A Façade as Iridescent as Petrol - Detail

Issue 3
March 2006

Text Níall McLaughlin
Images Nick Kane, Níall McLaughlin Architects

In December 2002, we won a design competition called ‘New Ideas for Low-Cost Housing’ organized by the Peabody Trust. The site was in Silvertown in East London between Royal Victoria Dock and the River Thames. We concentrated on the following design issues: a rational layout of the interior with a large, flexible living space that has unusually high ceilings for low-cost housing; the view from the building over the strange landscape of the London Docklands, with London City Airport, Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome; the curious chemical history of the site; the nature of modern industrialized construction in which a timber frame is wrapped in a decorative outer layer.

Each living unit has two bedrooms and one bathroom. The kitchen, dining and living functions are accommodated within a single, large space on the south side of the building. This ensures an optimum exploitation of sunlight and the view from each dwelling. There is a little, south-facing terrace outside each flat, and the ground floor units have their own back gardens. Special corner windows in the upper-floor flats allow the view to open out along the street towards the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf in the distance.

Our practice usually looks carefully into the history and topography of a site. Each location has something comparable to DNA, a coded trace pointing towards the future. Everything from local myths to geology can become a starting point for architecture. Looked at in the context of history, this site experienced an extraordinary flowering of industry from the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the collapse of British manufacturing in the late 1970s. In 1850, the place was marshland; by 1990, it had returned to almost total dereliction. The industrial flowering, or chemical flare, lasted for a very brief period of time. Now the area is being redeveloped with a rag-bag of yuppie houses, airports, an IBIS hotel and a vast conference centre. It is both somewhere and nowhere. It is the kind of place that has been called a post-industrial landscape. We prefer to think of it, however, in the context of emerging and dissolving landscapes. The uncertainty of its identity is the essence of the place. Its properties are fugitive.

Even the name Silvertown plays a trick on you. The glister in the name comes from Stephen Winkworth Silver, who built a rubber plant on the site in 1852, manufacturing wet-weather clothing. It’s the kind of thing Queen Victoria might have inspected at the opening of the Great Exhibition the year before: raw material from the Empire transformed directly into cheap consumer goods on the shore where it landed. Looking at the map change over the following 50 years, we can see the blooming of a remarkably consistent range of factories making sugar, coloured dyes, jam, golden syrup, gutta­ percha, soda, TNT, soap and matches. What now looks like a surreal photograph from 1900 shows horse-drawn pertroleum carts on Knights Road, reminding us of the previous life of this most iridescent of materials. The Victorians, through chemistry and trade, learned to make luxury cheap. These factories manufactured chemical sweetness, colour and light. In one bizarre incident, a whale beached herself on the North Woolwich shore in 1899. Was she lost, or was she following her nose towards John Knight’s Primrose Soap Works? The factory workers ran out and stoned or bludgeoned her to death. A photograph shows them standing proudly on her 66-foot carcass. These two emblems of the sublime were clearly incompatible.

The factories tined the river, and the warehouses lined the dock. In between lay a zone of industrial workers’ housing. It was squat and regular. Our site lies on the edge of Evelyn Road. Although the street is partly derelict now, it separated the houses from the warehouses. Our apartments are built on the warehouse side of the street. Modern low-cost housing construction consists of prefabricated timber framing and timber sheeting. We imagined our building being like a row of packing crates stacked up near the water. Once you make the timber carcass, you have to wrap it in something. This is usually a layer of brick, wood or tiles. The industrial product is used to create a reassuring traditional appearance. For our project, we looked at kinds of industrial wrapping that might be used as the final layer of our building. Given the site history, we wanted something bright and sweet and chemical. It also had to be inexpensive.

We collaborated with the artist Martin Richman on this project. He suggested a material called ‘Radiant Colour Film’. It is produced by 3M, who make everything from dental adhesive to Post-it notes. It has dichroic properties so it produces iridescence. Colourless metal oxides on the surface of the film disrupt the reflection of light, producing interference patterns that appear as colour. As the angle of incidence changes, the colour changes. The surface, the light source and the viewer are in an ever-shifting relationship. The 18th-century physicist and architect Auguste Fresnel discovered this effect and explained the phenomenon of iridescence. It appears naturally in pertrol and peacocks’ wings.

The south facade of the building is wrapped in a cladding of dichroic material held in position by glass. These facade units have a depth of 200mm and contain two groups of offset louvres, the first centred within the depth of the case, and the second on the back wall. The louvres are fabricated from sheet acrylic, each covered with the dichroic film. Light hitting the façade is reflected back from different layers, producing a shift­ing pattern. Cast glass captures the light as it escapes. In time, a stand of silver birches will add an extra layer to the facade. They will cast shadows on the surface and catch reflected coloured light.

At times, the light effect is robustly geometric; at others, it is evanescent and fugitive. We want the building to have a dream-like quality, as though its image would not fix completely in your mind. We hope that this connects to the shifting, uncertain properties of the place.

This was a design-and-build contract in which our practice partnered with Sandwood Construction, who worked successfully with us on the development of the design as well as on the construction of the building. They gave considerable support in solving the many practical difficulties involved in taking materials that are not standard building products and incorporating them into the face of the structure. The contractor, Sandwood Construction, had entered into a framework agreement with the client, the Peabody Trust. We, too, entered into the spirit of partnering in this project and had a good working relationship with the contractor. Sandwood was committed to teamwork and was involved in the detailed design throughout. This gave the client confidence that ambitious details could be achieved.

A design-and-build contract allows the architect less control over the details, since the contractor determines many aspects of the design. He also assumes a number of the architect’s responsibilities. It is usual for the contractor to employ the architect to continue the design development for such projects, however.

A typical problem faced in design-and-build contracts is that the budget is fixed. No contingency sum is provided, should unforeseen extras arise. When buried ordnance and toxic waste were found on site during excavations, no money was available to cover the careful removal that was needed. Items simply had to be omitted from the work. In this instance, it was agreed that it would be the interior Radiant Colour Film and roof lights. Such omissions seem brutal for an architect with a strong design vision, but they are necessary under such a contract.

In order to ensure design control, the architect needs to have worked through and specified all the critical details by the end of the final proposals stage. Under a traditional contract, many details are deferred until the production information stage. Under a design-and-build contract, this would be too late. The circular columns in tile glazed corner windows might have been omitted if we, as the architects, had realized earlier in the design process that this was possible and had ensured that the roof cantilevered out at this point. Under a traditional contract, this change might have feasible.

The insurers who reinsure first-time home­ buyers were unhappy that the facade did not have the usual guarantees for building products, since the use of the colour film was not an approved application. The housing association needs the insurers’ approval, so we approached 3M, the manufacturers of the dichroic film. They were unwilling to advise on the suitability of the material for use in a building, however, because the quantities involved were simply too small. We then employed Dewhurst MacFarlane, glass experts and facade designers, who produced a performance specification for the design that embodied the employers’ requirements. It isolated the only potential danger, namely that the glue which fixes the film to the louvres would become embrittled by UV light. Dewhurst MacFarlane advised that a UV filter should be applied to the glass cover to protect the adhesive, and they carried out accelerated testing to determine the performance of the glue over a period of 30 years. The testing went on for months, and it was not possible to complete this process before building began on site. The tests had to be carried out concurrently with the construction work, therefore. As a result, the specification was changed to make the performance of the facade panels independent of that of the building as a whole. In that case, if the glue were to fail, only the aesthetic appearance of the building would have to be altered. On this basis, the insurers agreed to provide suitable cover for the scheme.

The glass panels were developed in collaboration with the subcontractor. The initial design was sent to different tenderers, who each submitted their strategy. Architectural Aluminium in Dublin, who were the preferred subcontractors, developed aluminium cases deep enough to contain the film on offset acrylic louvres. The back of the case is in polished aluminium, while the front is in cast glass, with a standard double-glazed seal between the two. The panels, which act as a rainscreen, are clipped onto the timber frame construction at the rear. Air can circulate freely behind the panels.


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