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Riverside surprise

PROJECT PROFILE: COMMERCIAL OFFICES Sutherland Lyall's account of Weir House, new offices for Octagon

Broadway Malyan's Weir House for old client Octagon Developments overlooks the Thames. With the client also acting as the main contractor you would expect high quality building. And that's what you get

You see the new buildings as you cross over the Thames with the towers of Hampton Court Palace in your rear-view mirror. There they are, Weir House and Thameside House, two sets of big gables along the riverside path, assertively steep, lots of supporting glulam timberwork. It is, says the architect Broadway Malyan, reminiscent of Thames boat-houses.

If, on the other hand, you drive into the little development from the road side none of this is visible. First of all there is Thameside House, a speculative building for Octagon Developments. Veer left and there, round the corner, is Weir House, its neat symmetrical entrance facade made up of a squat octagonal brick entrance tower with, slightly labouring the branding, an octagonal window and the company name over the entrance door. The tower is flanked by brick chimneys and the hint of some first- floor visual activity round the sides is given by a broad white stone string course striping along the ground-first floor junction. Weir House, named for the weir in the Thames a few metres away on the right, was winner of the commercial category in last year's Brick Awards.

In these post-'Complexity and Contradiction' days we have learned to be comfortable with buildings having fronts, sides and backs. Weir House has four quite different facades: an entrance elevation, a more or less blank brick back wall, a heavily gabled riverside elevation and an elevation on the other side which in plan follows the splaying boundary in a series of shallow steps. This elevation has open ground level access for vehicle parking. On the riverside frontage the four feature gables sit over a full-height patent glazing wall in front of which is a shallow balcony atop an apparently substantial battered wall, interspersed with solid stone storey-height piers. The guard rails and the handrails to the ramps either side of the entrance are reckoned to have a somewhat nautical quality.

An unusual visual feature is that the basement of the front facade has battered corners. You sort of expect such a feature on an entrance facade to become immediately exhausted round the sides and back. But here, possibly because the river facade has its own importance, you are cheered to find the batter really does continue down the side and river front. The geometry of the two-way sloping edge as the batter goes around the corner is sorted out with special specials based on polystyrene mock-ups.

The riverside basement wall is battered a little less than 10 degrees off vertical. Along every second course there is bed-joint reinforcement so that any tendency of the wall to collapse inward is resisted by what are effectively a set of horizontal beams running between the stone-clad piers at 6.12m centres which support the narrow first-floor balcony. The bricks were actually laid against sloping plywood shuttering until everything had set. At roughly 3m intervals, and located at head height, here is a kind of porthole in the batter. This is actually a reconstituted stone square with a circle cut out, crossed by four security bars. These, with the zones of honeycomb brickwork below them, provide ventilation for the car park.

They are an interesting idea. Because you can see through them they rather give the game away: this is not a solid battered wall such as you would find protecting a Japanese shogun castle or guarding the Vatican City from the pagan, or an English garden bond restraining a mossy Mediaeval bank. This is a single half-brick thick wall whose stability, since you cannot see the lateral reinforcement, is a matter of some interest, indeed a matter of puzzling conjecture.

Back at the formal front, the two chimneys turn out to be like the pylons of an Egyptian temple though here the left one houses the lift and the other forms no more than a recess at the end of the first-floor board room and the back of a store at ground level. The two-storey space inside the octagonal tower has a curving staircase leading up to the offices. For all the gabling along the river and the portentous entrance, this is a building on one floor over a ground level car park. The partners' offices, a meeting room and board room have views across the river. The various departments are housed in offices across the other side of a top- lit, roughly triangular, open office space. Aloft, the various roofs and gables stop at the ridgelines. Inside their perimeter is a kind of well, a flat roof into which is set the long L-shaped rooflight and some plant.

Octagon is an upmarket house builder with a reputation for good quality building. That's certainly borne out here. The architect Broadway Malyan - which has had a long and successful association with the developers - has chosen a yellow London stock and, although jointed in common-place stretcher bond, you are conscious that it looks much better than you would expect. Maybe it is the bricks' colour consistency or the use of a neutral mortar with recessed joints. Whatever, the bricks have been laid with skill and care: 'outstanding workmanship' ran the Brick Awards citation without exaggeration. The architect has introduced unobtrusive panels of stack bond in the flanking chimney/pylons of the main entrance facade but eschewed the fanciful retro tricks to which recent designers have succumbed. The same bricks are used for the riverside fence and the dwarf walls of the entrance ramp although it was decided to lay purplish-brown block paving, presumably to differentiate between the vertical and horizontal surfaces.

Client

Octagon Developments

Architect

Broadway Malyan

Structural engineer

Mouchel

Contractor

Octagon Developments

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