Knock on Windsor wood
When it came to finding the perfect timber for the new building at St James’s Market, The Crown Estate needed look no further than its own backyard.

On any given bleak wintry afternoon, No. 2 St James’s Market glows. From outside, the cool grey limestone exterior frames a double-height lobby. It welcomes, beckons, radiates a warm golden brown.

St James’s Market is a brand new office building commissioned by The Crown Estate, part of the revitalisation that has brought restaurants like Anzu and Veneta and retailers like Jigsaw to central London’s newest pocket neighbourhood.

A rosy timber forms the lobby walls, its knotty, grainy texture intrigues as it traces the undulating shape of the building. When it came to designing the interior of No. 2 St James’s Market, the team at MAKE Architects knew it was important to create an inviting space that people would want to spend time in. A reception space is a threshold, a place of first impressions and the building’s fond farewell. To create this, the architects considered the space from all scales: what it looks like approaching from outside and how it feels sitting in one of its plush sofas. “Natural materials bring a warmth that man-made materials can sometimes lack, and they will age over time in a positive manner,” says James Roberts from MAKE. To use timber, which creates cosy interiors like no other, was a no-brainer.

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The Crown Estate has a rare advantage: it can source raw materials for construction projects from itself. The London plane timber here at No. 2 St James’s Market is no exception, and was felled from the Windsor Great Park, an hour outside of London. The 6,400 hectare expanse covers verdant parkland, the Windsor Castle and Windsor and Swinley Forests, which make up roughly 50 per cent of the estate. According to John Deakin, chief forester at The Crown Estate, they can grow “pretty much anything, but not particularly well”. He chuckles before explaining that they grow an expanse of old oak trees, beech, Scots pine, native woodland and mixed broadleaf species. His job is to take care of all the trees on The Crown Estate land in England and Wales. How many is that? Millions, he sighs. 

The original choice of wood for the lobby at St James’s Market was elm, a tree unfortunately ravaged by disease, therefore impossible to source sustainably. Deakin and his team suggested another tree from the Windsor plot: the London plane. A sample board was sent to the architects, who embraced its warm colour and the variation and depth in its texture.

The London plane is London’s most common tree – with a name like that, how could it not be? The grey-green camouflage pattern of its bark and generous canopy lines the city streets, and has done so for centuries. The tree is a hybrid of two species, the Spanish and occidental plane, and was planted heavily throughout the city in the mid-18th century for its resilience to pollution. The tree has no heartwood, which means it cannot be relied on for structural support, but is favoured for high-end furniture.

The lobby at No. 2 St James’s Market is clad in the timber of a dozen London planes. The commercial forests on the estate all comply with the strictest FSC and PEFC regulations to ensure they are harvested as sustainably as possible, and do so with wildlife in mind. After the trees are felled, they are loaded onto the timber truck and taken to the mill, where they are sawn roughly to the architect’s dimensions. After the timber is cut, it must dry for as long as possible to avoid any chances that it may twist, bend or crack. The drier it is, the more sturdy it is. To air-dry timber usually takes 12 months, but due to construction timings, the timber at St James’s Market was dried in half the time by inserting the wood into a giant drying kiln. Once dry, the wood is cut to exact dimensions and coated in polish to ensure the colouration is consistent. 

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The use of London plane at No. 2 is just once instance in which The Crown Estate used materials from its own estate. A project is underway to create a materials sample board that shows the offering available to architects for construction projects: plane, oak, cedar, Portland stone, slate from Wales and granite from Scotland. When it comes to drawing from its own rich material palette, the lobby at No. 2 St James’s Market is just the beginning.