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City slicker

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PROJECT PROFILE: HOUSING

Focus Foyer, Birmingham. A report by Deborah Singmaster

The Focus Foyer in Birmingham, designed by Ian Simpson Architects, overcomes the problems presented by an exposed and potentially hostile urban site with a design that provides the young residents with a safe, supportive environment in which to acquire the skills and confidence necessary to make the transition to independent living

The Foyer movement aims to enable young people to break out of the vicious 'no home, no job' cycle by providing centres which offer accommodation, training and employment guidance. The movement, begun in France, has gathered momentum in recent years, with 94 centres up and running in the British Isles, and approximately 70 more on site or in the pipeline.

The commission for the Focus Foyer, run by the Focus Housing Group's Birmingham Region, was won in an international competition by Ian Simpson Architects in 1993 and should have been a pioneer example of the genre had it not been for a chequered gestation period involving a change of site, new client, re-formed design team and inevitable modifications of the competition scheme to meet cost constraints.

But that is history; now complete and occupied to capacity, the Focus Foyer, winner of a 1999 Housing Design Award, has become a prominent new Birmingham landmark and is benefiting its 80 young residents as well as members of the local community who are encouraged to make use of its IT facilities and training programmes. The Foyer prepares residents to face the outer world by giving them a temporary base which, to quote Raj Shroff, manager at Focus Foyer, is a 'warm, clean, safe environment' while they prepare to face full independence in the future.

Exposure and protection

The building occupies an exposed urban site on St Chad's Circus, a busy roundabout to the north of the city centre: Pugin's St Chad's Cathedral lies to the east, the Birmingham and Worcester canal cuts past to the west and a BT tower dominates the view south. If approached by road, it may seem out on a limb, but in fact the city centre is only a five minute walk away, in keeping with the Focus policy of accessibility.

The boomerang-shaped plan turns its back on the roundabout to form a sheltered inner courtyard and entrance approach; one wing tapers to a sharp 'prow' pointing downhill towards the quaint tower on the apex of the 1896 red-brick HP Sale building. A drop in ground level on the courtyard side of the building discreetly accommodates a car park and reveals the northern wall of the basement (used for plant and storage) which has been dug into the site incline. This combination of exposure and protection - the essence of the Foyer ethos - runs throughout the design: corridors are positioned on the outer perimeter of the plan to act as an acoustic buffer to the inner bedrooms; staff rooms on the ground floor are squeezed into the curve of the central knuckle whereas the reception area and cafe address the sheltered approach route; training rooms are on the more public ground floor, private spaces above.

Simple monolith

The structure of the building is simple: piled foundations, a steel frame and concrete precast floor units to facilitate prefabrication and speed up construction. Although there appears to be little resemblance between the completed brick-faced building and the glass-wrapped competition entry, Helen Trott, the project architect, convincingly explains that the design has not moved as far from the initial concept as a first, casual glance might perhaps suggest.

When a reduced budget ruled out full glazing, the architects looked at different cladding options. Manchester, where the practice is based, provided several examples of red-brick buildings which glowed in the sunshine and conveyed a sense of warmth. An orange red wirecut brick was agreed on, to be used expressly as non-load bearing panels which would preserve the original honesty of construction, express the steel frame externally and internally, and read as a smooth plane - not too dissimilar from the sparkling plane that glass would have produced.

At ground floor level the structural steel columns are expressed in front of the curtain walling but embodied in the projecting upper portion of the building. Internally, columns (painted in intumescent paint) are exposed on the ground floor but encased on upper floors. To emphasise the use of brick as non-structural skin - and at the same time differentiate public space from private bedroom floors - a blue engineering brick was chosen for the plinth and ground floor cladding. 'We wanted the whole building to look very monolithic,' says Helen Trott, 'and rooted to its site', an effect achieved by the strong blue-brick base.

Curtain walling encloses the dramatic prow of the building, containing a lounge and shared kitchen on each floor, each of which have spectacular views. Curtain walling has also been used at ground floor level on the outer wall of the training rooms and semi-public cafe, with fritting added to the glass to reduce solar gain and provide a degree of privacy.

Exacting details

Immense care has been lavished on the setting out and detailing of the brick-panel facades to the cavity walls to ensure that they read as a rigorous rectangular grid, decorative in its simplicity. The chief banding elements on the Circus elevation are formed by polyester powder-coated pressed aluminium panels covering the universal beams at floor levels, and continuous rows of fully reversible vertical slot windows, with angled reveals on the inside to increase the amount of daylight in corridors.

Infill brick panels, centred on structural columns, are divided into quarters by vertical and horizontal recessed joint lines. The bricks are in stretcher bond with bucket handle joints; mortar is carefully pigmented to match the brick colour. On the courtyard elevations, the vertical grid lines coincide with rows of single width stack-bonded bricks between pairs of bedroom windows; the recessed horizontal joint in the panels aligns neatly with sill levels, vertical joints coincide with window frames. Where expansion joints are required in the brickwork they have been aligned with paired structural columns.

A fine finishing touch is the careful positioning of the joints in the bull-nosed aluminium eaves fascia with the steel frame; equally meticulous was the choice of composite fully reversible windows, aluminium on the outside, timber on the inside, selected because the transom lines would not be allowed to interrupt the meticulous setting out of the brickwork.

Client

Focus Housing Group

Architect

Ian Simpson Architects

Structural engineer

Maurice Johnson and Associates

Project manager

Cyril Sweett Project Consultants

Main contractor

Moss Construction

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