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First concrete house refurbishment completes

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One of the UK’s most important historical concrete buildings has been returned to its former glory following the completion last week of a £1.1 million refurbishment

As reported by NCE, the Victorian Gothic house on Lordship Lane in south London, known as the Concrete House, was originally completed in 1873 using a pioneering slipform construction method.

Before the renovation, for client Heritage of London Trust (Operations), the two-storey, Grade II listed house close to the South Circular was in a state of collapse.

The 11-month project led by London-based Regeneration Practice and engineers from The Morton Partnership, has converted the 140-year-old building into five shared-ownership flats for housing association Hexagon.

The house was originally built by Charles Drake, founder of the Drake Patent Concrete Building Company. It is one of only a handful of its type still standing.

Drake built the walls of the house using his patented “building apparatus”, which consisted of reusable wrought iron formwork that allowed the concrete to be poured 600mm at a time before another section of shuttering was added and the process repeated.

Project architect Paul Latham described Drake as “a technological innovator in the best tradition of Victorian entrepreneurship”.

At the start of the renovation work, parts of the structure were listed by 150mm off vertical and numerous deep cracks, some of which ran from the ground to the roof, which had collapsed.

Project engineer Abbas Contractor said: “The property suffered from a combination of subsidence and wanton damage.”

Before work could start the whole north west corner of the property, which Latham described as “being pulled out from the building by 300mm”, had to be stabilised.

Once safe, the extensive fractures were repaired by chasing 30mm deep slots across the cracks into which heli-bars were fixed.

Drake’s original concrete consisted of 50% fired clay and 30% air. The remaining 20% was an early form of Portland Cement. Abbas Contractor said it resembled aerated concrete, so where parts were beyond repair, Lytag was specified for the rebuild.

Drake hoped his speedy “apparatus”, which could be operated by relatively unskilled labour, would revolutionise construction.

“But by and large architects shunned Drake,’ explained Latham. “They were moving in the opposite direction, embracing the Arts & Crafts movement and the ‘English vernacular’.”

Concrete House timeline

1839 Charles Drake born in Chudleigh, Devon.

1860s After a spell in the army Drake becomes a manager for Joseph Tall, a champion of concrete and the inventor of a demountable and reusable concrete shuttering system for building houses.

1868 Drake improves Tall’s system by replacing timber uprights with more durable enamelled or glazed wrought iron. He patents his “concrete building apparatus” and forms The Drake Patent Concrete Building Company. 

1873 The Concrete House is completed and Drake and his family move in and live there until 1876 when financial struggles force its sale.

1874 Drake addresses the Civil and Mechanical Engineers’ Society stating: “Much has been written and said lately about the demand for a new style at architecture. May I suggest that this may be found in studying the right architectural treatment of concrete buildings’.

1892 Drake dies aged 52

1940 16 October a Luftwaffe bomb causes extensive damage to building facade

2000 The building’s owner, Rajiv Laxman, applies for a demolition order

2010 Southwark Council takes possession of The Concrete House under a Compulsory Purchase Order

2011 Southwark transfers the Concrete House to building preservation trust HOLTOPS for £1.

2011 HOLTOPS raise £1.1M (£250,000 from the London Development Agency, £100,000 from English Heritage and £750,000 from Hexagon housing association).

2013 Conversion of Concrete House to five flats and handover to Hexagon

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