Harris Calnan Builds: Concrete Studio

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

Unlike glass or metal or stone, with concrete you just don’t know what it’s going to look like until the shuttering comes off - and once that happens, there’s almost no going back. So it takes a huge amount of skill and experience to conceive of a project where almost all of the visible surfaces are made of a material that, by its very nature, is full of surprises. London is no stranger to bare-faced concrete buildings, although these tend to be large and difficult to miss: The Southbank’s Hayward Gallery and National Theatre are perhaps the two best known examples. But a stone’s throw away from the Westway Fly-over, tucked between two blocks of flats in a site just over 8m wide, a striking new studio for one of the world’s most well known photographers, is almost complete.

Despite its modest size, the design by 6a Architects is no less ambitious than its larger predecessors: the sheer amount of in-situ concrete that is used as a final surface finish in the building will make it almost unique amongst London architecture of this size and scale. Harris Calnan Construction are no strangers to the quirks and foibles of concrete, but each project presents a unique set of challenges.

We caught up with Neil Harris to find out what makes this project stand out from the rest:

HC: What makes this project different from say, Swain’s Lane, which HC completed in the past?

NH: Essentially it is actually not that different from what we have done before - it is a concrete frame building with some blockwork.

The difference here was that the site was very constrained. Usually, when you are building with the amount of concrete that we have here, a crane would be mandatory but for this site, that just wasn’t an option.

Pouring liquid concrete requires a huge amount of planning and coordination at the best of times, but when everything has to be done by hand, as is the case here, that challenge is amplified exponentially.

For example, one of the external walls that spanned the site across of a full width door opening required single lifts of concrete 8m wide with timber shutters and strong-backs, all completed and installed in a position that was 3m above the ground – all by hand!

HC: What were the biggest challenges?

NH: The thing about using concrete as a finish as well as a structural material is that how it looks can be just as important as how it works because everything is out in the open for everyone to see. The normal tolerances and inherent forgiveness that you find within say, a plastered brick wall, just don’t apply. That means that everything has to be coordinated – from the shuttering lines, to the steel re-inforcement, to the services – so that it all looks right.

Quite often we might just have a number of feature walls that need to be done in this way, but on this project sometimes all the visible walls are shuttered concrete and so not only do the different components within each wall have to line up, but they also have to line up with all the components of all of the other walls too.

In addition, because the structural material is also the finishing material, where you do have an interface with another finish, for example the white blockwork blocks, you have to work out how you are going to build it so that the messy job that is the pouring of concrete doesn’t destroy or compromise your other finishes which are immediately adjacent.

If the preview images are anything to go by, this project promises take concrete beyond the realm of the brutal and into a more soulful space.

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