An Original Transformation

Thomas Heatherwick Studio transforms a two-storey coal drop warehouse in central London into a unified public space and retail destination while preserving the character of the original ornate cast-iron structure.

Originally part of Lewis Cubitt’s plan for King’s Cross in central London, this pair of elongated Victorian warehouses were built between the 1850s and 60s to store and transfer coal across London, delivered by rail from northern England. The studio was commissioned by the King’s Cross Development Partnership to revitalize the site into a retail quarter.

The grandeur of the two-storey coal drops had faded with the demise of coal production. Crowned with slate hipped roofs, their ornate cast-iron and brick structures had become partially derelict, serving the light industry, warehousing, and nightclubs before partial abandonment in the 1990s.

“We wanted to celebrate the unique texture and history of the industrial buildings while also creating a unified new public space and retail destination,” says Thomas Heatherwick, the British designer whose prolific and varied work over two decades is characterized by its ingenuity, inventiveness, and originality.

“Our challenge was to transform the dilapidated buildings and the long, linear site into a lively retail precinct where people could gather and circulate with ease. To develop the concept, we drew on knowledge gained from designing Hong Kong’s Pacific Place shopping mall. We proposed to extend the inner gabled roofs of the warehouses, which would link the two viaducts and define the yard, as well as creating fluid patterns of circulation. Rather than adding another rectangular element between them that would have collided with their geometry, the existing roofs rise and stretch towards each other until they touch above the public courtyard.  This intervention formed a new upper story and gave the project a central focus,” says Thomas, the Founder of the firm.

From the elevated vantage point, visitors can survey views south to King’s Cross and the Crick Institute, or north to Cubitt Square. Beneath, the new roof creates a sheltered 20-meter-high space for people to linger in as well as providing a venue large enough to host concerts or performances.

An amalgam of old and new, the roof form and the patina is specific to the site. The new 35-meter-wide extension was designed to flow seamlessly from the original gables and create the illusion of two buildings lightly touching in mid-air. This required a complex structural solution. To create a self-supporting intervention that also preserved the integrity of heritage elements, 52 new steel columns were threaded through the existing buildings, concealed behind aged brick and iron, and shored up by concrete walls and cores.

Each of the curving new roof ribbons is formed of 20 steel sections bolted onto four trusses and tied back to the columns. Framing the top floor’s panoramic outlook are 64 panels of full-height structural glass arranged in a staggered, serrated pattern. The cladding of the new roof includes over 80,000 tiles and the roof slates are drawn from the same Welsh quarry as the original Victorian building to give a consistent blue-grey hue.


“Alongside the primary design adaptation of the roof is the wider restoration of historical structures.  The studio sought to enhance and adapt existing buildings as much as possible. Adopting a light touch, where necessary, new additions drew on the palette of aged ironwork, soot-stained brick, slate, timber boards and the cobbled yard of stone setts. Together with more recent signage and graffiti, these rich textures are retained, preserving the Coal Drops’ distinct character,” he says.

Giving 100,000 square feet in total for shopping, dining, and events, the retail quarter is conceived of as a series of streets linked horizontally and vertically. In contrast to the homogenous experience of a shopping mall, the 55 units vary in size and accommodate a range of retailers – from fledgling pop-up stores to large-scale units for established brands. Entrances at both ends of the viaducts and multiple connections into the yard via bridges and stairs create an accessible space that encourages people to pass through and around the project naturally.

“It has been a huge privilege working on Coal Drops Yard, not only because it’s the studio’s first major building completed in London, but also because it is in King’s Cross, where my studio and I have been based for the last 17 years. These amazing Victorian structures were never originally built to be inhabited by hundreds of people, but instead formed part of the sealed-off infrastructure of London. After serving so many varied uses throughout the years, we’ve been excited by the opportunity to use our design thinking to finally open up the site, create new spaces and allow everyone to experience these rich and characterful buildings,” said Thomas at the launch of the Coal Drops Yard, shopping district.



Project Name: Coal Drops Yard

Location: King’s Cross, London

Completion date: October 2018

Area: 100,000 sq ft

Designed by Heatherwick Studio

Design Director: Thomas Heatherwick

Group Leader: Lisa Finlay

Project Leader: Tamsin Green

Client: Argent LLP

Developer: KCCLP / Argent LLP

Heritage Consultant: Giles Quarme & Associates

Structural / Façade Engineer: Arup

M+E / Sustainability: Hoare Lea

Lighting Designers: Speirs and Major

Cost Consultant: Gardiner and Theobald

Delivery Architect: BAM Design

Slate Manufacturer: Welsh Slate Ltd

Pics Courtesy Thomas Heatherwick, Luke Hayes, Hufton + Crow, and Marcus Hawk