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Tough love

Low-maintenance brickwork facades were the best way of bringing value to our first social housing project, writes Alex Mowatt of Urban Salon

This is the first social housing project completed by our practice. It is also our first brickwork building.

We won the project in a competition run by the Architecture Foundation in 2003 with a simple strategy that required two hard vertical elevations to address the busy roads to the north and west.

These have stairs and bathrooms behind. Two ‘soft’ cranked and cut-back elevations address the quieter roads to the east and south, creating large openings for the living rooms and bedrooms behind.

As the project developed, we looked at many different materials for the ‘hard’ elevations. Our criteria included durability, cost, low long-term maintenance for the housing association, acoustic mass to reduce the impact of traffic noise, and a dark colour that would wear in, not out.

Bringing hard, external materials into the entrance lobby eases the transition

We considered cross-laminated timber construction with a dense, black rubber quilt, terracotta ceramic briquettes, and tile hanging, along with brick products.

Test sample panels were assembled and the products that came to the fore, when evaluated against our criteria, were all brick products. Of these, Ibstock’s Tilebrick was selected due to both its density and cost, but chiefly due to the fact that the brick has no visible exposed mortar and thus does not require periodic re-pointing.

This has significant advantages for any project, but was especially important for this one, as the two ‘hard’ elevations have narrow pavements abutting major A-roads, where scaffolding would be expensive and awkward.

Tilebrick, as its name suggests, has a curved front that gives the appearance of traditional tile hanging but without the fragility of a thin tile. Where the two Tilebrick elevations meet, we chose to articulate the junction as a brickwork corner instead or trying to emulate vertical tile hanging. This required a small number of specials.

From the outset, the durability of the building at the lower levels was an important consideration. Before selecting a brickwork product, we considered a knapped flint to give added toughness at street level. In the end, the flint was omitted, giving cost savings and adding simplicity and visual clarity. We were able to do this because the Tilebrick has an F2 ‘severe exposure’ durability rating and the dark blue-black clay we selected hides marks and dirt.

We thought carefully about how to finish the ‘hard’ brickwork around the entrance and lobby, where people will come into close contact with it. We wanted to soften the transition from a major London highway to the domestic environment. To do this, we drew on our admiration for Eric Lyons’ Span Housing.

The entrance to his Priory in Blackheath uses a tile-hung facade that hangs without a sill, suggesting the lightness of a curtain. Lyons’ developments often ran external landscape materials into internal lobbies to blur transitions and thresholds. Following these precedents, we avoided visible lintels to the Tilebrick over the entrance and took both the Tilebrick and Yorkstone external paving into the lobby giving a ‘folded’ appearance. Bringing these hard, external, street materials into the lobby eases this transition.

Entrances and lobbies of housing projects often seem to be unfortunately badged with ill-considered, generic signage. In effect, this brands the buildings as social or municipal rather than domestic. Again taking inspiration from the communities that Eric Lyons managed to foster within his Span developments, we developed a residential signage system by working with both Igloo, our developer client, and Hexagon, our housing association client, to produce a more conversational tone of voice.

The soft white facades that open on to the quieter streets to the south and east have lightweight, steel frame construction with white, externally rendered insulation. All window frames, vents, balcony handrails and rainwater pipes on these facades are colour matched to give a smooth, bright white finish, with design elements that will help the elevations retain their fresh appearance.

For example, the balconies have been designed as a set of powder-coated vertical fins to allow transparency when viewed orthogonally and up close from inside (there are views over south London to Crystal Palace from the upper floors). When viewed obliquely from the street, these balconies appear opaque, which gives privacy and a coherent facade. We chose to powder-coat these rather than paint them on site, challenging perceived ‘value engineering’ by ensuring longevity.

We are pleased to say our first brick project was the winner of its category in the 2011 Brick Awards.

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