Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Marian Bowley 50 years on

Marian Bowley wrote two very revealing books which relate to architecture:  Innovations in Building Materials; an Ecomonic Study (1960) and The British Building Industry; Four Studies in Response and Resistance to Change (1966). She charts the development of the Brititsh building industry through industrialisation and two world wars and examines the needs at that time for innovation and progress to meet the demands of housing, education and expanding commercial worlds.  She identifies examples of progress but also many key obstacles forming resistance to change.  Half a century later it is worth a note to ask how much has actually changed.

The post Second World War period was an important time of reconstruction and much innovation and technological developments had been achieved as part of the war effort.  It is interesting to note what Marian Bowley finds in relation to how the building industry moved forward.  The core of her argument looks at the professional structure of the industry and the relationships that exist between client, design professionals and builder; what she calls the 'outworn patterns of organisation' (BBI p441).

The basic relationships within the building industry

The design team
A lot is said about the working methods of design professionals and lack of progress.  She says the structure of the profession as a whole worked to inhibit innovation.  The dis-junction between architects and structural engineers is one example.  Architectural aesthetics are shown separate to structural and technological requirements; cladding in stone over steel frame makes reference to a more 'crafted' look expressing accepted aesthetics.  Where developments in architecture occurred, they often followed structural developments, after a delay.  In general each party in the design team was working with a strict, distinct and separate set of materials and construction methods.  There are individual cases of inspiration where the teams worked together to create innovative products such as the Crystal Palace pavilion which championed patent glazing and even composite structures and was revolutionary for the time.

The architectural profession
Inertia from the design professions is noted by Marian Bowley.  For example Ruskin was not a fan of the Crystal Palace pavilion.  Not long after industrialisation and the development of mass produced bricks, the Arts and Crafts movement came along in reaction, championed by William Morris.

She notes a key issue being the RIBA's 1887 charter identifying that the Architect was to be the Client's agent, and not to be directly linked to the Builder.  This gap between architect (including design team) and builder meant that no parties had any direct economic incentive to innovate to reduce costs, improve technical efficiency or the aesthetic qualities of design.  It made for an antagonistic rather than a co-operative relationship.

My favourite section of her book The British Building Industry is her account of the opportunities missed after the Second World War.  In 1941 the Ministry of Works appointed the RIBA to orgainse a set of committees to investigate the opportunities of innovative developments from war time building (prefabrication, modular buildings, large span construction, new materials etc.) and assess their merits for use in the building industry going forward.  Led by the Government, other industrial sectors offered assistance with the post war building effort, focusing on ways to improve construction, save time and money and introduce new materials and technologies.  The RIBA committees consisted of architects and engineers, but builders 'were conspicuous by their absence' (BBI p90).  The committee on Walls, Floors and Roofs saw no real justification in reinforced concrete, discussing the benefits of traditional building practices instead.  The committee on the Architectural Use of Materials reported on the merits of natural stone, 'probably the least economic of all building materials indigenous to this country' (BBI p93), at the relative dismissal of all other innovations.

The Builder
The dis-junction between the builder and the design team is highlighted as a major inhibitor of innovation.  The builder assumes all the risk in a project under a traditional contract, and is therefore unlikely to take on any liability which can not be justified.  The builder is also under little pressure to innovate to improve construction time or reduce costs, because they are working to prescribed drawings and specifications set out by the design team.

The Client
Marian Bowley's account describes that clients were not given the opportunity to select innovative solutions because of inertia from the design professions, and comparative cost analysis was often inaccurate.  Although many innovations were ultimately cost effective, or quicker to construct, the process of developing ptototypes to market was expensive and few in the industry had skills ir incentive to undertake such work.

Innovation draws
Lack of innovation in the building industry is described not as a lack of technology available but as a lack of stimulus within the design professions and their relationships with client and builder.

Marian Bowley describes that the biggest draws for innovation in the building industry occurred where the profession had to deal with new building types such as large commercial office buildings, or when the post war shortage of steel meant that techniques in reinforced concrete structures had to be developed - even though the technology had been around for some time and was proven to be more cost effective.  This became a one-way process and reinforced concrete structures established their place in the post war period and in the building industry.  She also describes examples of innovation from abroad having an influence in the UK.

She notes that the building industry depended on other industrial sectors for technological advances.  Fire proofing and weather proofing materials for example, were introduced from other industrial sectors (and in many cases were hidden behind materials with accepted aesthetics).  The level of innovation and development within the building industry did not have sufficient momentum to have any significant output to other industrial sectors, and she makes a point that aesthetic innovation was not a stimulating influence on the development of the industry as a whole.

How much of this rings a bell today?
How much has changed in the last 50 years?  As a student at the Bartlett School, UCL, we worked and studied in relative isolation, unaware of the wealth of knowledge that lay around us in the adjacent Science and Engineering faculties, or at the Slade Art school.  This is changing now, with links through the Institute of Making, for example.

Working on cutting edge projects, I remember architects and structural engineers fighting fiercely like cats and dogs, only pausing once in a while to scratch heads and work out where all of the services kit could fit.  Each discipline had their own protected areas of work and co-ordination distilled in to the brackets between these realms.

In the architectural press there is lots of coverage of contemporary design, but looking at the last few covers of the AJ there is lots written about timber, brick, stone and glass, although it is good to see aluminium, FRP and corten steel (noticeably on projects outside the UK).  One-off projects still continue to be the norm when it comes to advances with innovation.

Investigating measures the RIBA are taking in innovation, their Research and Innovation Group works to make connections between the profession, schools of architecture and the world at large - although sadly it does not directly mention building companies.  Should these bridges have been established a long time ago and we should we now be thinking about how to manage this knowledge, rather than how to achieve it?

Innovation and experimentation appears to happen more on new building types, such as bridges which are using composite FRP structures more as standard, for example.  On tried and tested building types such as housing, I noticed Alan Shingler's article in the AJ 14.03.13, stating that although much technology has been invested in to the housing sector, very little has changed in mass housing over 30 years.

The gap between the architect-led design team and the builder has always been a fundamental issue which various people have tried to close.  The Latham and Egan reports were met with some resistance from the Architectural profession because of dissolution of their authority, but it might be argued that the we are not exactly helping ourselves to retain centre stage in the building industry what is gradually trying to side-line us, by clinging on to these outworn patterns of organisation.

In the mean time, hands-up who's looking forward to the Natural Stone Show next month?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Architecture's hidden cutting edge

When you look at innovation in the building industry, there are lots of areas which can be discussed at length;
  • Process innovation and the ability to make things more economically, 
  • Programme innovation and the ability to speed up production, 
  • People innovation and the ability to reduce man-power, and
  • Price innovation and the ability to reduce cost for the same product, 
But when you consider product innovation, by comparison, and the introduction of new materials and components in to the built environment there is less to report on.  Since the start of this century, this area has been changing and new materials are finding their way in to the public realm.  There is a shift in this respect but for a long time we have been designing with a palate of materials which date back to Roman times, with concrete, stone, brick, glass, metalwork and tiles etc.  In the twentieth century, for example, only a few materials made it through on to the scene and gained acceptance.  Bitumen based materials and plywood were products of innovations through the War efforts and appeared by necessity.  There are some noticeable exceptions like ETFE, but in general, when it comes to innovations in building materials, they are largely hidden for the benefit of more traditional materials.

An example of this is the Royal Institute of British Architects' (RIBA) HQ on Portland Place in London.  It is distinctive and has presence because of its geometry and layout, but it is made of stone, with stone carvings, and metal framed windows.  There's lots more stone inside too, of different types and textures. It makes a cultural statement with a more conservative (or timeless) palate of materials rather than being an expression of the cutting edge in materials and technology of the moment.  But behind the exterior and interior surfaces there is cutting edge stuff.  It's just well hidden.  If we could take an x-ray of the building we would be able to see these secrets:  The structural frame which holds the building up and enables the internal atrium, the connections between the structural members, the floor structure and concrete reinforcement to provide the spans, the brackets which hold the stone cladding (and decorative bits) to the frame, the resins which point between the stone panels, the silicone seals around the windows.  This is typical of just about every building; innovations in materials are mainly hidden.

RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1

A good example is the brick slip.  The innovation enables large areas of external wall cladding to be factory prepared and lifted in to place, speeding up construction time on site.  The innovations in building materials are the plastic carrier material for the brick slips, the adhesive, and the closed cell insulation.  The aesthetic result is a standard brick wall which belies the technology that enables it to happen.

Prefabricated panel of brick slips

There are a number of reasons for this, and each can be expanded upon in greater detail than here.

Cultural value systems
There is a cultural value system associated with everything we see; buildings, vehicles, objects etc.  Materials like stone, brick and glass have been around for millennia, and have worked hard to earn our acceptance of them in the built environment.  New materials expressed visibly have to gain acceptance in the same way, which takes time.  Buildings have a long design life compared to most other industrial products and therefore are more quickly accepted by the general public when dressed in a familiar fabric.  Victorian looking town houses generally sell better than modern looking commercial equivalents, for example.

Material supply chain
The building industry is one of the most mature industrial sectors and as a result the main material suppliers are well established.  These suppliers fight fiercely to maintain market share and innovate within carefully controlled parameters to steal the edge over their competitors.  Introducing new materials as visible additions to their range poses a great risk and might result in a shot through the foot.  Likewise, this make it more difficult for companies marketing new materials to break in to the building industry, unless they are acting in (hidden) support to some of the established players.

Design supply chain
Because of the maturity of the building industry, the social structures which support it are also well established.  Architects are familiar with a set range of materials.  We experiment with what can be done with them and browse the Product Selector for anything new.  We invite CPD talks from companies, hoping to find new products to add to the office library.  We have a library of doors and windows on our CAD systems, and because we don't go home very often, there's only so much more we can deal with.  Structural engineers are in their comfort zone working with with timber, concrete, steel and glass.  Each item is usually calculated separately; frame, floor, walls etc.  Therefore there are few composite or monocoque building structures around, but not to be negative, possibly the greatest innovations in building design have come through advances in structural and environmental engineering.

Risk factor
The new brings uncharted waters and a number of risk factors, especially those unforeseen.  New materials might turn out to be poisonous, such as asbestos.   Innovations in building systems might prove to have hidden weaknesses, as in the disaster at Ronan Point in 1968.  What is the fire integrity of phase-change plasterboard if the phase-change ingredient is paraffin based? (which is also a hidden innovation).  Unless for a specific reason, Clients often don't normally like to take on the responsibilities attached to something new, especially if visible.

Appropriateness of function
There is a sense of function associated with building materials.  Glass and concrete equals commercial buildings whereas brick and tile equals housing (to over generalise) but this is one area where Architects can experiment with new materials more, especially when working on projects other than buildings.  We often have more freedom with materials on engineering led projects like bridges or in product design, such as the chair, where there might be one or two material components used.

Sense of place
Location also dictates visible appearance, in a similar way to function.  The RIBA HQ building for example, has a responsibility to acknowledge the 'majesty' of Prince Regent's C19th developments between , Carlton House and Regent's Park, within which it holds a position.  But this is perhaps in this area where architecture is best positioned to break away from the norm and play more freely with new materials:
  • The Eden Project is a very good example: ETFE bubbles in an old quarry surrounded by and housing lots of plants.
  • Zaha Hadid's Chanel mobile arts pavilion experiments in fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) cladding.  It is a temporary structure which can be disassembled and relocated.  
  • Southend Pier's new pavilion by White Arkitekter and Sprunt uses composite materials to assist the prefabricated build.  This includes pultruded FRP cladding panels visible above the timber decking. The arrangement works well but because there is very little around in terms of aesthetic context.  Southend Pier head is 1.3 miles out in to the Thames and can feel like a very isolated place.
  • The Halley VI Antarctic research station, recently completed for the British Antarctic Survey by Hugh Broughton Architects is a very good example of FRP cladding being the aesthetic result of environmental and structural engineering requirements.  It is a single skin (albeit 220mm thick with insulation) which keeps the weather out, the heat in and the wind off, in one of the most hostile environments around.  It looks at home on the Brunt Ice Shelf.  

Eden / Chanel Pavilion / Southend Pier Pavilion / Halley VI

How to get ahead
From experience, when looking at alternative materials it is worth investigating different industrial sectors to see what's being used.  When finding something new and exciting, technology transfer is not a straight forward process of introducing a material in to the building industry.  In addition to the points above, it is important to look at the context of the material:  Who the fabricators are, which engineers understand the material, how the supply chain works etc.  There is an established way of manufacturing FRP bodies for train carriages in the rail sector, just as there is curtain walling in the building sector.  Its not just the materials but the experts that work with them that are important. As for industrial sectors to search, there are many.  The automotive, rail, aerospace and yacht sectors are always worth looking at, but the rapidly evolving area of commercial space flight is definitely one to watch.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Material junkies

Trade shows like Ecobuild and the Surface Design Show are worth a visit to see what's developing in the world of building products but there is a lot of focus on innovating materials and building systems which we are all familiar with.  Manufacturers in these established markets compete against each other for our attention and arguably this reflects the main stream of progress in the building industry today.  After seeing lots of bricks, solar panels and insulation, I wanted to collect and summarise the sources I know for more cutting edge products or off the wall materials.  Here are my sources for material junkies:

Browsing the stalls at ecobuild (and just a little lost) 

In London there are some important material libraries.  SCIN and Material Lab  are perhaps the best known.  SCIN is independant and has a great and varied range of materials to delve in to.  Annabelle Filer and her staff are instrumental in helping you to find what you want.  Material Lab is sponsored by Johnson Tiles, which is a very cleaver way of promoting the parent company and associating it with the new and the cool.  Both are essential visits for material junkies.

The basement library at SCIN.  I could spend all day rummaging through these boxes 

Material Lab gallery

Material Connexion is a huge materials data base with offices around the world (though unfortunately not in the UK).  It operates on a subscription basis.  The website is well worth a look and they have produced several books too. Their first is a very good source book with materials separated into types and useful links to people and organisations.  Cheekily, the manufacturers of the materials shown are only made available on subscription to their service.

The Institute of Making is part of University College London (UCL) and rapidly growing as an organisation and in its following.  It is very experimental and inspirational in the way they play with materials to investigate their properties.  They also have a materials library / cool wall. They are not solely focused on the building industry, but cover all areas where materials matter; engineering, product design, waste management, micro and mega scales, rockets etc.  This makes their work even more exciting when thinking around how materials work and their technology transfer to Architecture.  There are a number of key people involved.  Zoe Laughlin and Philip Howes produced the book Material Matters which is a must for material junkies.  Prof. Mark Miodownick (who is appearing more and more on telly) presented the Royal Institution's (RI) 2010 Christmas Lectures Size Matters which looked at material technology.  It can be seen on the RI's website.  He also has a book coming out soon called Stuff Matters (available on pre-order).

Demonstration in friction at RI Size Matters preview lecture.
Mark Miodownik with two helpers (on the right my son Bobby)

Why don't more practices have innovation departments?  GXN is the innovation unit of 3XN, in Denmark.  It is led by Kasper Guldager Jorgensen (and judging from a google search of his name, he must never sleep).  It's worth getting hold of any of the GXN year books because they describe their approach to innovation and are very inspirational.  It is also worth seeing Kasper lecture or reading his posts on twitter and the Hello Materials blog.  Last year with the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC) he hosted the Material World Exhibition, focusing on material innovations.  (The DAC might still have a catalogue or two remaining).  GXN have a very creative and playful approach to materials, structures, products and design which clearly adds value to the work of the main office.   They also have a comprehensive materials database.

Material World Exhibition at DAC, April 2012

Arup have several innovation units, but their centre for Materials and Making, led by Graham Dodd is the one to watch for material junkies.

There are many Universities experimenting with material technology. Possibly one of the most significant is the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University.  Their studio and public areas are normally occupied with product prototypes giving it a very exciting and creative atmosphere.

Snack bar at Delft University Faculty of Architecture

Another to note is Bob Sheil's unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL.  He is Professor of Architecture and Design Through Production.

Technology transfer from other industrial sectors is a productive method for introducing new materials in to the built environment.  It has a strong history in architecture and is becoming more common.  For example, plywood became a popular building material for lightweight temporary enclosures in the First World War, after being developed for the aircraft industry.  There are many materials to draw inspiration from within mature and emerging industrial sectors outside of the building industry.

Cabot mass-produce silica aerogel and all architects are familiar with it, but it was produced in the first half of the C20 for catching space dust.  Technology transfer from astro-physics.

Silica aerogel; 99.9% air

Much inspiration can be taken from composite manufacturers of yachts and train carriages for their execution of complex geometries, precision engineering and monocoque structures.  

Yacht construction demonstrates efficiency in lightness and strength
as well as economies in construction to the benefit of quality
Some composite companies are venturing the building industry with to pod rooms and entire buildings, using similar technologies used to make yachts or train carriages.

Cut-away sample of a composite shower pod.
Plastic honeycomb mesh in walls adds strength of the unit.
No additional framework required.

Lightness and strength are key to products like the Airbus A300.  Each component has to perform several tasks.  This economy is critical for the plane's performance. 

Next time you are up in the air, spare a thought for the 8 inches of material
separating you from a 30.000 ft drop!
As well as the high performance monocoque structure, all furniture and fittings need to be light and strong.  Companies like Technical Resin Bonders manufacture aluminium honeycomb panels which do just this.  Dressed to look like shop fit out joinery, they take a fraction of the energy to transport within planes and trains.

Aluminium honeycomb panels.  Invisible within the buffet car of a Virgin train 

Commercial space craft manufacturers such as Biglow Aerospace and Space X are experimenting with inflatable space modules.  Payload size within a rocket is restricted by physics but inflating it makes a logistical economy.  A fabric called vectran has been developed with twice the strength of kevlar to enable it to withstand impact from space debris.  No doubt this approach and material will be used on earth, perhaps for mobile units or for hostile environments.

Inflatable space module with vectran 

 It is impossible to ignore the emerging field of commercial space flight.   Again, composite structures are being used for their lightness, ability to withstand extreme and sudden environmental changes including re-entry temperatures of over 500 deg C and huge stress loads on the fuselage.  These advances in fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) recopies and insulation can be of benefit to the building industry not least for obvious solutions like blast partitions and fire walls - but mainly because they can be really cool products!

Virgin Galactic Space Ship One made by Scaled Composites and The Spaceship Cpmpany

This is a very big subject area and one which is rapidly growing.  Each section could be the subject of more detailed posts.  Here I have attempted to list the sources and areas of inspiration which are immediately accessible, and I hope it is of use.  Ideally, this blog will become the start of a discussion and grow with your feedback and references into a larger collection of sources.  Material junkies, please feel free to share your thoughts and inspirations!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Up on the roof

After completing the ArtBox for Furzedown Primary School in Wandsworth, it has become very apparent how much potential there is in a congested city like London, for development on the roofs of existing buildings.  There are many examples of flat roofs waiting to be brought to life with a little imagination and creativity.  Although this is a relatively small scale project, the approach taken here can be applied to a great many other situations.

Before: A vacant flat roofed area marks the site for the new development
After: The new development completed 
The ArtBox is a purpose built art teaching facility.  As the school expanded in to a two-form Primary School the original art room was lost to a form room.  A roof top site, and the desire and enthusiasm of the school to create a new art facility presented an opportunity to create something special.

Here are some key items to consider when developing over existing buildings:

Following a feasibility study to demonstrate that the site area was large enough to fit an art class room (with stores, small office, stairwell, lift and circulation), we investigated the existing building itself to confirm it could accommodate the additional floor.  The existing building had to be able to absorb the structural loads of this extra space.  

Trial pits were dug to confirm the depth of the foundation sizes.  (The building was 100 years old).  The bearing capacity of the soil was also tested.  These proved the existing foundations were adequate.  On investigating the existing walls and roof it transpired that the new floor had to be suspended over the original roof but the perimeter walls were capable handling the structural loads of the proposals.  The new external walls were constructed directly over the existing, which assisted the efficiency of the build.

Not pretty but essential, two trial pits were confirmed foundation size, soil type  and load capacity

The staircase and disabled lift had to be placed so that they worked with the School's existing circulation system and means of escape strategy.  They were located to ensure minimum disruption to existing class rooms, both during construction and in use.  Although not an issue here, disproportionate collapse can be a consideration when working on mixed use buildings.

Services were designed to tie in with the existing systems.  Small-power, lighting and supply to the disabled lift came from spare capacity on the local distribution box.  The existing mains water supplied the sink and a point-of-use water heater was installed for hot water.  A small heating unit was installed beneath the stairs for the under floor heating.   Absence of radiators within the new spaces meant more wall space to display art work on.  The sink connected directly in to the existing drains at ground floor.  Rain water was directed straight to the existing drain from the new roof.  (It was fortunate in this case that the existing ground floor was the original kitchens for the school).  Fire alarm call points were extended from the existing BMS system.

Because the building work was carried out directly above the activities of the school, measures were taken to keep disruption to a minimum.  As much as possible was prefabricated to reduce the number of operations on site and shorten the site programme.  Superstructure walls and roof were prefabricated as structural insulated panels (SIPs) and brought to site as a giant jig-saw puzzle.  Window units also came to site as prefabricated units.  Tight site access made it difficult for deliveries on anything larger than a long wheelbase transit van.  Access around the site was also too tight to use a crane.  All lifting was done with a high reach fork-lift.  This limited the extent to which items could be prefabricated, but components were sized as large as logistics would allow.  Elimination of site cutting and reducing the number of junctions in the assembly process assisted the speed of the build and helped to reduce disruption.  

A building as a jig-saw puzzle:  The external envelope in prefabricated SIPs

Work in progress: Assembly of SIP wall units and steel superstructure
Even the internal walls came to site as cassette frames

A single-ply membrane system completed the weather proofing to the roof 

The exterior is intentionally simple.  The budget was tight so it was important to keep the outside neat, with clean lines, for the building to be very clear about it's purpose. 

ArtBox exterior: Light grey seamless render with all metalwork in a darker grey

The budget was focused on the interior of the class rooms.  The main art room especially benefits from a high ceiling with north lights.  Corner windows allow views out and maximise display space.  Artificial lighting gives good light level distribution with separate circuits for LED spot lights to throw contrast on to still life scenes.

The Art room, busy with creativity

The project has been very successful and the principles of this approach can be used in many potential sites in Central London.  Just look up!  Perhaps there are more opportunities for building over existing structures than plots on the increasingly congested ground?  So if you are a property owner and would like a feasibility study to investigate the possibilities of extending upwards, please contact us at DesignBox Architecture.  We will be pleased to help.