How up-and-coming architect Ash Sakula turned a former mill into elegant offices and added an eye-catching spiral staircase to a rubber mat factory.
Last year was a watershed for up-and-coming architect Ash Sakula. It was the year the practice won an RIBA regional award for the refurbishment of 29 Doughty Mews in Bloomsbury, central London. Here, the brick exterior was largely just cleaned up and looks little different from its neighbours, but the interior is a dazzling spectacle of clean, colourful surfaces revolving around a spectacular spiral staircase.

It was also the year that Ash Sakula decided that it could no longer survive on a diet of domestic work. So by December, the practice was on site with two commercial jobs: the refurbishment of a mill that housed a blanket factory in Witney, Oxfordshire, and the addition of a staircase of twisted metal and glass to a rubber mat factory in Tottenham, north London. A year on, both projects are complete, and partners Cany Ash and Robert Sakula appear to have survived the transition to the commercial field.

The mill bears all the hallmarks of the Doughty Mews project.

The exterior of the old mill has been cleaned up and a new, full-height glazed entrance positioned above the mill stream. Inside, the detailing, materials and the mezzanine floor in the entrance display a technical competence to impress any visitor.

The Witney mill project came about by chance, says Sakula. The practice was displaying its work at the British Council Living Design exhibition in London in October 1997, when TSS, the owner of the empty mill, visited the stand. Won over by the smooth-talking Sakula, TSS invited the architects to visit the mill and put together a feasibility study for turning it into offices.

The first visit was a difficult one for the architects, who had yet to tackle commercial office refurbishment. “It was cold and grey and the mill was boarded up after being empty for years,” says Sakula. “But we could see the potential,” adds Ash.

Although it looked grotty at first glance, the T-shaped, two-storey building had exposed timber beams and joists that were in fairly good structural condition and just needed sandblasting. The interior and exterior stone walls could also be cleaned easily. The big task was to create an entrance for the offices.

The obvious place for the entrance was above the mill stream on one inner arm of the T. Here, the wall was taken down and replaced with ceiling-height glazing that exposed the entrance and showed off the newly created mezzanine floor in and around the entrance. The boardwalk in reception is the star of the show. Cantilevered off the external wall on steel brackets, the maple strip flooring and staircase provide access to the mezzanine floor on one arm of the T. Up among the joists, the view of the mill stream created by the ceiling height entrance glazing is breathtaking.

The other challenge for the duo was to hide the switches. The interior stonework had to stay, which meant no plasterboard walls, so Ash Sakula designed plaster panels next to openings to hide the switchplates. The final bill for the offices, which have now been let to a publisher, was about £250 000 for 762 m2 of space. This is good value for money.

Ash puts the relatively low cost down to the client’s interest in the project. “We didn’t really have a main contractor,” he says. “The client was amazing,” Sakula adds. “It arranged all the contracts, and managed to negotiate half-price for just about everything.” TSS was also tough on the architect. “We wanted narrower profile glazing, but for a saving of £5000 we had to use something a bit clumsier. The windows are aluminium. We wanted to use steel but again it proved too expensive,” says Sakula.

The application for planning permission was submitted in January 1998, although the Witney project started on site in March 1998, before it was granted . “It started quite crisply,” says Sakula. “But by the end, the whole thing slowed down amazingly. We didn’t really finish until May 1999.”

While the Witney mill echoes the practice’s clean style and attention to detail, the spiral staircase at the Cannon car mat factory in north London demonstrates the architects’ sense of fun. Bolted on to a plain, brick-clad, 1950s industrial unit, the glass and steel staircase covered by a glazed flying canopy features jaunty angles and asymmetric shapes that Zaha Hadid would be proud of.

Although the staircase is an eye-catching approach to the factory entrance, this extravagance cost more than £100 000, in an era where best value is usually of the essence. The spiral rises in three flights through its 360° rotation, and a glazed ribbon balustrade wraps around the spiral continuously. So, rather than sweeping, the staircase rises disjointedly up to the first-floor entrance and is covered by a giant winged canopy that looks ready to soar off into the north London sky.

Sakula explains how the client wanted something to impress visiting customers, and this staircase certainly stands out from the bland industrial estate and Tottenham high street on which it sits.