Industrial materials and council-estate-style access enabled the King's Wharf live–work scheme to tackle its gritty urban setting
Between the bleak streetscape of north London's Kingsland Road in Dalston and the oil-stained Regent's Canal, Stephen Davy + Peter Smith Architects has filled an unpromising site with King's Wharf. This is a brave live–work development – three new blocks that have been designed to take on their gruff setting with robust industrial materials and a rethought version of deck access.

The u-shaped scheme presents a blank, defensive facade to the street: purplish-grey engineering bricks and thin, slashed windows preside over the glazed retail units that line the ground floor.

Once through the entrance, however, everything is different. Inside is a courtyard with the south wall cut away that swaps the industrial fortress-like feel of the exterior for white-painted walls and cedarwood panelling.

Attached to the walls of the courtyard are galvanised steel frames, comprising horizontal girders and tall, thin columns. On the opposite sides of the courtyard – the two uprights of the u – this frame supports the decks that allow the live–workers to leave their flats, which they do by way of two dominating towers wrapped in steel mesh. The twist to the deck design is that the platforms pass through the bottom of the u and loop around the outside, a touch that links King's Wharf to the surrounding area and works against any sense of isolation. Similarly, a paved area along the western side connects the complex with the Regent's Canal.

According to David O'Connor, contracts manager for the main contractor, JJ McGinley, the key to the design-and-build project was intensive preparation: "We spent eight months in design with fortnightly meetings; the site manager came monthly and the subcontractors put in four months of work before building anything. It was a new way of working for us and it reduced problems on site. It's how we're running all our design-and-builds now." The client for the scheme was Lemon/land developers, the structural engineer was MLM, Norman Gutteridge provided the electrics, OCB the plumbing and O'Keefe the groundworks and steel frame. Bricks were supplied by Pilley, walkways by Littlehampton, lift cladding by Thompson and windows by Value.