to the usual shared space that you might expect from apartment blocks – there is a double height lobby, concierge and on the ground floor a clubhouse. This holds a private residents’ lounge for greeting guests, a private screening room for entertaining them, a personal training room and a business centre with a huge photocopier. And down in the basement, residents can use the cold store for food deliveries to pick up later. Even mobile phones operate in this well-lit underground bunker.
Sustainability has been carefully considered too, with a CCHP (combined cooling heat and power) unit installed to service all six buildings. Heat from the office blocks is re-fed to power the resi side. Inside the apartments, energy and water consumption is shrunk further with the help of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) systems, aerated taps and low lighting.
Meeting the tough carbon emission targets was a steep task. Equally challenging, says European Land, was dealing with the cramped space of the plant room for the CCHP, created by the confines of the canal on one side and the limited basement space.
A particular struggle for Banks throughout the lengthy project has been the installation of new utility networks. “There was no power for a while. The stories you hear about utility services being held up apply in this case. It has been frustrating,” he concedes.
But as members of London First, the developer was able to arrange “high level” meetings to express its worries. “The situation has improved but hasn’t totally resolved itself.” Banks says that he sometimes forgets about the scale of the whole scheme and the inevitable challenges. “We have approximately 600 operatives,” he reflects. “Then you realise it’s a massive task. It’s a project that calls for curtain walling, not bricks. We’ve had to drain the canal and will need to again. We’ve had one of the largest excavation sites in London and have got close to the tunnels of the Bakerloo line.”
But none of the woes or laborious groundwork has dampened Banks’ spirit for Merchant Square. He is confident that the scheme will make a hefty contribution to Paddington’s renaissance. Having a reliable funding stream helps: “As a private company, European Land has two wealthy families who have provided consistency of funding for more than 15 years,” Banks explains. “This has made it easier to achieve what we have with the apartments and to deliver that sense of place to create something truly great.
“We want Merchant Square to be synonymous with Paddington as an ideal place to meet and relax, and of course live.”
Maybe one day it will be added to the list of things that come to mind when people think of Paddington.
European Land, a property development company, is responsible for most of the regeneration of the Paddington Basin. The early to mid-2000s saw it deliver three buildings which stand close to Merchant Square. In 2003, it completed The Point and the Waterside Building – the headquarters for Orange and Marks and Spencer (M&S also partially occupies 5 Merchant Square). Two years later came the Munkenbeck and Marshall building, providing 232 new homes of which 79 are affordable.
The path for European Land has been eased, not just through certainty of funding, but because of its solid relationship with Westminster council. In fact, one of its sadly departed members was instrumental to the whole regeneration project: “It was part of the council leader Sir Milton’s vision to regenerate the basin; he was always supportive of the plans,” says Richard Banks, chief executive of European Land. “Our passion is to create the heart of Paddington that was missing.
“You can find little gems when you delve into a place – that’s part of London’s charm.”