The new studio complex for world renowned photographer Juergen Teller, carefully and intelligently designed by 6a Architects and recently completed by Harris Calnan, has already made a big splash in many of the main architectural and design journals (link to HC News page) and has even featured on the illustrious pages of the Guardian.
The studied descriptions and glossy photos (yes, even the one with a donkey) reveal much of the thinking behind the design and describe the unique qualities of the spaces much better than we ever could.
But here's the thing - what these finely polished words and images don't even scratch the surface of is the well of practical knowledge that went into making this project a reality. So as much as we like the flowery words and pretty pictures, we wanted to risk breaking a nail or two to scratch beneath the surface and share some of our own insights into what went on during the construction process.
By producing articles such as these, our ambition is to build a resource that gives architects and designers a deeper level of understanding of the materials and systems that we encounter in our projects. So join us in the first of what we hope will be many trips behind the hoardings as we reveal a little of the expert knowledge that helps bring these amazing designs to life.
Part 1: Latimer Road - Perfect Blockwork
"An elemental architecture, connecting past and present, solid and void, nature and artifice, poetry and functionality."
- Jonathan Glancey, Architectural Review
A big part of what defines the character of the internal spaces is the continuity of the primary material: concrete. In creating the bare and expansive spaces, polished concrete floors, in-situ shutter boarded external concrete walls and fair-faced concrete soffits have all been used to great effect to achieve a continuity of finish within a range of subtle and carefully selected variations.
But for the vast majority of the internal wall surfaces, 6a opted for another material that is altogether different. Rather than being poured and left to dry and cure on site, this material is manufactured off-site and then assembled piece by piece .
Whilst concrete blocks have been widely used as a cheaper alternative to brick since the 1940's, particularly for inner leaf wall construction in cavity walls, their environmental credentials have not always been the best. However, with advances in the design and manufacturing of these blocks, there are more and more reasons to be using them.
The block that is used at Latimer Road is the Alphacrete Athena block by Acheson and Glover. Developed specifically for internal and external applications, these blocks have the added advantage of coming in a range of colours, clean edges and a fair-face finish so they require no additional decoration. But with so many joint lines and complex interfaces between materials and levels, there was always the risk that the final result would be anything but the calm and consistent aesthetic that was achieved.
Key to the overall success of the project was having a design team that was both capable and immaculately prepared. From the very outset of the project it was clear that 6a had a fundamental understanding of the buildability issues and this translated into a precise and comprehensive set of design information.
As well as being an engineer by training, Darryl Murphy was also Harris Calnan's sight foreman and problem solver-in-chief. His fearlessness in the face of demands for perfection was crucial to the project's success so we asked Darryl to think back over the project and distil a few nuggets of wisdom that could help anyone looking to create their own perfect blockwork:
Darryl Murphy - Harris Calnan's problem solver-in-chief
1. Horizontal setting out, bedding and preparation:
The project at Latimer Road is actually a collection of three buildings separated by two courtyards. But the staggered blockwork coursing that is present in all three is continuous and consistent in both its levels and detailing.
Here are a couple of tips to help stop joint lines from bending your own project out of shape:
a. Standard tolerances are not always that forgiving of fine detail.
The forming of structural components such as slabs may not be consistent with the level of precision required for blockwork. A comprehensive understanding of the differences is crucial and so is ensuring that there is sufficient skill on site so that any small discrepancies can be artfully disappeared (Tom our Master Bricklayer likes nothing more than disappearing discrepancies!)
b. If it touches, even if its invisible, then set it out in advance.
Whilst tight control of structural levels is paramount, so too is the setting out of other materials that are usually ignored - at Latimer Road even the invisible leafs of rough blockwork behind the fine blockwork had to be as carefully set out as the finished blockwork due to the tying in between the two leafs.
2. Block sizes and types:
The visual consistency of the blockwork hides a surprising fact: it turns out that not all blocks are created equal.
To accommodate the structural requirements of the project at Latimer Road, both hollow and solid blocks were used. Where hollow blocks were filled with concrete and reinforcement bars, they still had to look the same and tie into the same setting out as the solid blocks used elsewhere. This task was made even more challenging by the different substrates and insulating materials required for each application.
In addition, whilst manufactured materials such as concrete blocks might be preferred to more natural materials such as stone for their consistency of shape and finish, the truth is that even the best blocks are never exactly the same.
To defend against any surprises that may arise, here are three bits of advice to build upon:
a. Don't accept a single block as a representative quality benchmark - it won't be.
The shape and even the texture may vary and just like a visit to a stone quarry, a visit the blockwork factory to pull out random samples from a wide range of "identical" blocks will provide a much better sense of the nature of the true nature of the material.
b. Choose a good quality material that can be cut and sawn.
As much as good and thorough design work can anticipate most eventualities, there are always unexpected conditions and so if the material can be cut and still look pleasing, it will make life that much easier.
c. Even more tolerances.
Blocks can be very slightly out of square and unless tolerances are built into the design, over the course of a large surface, these small imperfections can become magnified to a surprising degree.
The biggest challenge when using this, or any kind of structural material as a final finish, is co-ordination.
Whilst the structural levels may get sorted early on, the detail design of the services are just as important. Conventionally, the detail design of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) services installation is often left until relatively late. But when services interface with structural materials that are also finishes, there is no room for error or assumptions.
In the arena of interface, there is only one golden rule:
Get all the detail design work done up front, because you can't patch up an opening that is in the wrong place!