This Rooftop Apartment With a Bright Yellow Staircase Is Sunshine in a Bottle
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This Rooftop Apartment With a Bright Yellow Staircase Is Sunshine in a Bottle

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By Laura Mauk
Minimalist design—and a spot of brilliance—transform a 775-square-foot apartment on Mile End Road in East London.

When Vine Architecture Studio reimagined this top-floor apartment in East London, they imbued the new design with a fresh, artful sensibility. "The existing apartment was in disrepair," says architect Rory Pennant-Rea. "Our client Dalip Boora asked that we redesign and reconfigure the space so he could rent it—however he was so taken with the design that his son now lives there." 

The brick-clad rooftop apartment on Mile End Road in East London features a vibrant yellow spiral staircase that links the upper and the lower terrace.

The starting point for the redesign was Dalip’s desire for timelessness and durability. "We specifically chose finishes that are hard-wearing and easily repaired," Pennant-Rea says. "The spruce panels we used for the kitchen joinery and sliding doors have a consistent core, which means they can be sanded and re-oiled many times [over]. The same is true for the thick veneer of the engineered oak floors."

Spruce panels with a pale finish were used for the kitchen cabinetry and the sliding bedroom doors to lend cool texture to the apartment.  

The building, which sits along Mile End Road, features a busy street entrance. "It has been in my client’s family for many years," Pennant-Rea says. "When we first toured the flat, we could see the potential in this forgotten rooftop—we wanted to build on what it once was."

Pennant-Rea is a firm believer in preservation. "Vine Architecture Studio’s ethos as a practice embraces the reinvention of existing spaces, which often pose more challenges, but have many benefits," the architect says. "There’s reduced building material, and we’re able to knit the design into the fabric of a place. This kind of architectural layering requires careful identification of the merits of the existing building in order to produce a successful summation of old and new."

The light-filled, open-plan kitchen/dining area of the apartment looks through treetops to views of the city.

The apartment’s previous incarnation—accessed via a stairwell shared with offices below—had a flat roof, low ceilings, and small windows. "There was also no direct access to the terrace, and there was an untenable drop in floor level from outside to inside," Pennant-Rea explains. 

The architect revised the arrangement and flow of the rooms in the apartment to accommodate contemporary living. "We sought to rationalize the layout," he says. "We retained the intersecting load-bearing masonry walls that subdivided the space into equal quarters. In turn, that allowed us to define the four living functions of washing, dining, relaxing, and sleeping." 

Pennant-Rea also created a level change between the dining and sitting areas which lines up with the roof valley and helps to delineate the connected spaces. According to the architect, the level change provides a rhythm that animates the procession. "This also allowed us to bring the upper level in line with the roof terrace to create a level threshold for a smooth transition from inside to outside," he says.

Skylights punctuate the ceiling, flooding the dining and living areas with natural light.

To create a soft, simple aesthetic for the interior, Pennant-Rea paired whitewashed timber with the smokey finish of the oak flooring. Spruce rafters—both fully exposed and partly concealed—express the structure of the roof, while oiled oak details create a common thread throughout the apartment interior. "Repeating the finishes unifies the spaces and maintains a flow," the architect says. "We specified a matte finish for all of the timber waxes and oils to create harmony and give a sense of calm." 

While the dining area is open to the living room, architect Rory Pennant-Rea delineated the spaces by placing them on different levels; the dining area steps down to the living room, where an inset in the wall provides a frame for artwork.

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Pennant-Rea employed sunlight as an integral part of the interior design. "The roof’s incline is in part determined by the angle and path of the sun," he says. "Soft northern light washes through the wall-to-wall skylights in the double dual-pitched roof. Those skylights allowed us to maintain a large area of glazing while still minimizing direct solar gain. We were able to regulate internal temperatures through the passive measure of orientation and pitch."

In the living area, furnishings with slim silhouettes preserve the room’s minimalist, airy quality.

Whitewashed spruce rafters in the bedroom express the grain of the wood and serve as a canvas for light play.

The architect enlivened the space with a vivid yellow outdoor spiral staircase that leads from the terrace to the rooftop. "The stair is minimal yet carefully detailed," Pennant-Rea says. "We designed it to be seen as an external sculptural element, as it visually connects the two terraces, which enjoy views over East London."

Pennant-Rea maintained the Art Deco front facade and installed Critall windows to complement the architecture. The rear facade was rebuilt with pale-colored brick and frameless glazing. "This focuses and frames the view out to the terrace and the townscape beyond," the architect says.

The sunshine-yellow spiral staircase stands out against the pale tone of the brick facade.

The apartment’s top-floor location is ideal in terms of views, but it also speaks to London’s housing shortage. "Rooftop developments and small infill developments have only recently been discussed as a solution," Pennant-Rea says. "But they do not make headlines due to their perceived limited capacity for contributing to the required numbers. We, however, see infill and rooftop development as a fundamental part of the solution and as a sustainable way for a city to grow. It means less relocating away from areas where people are socially and culturally rooted. This is a modest project, but we feel it’s a small piece of the larger architectural and urban puzzle."

Related Reading:

This Tiny $11K Apartment Adds Affordable Housing to High-Rise Rooftops

8 Stunning Rooftop Penthouses

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: Vine Architecture Studio / @vine_architecture_studio

Builder: Homeway Builders

Structural Engineers: Engineers HRW

Environmental Consultants: Elmhurst Energy

Approved Inspectors: JMPartnership

Photography: Nicholas Worley / @nicholasworley

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