Building the Future

An interview with project architect Glenn Howells and Ballymore MD John Mulryan.

To better understand the thinking behind Mill Harbour’s design, we speak to Ballymore’s John Mulryan and project architect Glenn Howells about what sets the place apart.

Words by Jonathan Openshaw

Jonathan Openshaw: This concept of the extended home is core to the Mill Harbour development – can you explain the thinking here?

John Mulryan: It’s about two things really. On one level, it’s about giving you access to amazing amenities like swimming pools and gyms and cinemas that everyone would love to have at home, but which aren’t cost effective to run privately – especially in high-density urban areas like London. So it allows you to have the same amenities you could have on a country estate, but in the heart of the city. Then on another level, it’s about building a real sense of community. A lot of these new residential tower developments struggle with that, so we’re wanting to bring back some of the things that brought people together in the past – the schools, the pubs, the shops; that whole village way of life that persisted for hundreds of years. In modern society we don’t really go to church, there’s very little to bring us together day-to-day. We want to reinvent that traditional sense of what brings people together and give it a modern interpretation.

Glenn Howells: What I find most interesting about Mill Harbour is that it’s reflecting wider changes in lifestyle and the way people live in cities today. So while people still want a beautiful apartment, what really makes that place a home is access to a community, neighbourhood and facilities. There’s a shift from homes as commodities towards seeing them as something that provides access to a certain lifestyle. In many ways, this is a return to the traditional mode of living, where your home was very much part of a cohesive whole, not just an isolated unit.

JO: What are some of the ways that this extended home idea works in practice?

GH: Our approach is all about creating a richer, layered community that is as much focused on the in-between spaces as it is on the individual apartments. This ranges from play areas to parks to fitness zones to doggy care services. The foyers of the blocks are a great example of this thinking in action, and we’ve designed them to become spaces for working and socialising more than transit areas. They’re much more expansive places to spend time at home beyond just sitting in your apartment. It’s a looser way of living; it’s more informal and blurs the edges between private and public space.

JM: The big idea about this project is that it has so many layers and there’s no one thing you can single out as defining it. It’s all about the mix, so if you’re young and starting your career, maybe it’s the gyms and coworking that appeals most, but if you’ve got a family, it’s the pool and parks and schools, and if you’re older, maybe it’s the great transport connections and on-site retail. So there’s no one single headline, it’s just a really liveable place that makes life easier, whatever life stage that may be. A focus on health and wellbeing is key for all life stages, though – is the gym a modern equivalent of a church? Fitness has a way of bringing people together, and gyms aren’t somewhere you just go to jump on a treadmill anymore. They’re more places to learn new skills, join new classes, meet new people and get a sense of belonging. You can see this in brands like CrossFit and Barry’s, where it becomes almost tribal, so we’ve designed a really rich fitness offer to help here.

John Mulryan, MD, Ballymore Group

Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects

JO: Space is obviously at a premium in the area, and there are very few sites like Mill Harbour available for development. Giving over such a large part of it to green space is a bold move from a developer. Why did you do this?

JM: Yes it is an unusual approach in some ways – we’ve got a big green park sitting right on the waterfront and even a mature forest that acts as a natural wall when entering Mill Harbour. All this green space is obviously an amazing visual and physical amenity for people who live there, but we also want to point in the direction of where we think developers need to go in the future. We all need to be thinking more environmentally and sustainably in our designs and make sure that our cities stay green and healthy. When you’re building a new residential area like Mill Harbour, it just feels appropriate now to include lots of green space, and we want to set a new standard here. Canary Wharf is an incredibly vibrant neighbourhood, but it can feel quite dense. Mill Harbour will be a contrast to this, providing an area to breathe on the Isle of Dogs.

GH: The site will deliver over 43,000 sq ft of green space and involve planting over 200 new trees, all of which contribute to reducing the carbon footprint, improving air quality and providing shade. The forest is a piece of green infrastructure, as well as something very beautiful, and will help regulate drainage, pollution and temperature. We’re also going to give every apartment a lovely outside space, so each home gets its own garden. Again, these balconies are a green infrastructure feature, as they provide shading that keeps the apartments cool in the summer. They will texture the buildings, too, so rather than having sheer glass you have a structure that can break downdrafts from tall buildings, and make the ground level conditions much more sheltered. So the greenspaces at Mill Harbour are really integral to the design, as well as being lovely areas to relax.

“What really makes that place a home is access to a community, neighbourhood and facilities.”

JO: Beyond the green spaces, how else is sustainable thinking brought into the design of Mill Harbour?

JM: It’s an incredibly sustainable development from a number of perspectives. Currently, all residential developments like this rely on some kind of fossil fuel generator on-site, which pollutes locally as well as requiring fuel extraction. We’ve completely changed how we supply energy to Mill Harbour, meaning we’ll have zero emissions on-site and all power is supplied by electricity. Along with the green infrastructure that Glenn was talking about, this all comes together to mean that Mill Harbour will be carbon neutral when built, which is a great achievement. People really care about these things, and so do we, so we’re going above and beyond in this area.

GH: We’re also working closely with Universal Design Studio and the interior designers Benningen Lloyd to create a very warm feel that uses natural materials such as clay, wood and wool. Just as with the concept of the whole development, the focus is on designing a very human environment that puts sustainability at its core. The living areas will feel welcoming and tactile; they will be acoustically and visually soft. Then the upper towers of the buildings will be a contrast to Canary Wharf in that it will be much more warm, bronze metallic tones with green balconies.

JO: What do you hope the impact of Mill Harbour on the area will be?

JM: We’ve always felt there was an opportunity with this site to tackle a long-term issue in the Isle of Dogs, which is that individual buildings can be quite inward looking. Mill Harbour will be the anchor that helps bring a whole wider community together, with a new town centre that has a cultural venue, shops, restaurants, ball courts, an outside performance area and all the rest. We wanted to create a heart not just for people living in Mill Harbour but for people living in the area. It’s also about making a connection to the water, because the old docks are mostly separated off by embankments. But here you’ll have floating walkways on the water and activities like kayaking, which will really help to unite the area with nature again.

GH: Yes, this is absolutely key for the future development and liveability of the area as a whole. If you think about any successful district in London, whether that’s Shoreditch or Clapham or Brixton, then they’ve got messier, informal, culturally rich areas to them. They have schools and theatres and libraries, and a huge range of retail, food and drink. What we’re creating at Mill Harbour is a resource not just for the new residents but for Canary Wharf, Wood Wharf and beyond. It will have that sense of going ‘downtown’ to somewhere incredibly rich and vibrant.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in print in the Mill Harbour magazine, if you’d like to receive a copy of the magazine, get in touch.