Category Archives: Construction

If COR-TEN is the answer What is the Question?

Fashion in architecture is more than skin deep. However sometimes the skin dominates the fashion. COR-TEN or weathered steel is not a new material, but compared to the everyday choice of building materials, it has a relatively short and some might say patchy history. It also has that elusive quality of authenticity and honesty. Many though not all ‘modern’ architects like to work with materials that are unencumbered by other messages references to historic styles .

Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the SOM / YRM Grade II* factory of WD and HO Wills Factory outside Bristol is one famous example of a COR-TEN structure being brought back to life with a completely different function.  John Winter’s house in Highgate is perhaps the archetypal British modernist architects house. But these are very specific, fine examples of a rigorous structural aesthetic approach with the material expressed for what it was – a structure.

Other purely sculptural and structural examples, Richard Serra’s Fulcrum in Broadgate, the Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and Marks Barfield’s Kew Tree Walk are now added to by advertising displays at the Chiswick roundabout with COR-TEN structure.

















Passing a quiet suburban street in Kew recently I was drawn to the remains of a modest brick facade undergoing reconstruction. I say reconstruction as it seemed that the planning authority was faced with a distinctive approach to the provision of a new home but with the remnants of an existing building, within a conservation area and with neighbours whose initial reaction was probably negative. The Richmond planning website revealed that it was designed by Piercy Conner receiving permission in 2011. When finished it will probably grace the pages of architectural and design magazines. But will it last and how will it weather? COR-TEN is a complex material and has many

Last week the Waddington Studios by Featherstone Young were illustrated in the AJ.

COR-TEN was the preferred material of enclosure to the public face of the building. This time it was not compromised by attempts to keep some reference to what was there before and to that extent it makes a more positive statement. It is also a far more complex arrangement of spaces and functions and the COR-TEN was only a part of the stylistic references and messages. (MAXXI, green roofs, Waddington playing card designs)

COR-TEN can be used in its pure structural and sculptural form without references or historical detail. It can as in the examples of Piercey Conner’s house and the Featherstone Young building be embellished and perforated to create patterns. But there is more to the material than honesty and truthfulness, it has distinctive weathering qualities and design detail requirements. This demands complex design detailing and craftsmanship.

The question lingers, if COR-TEN is the answer what was the question?

The Edge Debate 58

The question for debate was

“Is creating an institute of the Built Environment the answer to a ‘fragmented and ineffective’ industry?”

That’s a positive message, I thought, and Terry Wyatt was quite happy to go straight in there with a proposition to merge two of the many professional institutes that make up the sprawling group of individuals and major companies that make up the “construction Industry”. It was a well structured argument that picked at the separation of design, production and management and the silos that they construct. But neither side really questioned the premise, indeed they generally agreed on much. So why is the industry so fragmented and ineffective?

The importance of leadership and the paucity of it generally was proposed by Mike Murray. His argument drew considerably on the Wolfenstone report of 2009 as the most important review of the industry. I have just read its 30 odd pages. Digestible and clear. But is it just another look down the wrong end of the telescope? It seeks to justify the importance of the industry, to show that it is efficient, to raise its profile, all valuable aims, but is that what is really needed?

Were we talking about the “built environment” of just the professionals, trades, contractors and FM technicians that make up the building industry within strictly defined boundaries? Yes, for much of the time we were. The debate ranged far and wide and took in the attractions of architect courses over engineering, the professions generally – law, medicine and architecture/engineering. Buildings are an important consumer of energy, they cost and have to last. But will they ever be truly sustainable? We knock them down before the end of their natural life and build another one that will go the same way in 20-30 years time if not  sooner. None of this was addressed.

It was only towards the end of the debate that anyone mentioned “planning”. Were there any planners in the room? Two hands went up. Was there a mention of Urban Design? No. But the message I came away with was that’s all very well but construction, unless it is the Olympics, Crossrail or a new London airport, is just a minor works job. Long life, loose fit, low energy was one of the old slogans that didn’t warrant a repeat last night. Perhaps it should have done but then we would have only had to say that was then and now is now. The future is BIM, zero carbon etc. But a one-off where the design is usually specific to need, certainly specific to site is most of the industry and the bread and butter of the SMEs that struggle within it. Craft is important as is knowing your builder/sub-contractor. The bigger questions remain. Where and how does the community and user fit. Do they have a voice? Unless the project is rolled out many times over, it is a one off, delivered by a group of individuals responding to a client. The client, their advisors and the teams working for them all contribute to the success or failure but trying to make a single solution will not work.

Chaired by Professor Alan Penn from the Bartlett and with the two sides represented by Terry Wyatt of Hoare Lea and CIBSE and Mike Murray of many places including One Creative Environments. It made an interesting and valuable discussion. Afterwards talking to Robin, Steve and Rob it was the comment that Alan Penn made at the start that it is around the edges that interesting things happen that kept coming back to me.

Walking to Charing Cross from Carlton House Terrace, through Spring Gardens Rob pointed out four stories or perhaps facts all to do with the place we were passing through. Albert Speer, Patrick Abercrombie, Frederick Gibberd, the silver jubilee and squatters. A very Iain Sinclair or Jonathan Meades moment.