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.

1 comment:

  1. I think the brick slip sounds very effective. Especially for new developments, either residential or offices..

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