Cork House is a London home that turns challenges into strengths

Cork House, a family home in London’s Forest Gate by architecture practice Polysmiths, makes the most of its site and story

cork house interior in east london
(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

Cork House is a new family home, built in an east London brownfield site. So far, so normal, for a London infill story. What’s less usual about it is that it was built during the pandemic, and its creator, architecture practice Polysmiths, worked had to design a home that not only becomes fit for purpose for its residents – Polysmiths founder Charles Wu and his partner – but also makes the most of its site and circumstances, turning the challenges of its plot and timing into golden architectural opportunities. 

dining space with cork wall in background

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

Cork House is a showcase of creative solutions

The home, a new-build structure in Forest Gate, is situated on a rectangular brownfield plot hidden from the main street, surrounded by typical east London terrace house rear gardens. Wu, an architect and ceramicist with experience at studios such as Heatherwick Studio, AHMM, Studio Egret West, began the project in the midst of lockdowns and knew from the start that he was going to have to face challenges. Finding creative solutions for them became a key driver for pushing the boundaries of design in this scheme. 

dining and living space in London cork house

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

Supply chain issues were one of the first problems the team encountered. The solution? ‘We picked less commonly used building materials to bypass the supply-chain issues during lockdown. And they are beautiful too,’ says Wu. He focused on using cork, locally sourced timber and lime plaster to create a ‘cocoon of earthy natural palette’, as he described it. As a result, the home is open, bright and feels organic and comfortably layered.

cork wall in london house

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

A series of openings and courtyards – internal and open air – are created through fully openable sliding doors. They connect the living and dining areas, as well as the master bedroom. Further drama is added by skylights and high-level windows. 

This was not just about aesthetics, though, as the exposed cork walls add extra insulation, and the courtyards create shade, making for great cross-ventilation that ensures the home is energy efficient and remains warm in the winter and cool in the summer months.

man looking out from cork box

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

Polysmiths is the young studio set up by Hong Kong-born Wu in 2017. It works on sensitive, sustainability-led architecture projects, as well as products, tapping into Wu’s expertise in ceramics, producing tableware, lighting, and luxury candles, for hospitality brands including Ottolenghi and Gail’s. 

Cork House, however, is a key project for the practice – not least because it is Wu’s own home. It becomes an example of considered urban living that eschews the cookie-cutter approach and prioritises inventiveness and imagination – all while creating a warm London home. ‘The cork walls give off a wonderful woody scent that reminds me I am home,’ says the architect. 

bedroom with cork walls

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

circulation in london cork house

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

study with cork walls in london house

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri )

bathroom in london cork house

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).