London, United Kingdom
Can a single building change Londoners’ perceptions of what it means to live in a high-rise? With a dramatic series of sky gardens, this unconventional tower creates a new kind of vertical community.
Manhattan Loft Gardens is located in Stratford, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics. The event catalyzed a full-scale transformation of the district, which includes new campuses for University College London and the London College of Fashion along with venues for the BBC, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and the V&A Museum. All of this is bringing new energy to East London — and Manhattan Loft Gardens is at the center of the action.
The 42-story building makes a dramatic impression, with two diagonal slices carved out of the tower and residential levels cantilevered above. The deep cutaways are inset with landscaped outdoor spaces, called “sky gardens,” Shared by the tower’s residents, these vertical green spaces serve a similar social function as London’s traditional residential squares and streetscapes that encourage interactions between neighbors. The cantilevered design turns the garden levels into column-free vantage points, creating common spaces with uncommon views.
In addition to the apartments at Manhattan Loft Gardens, the building also incorporates a boutique hotel and two restaurants, a mix of uses that turns the building into a social engine. The effect is most pronounced in the lobby, a generous space where residents, hotel guests, and visitors intermingle.
Adding to the building’s dynamism is a mix of unit types and configurations, from studios to three-bedroom and penthouse apartments. These units vary not only in size, but also in volume: single-level apartments are interspersed with 1.5-story and duplex units which evoke the spatial qualities of industrial lofts.
Site-specific artworks enhance the experience of these spaces. The lobby features a suspended installation by artist Paul Cocksedge that evokes a sheaf of paper caught in the wind. In the building’s open courtyard, a sculpture by Petroc Sesti stands seven meters tall, reflecting light and the architecture that surrounds it.
In most residential high-rise buildings, people seldom interact with their neighbors. We decided to change that completely.
To achieve the tower’s double-cantilevered design, SOM’s integrated team of architects and engineers devised a hybrid concrete and steel frame. By minimizing the amount of construction materials needed, this approach significantly reduced both construction cost and environmental impact. The facade design, with its mix of opaque and transparent materials, minimizes solar heat gain and brings in natural light. And the sky gardens are part of a holistic sustainability strategy — with native plantings, feeders, and nesting boxes to attract birds, bees, and butterflies, these green spaces contribute to the district’s biodiversity.
With its integrated architecture, engineering, and interior design, Manhattan Loft Gardens is the result of SOM’s interdisciplinary practice and a relationship with the visionary developer who sought to achieve something new.
Achieving the tower’s double-cantilevered design was a literal balancing act: at the level of each sky garden, to open up expansive views, half of the perimeter columns are removed. The building essentially has the same challenges standing up as a tree with two gigantic notches chopped out of it,” says Dmitri Jajich, the structural engineering director for the project.
The team first proposed a system of trusses, all in heavy steel, to transfer the load from the perimeter to the building core. This would have been the strongest and lightest structural solution, but complex and time-consuming to build. In London, the most important financial consideration is not the cost of materials, but the time it takes to get a project built. “Our real triumph was not the engineering solution per se,” Jajich says, “but rather developing something that could be built without undue complexity and allowed the schedule to keep moving.”
Ultimately the team found a hybrid solution that balances strength, efficiency, and constructability. A structural steel truss rings the perimeter of the level above each garden level, while a system of post-tensioned concrete connects the truss back to the concrete building core. By using concrete for both the core and transfer system, it could be built by the same construction crew, using the same material — saving time and allowing the project to be completed on budget.
We found a way to do something extraordinary, but to do it with conventional means as much as possible.
The post-tensioning strands used to reinforce the concrete transfer system are at the size and scale that might be used on urban infrastructure — much larger than anything typically used in residential buildings. “We’re not bridge designers, but we often have to design buildings that work more like bridges to get them built,” says Jajich. “When this challenge came up, we weren’t shy about tackling it.”
Another feat was optimizing the space around the robust structural framework on the two transfer floors. Usually, a building’s mechanical systems would be housed within these levels. Instead, the design team turned them into some of the building’s most distinctive living spaces.
“The steel members are exposed, and the concrete floors and walls were intentionally exposed to better explain the structure of the building to its occupants,” Design Partner Kent Jackson says. “It was an important way to bring out the character of the building and allow the residents to live within the structure.”
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