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From Ford Capris to microchips

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Newport Wafer-Fab's ultra-high-tech manufacturing plant used steel in its construction, to ensure a vibration-free environment for the delicate business of making microchips

It was the image of a Ford Capri in Martin Pawley's book Theoryand Design in the Second Machine Age which gave George Hammersley the inspiration he sought in designing a new semi-conductor plant for Newport Wafer-Fab, next to Richard Rogers' classic Inmos factory. Pawley pointed out that the Capri and Inmos were contemporary designs; one had its structure draped across the roof, the other concealed it within a taut steel skin.

Hammersley preferred the 'clean and simple look'. As head of architecture at M & W Pearce - a design, project-management and facilities engineering practicewith a specialism in high-tech manufacturing plants - he and his team have designed numerous clean production plants for companies like gec Plessey, Philips and Newport Wafer-Fab's Hong Kong-based parent qpl in the Shinzen free-trade zone of China.

Hammersley was well aware that Inmos had ceased to be a state-of-the- art facility for producing the most advanced semi-conductors, though it is still in productive use. Technology has advanced so rapidly that circuits have only 0.25-0.3 microns between them (100 microns is the average diameter of a human hair). Such minute margins of error demand a completely different approach to designing buildings. Only the street is continued from Rogers' design into the new building.

The main criteria are absolute cleanliness and absence of vibration. 'The level of servicing is a great deal higher,' says Hammersley. 'A massive amount of air that some 233m3 per second is pumped into the clean room.' In design terms that translates into extra height, and a 6m-high service space under the clean room. A concrete waffle slab resting on piles eliminates vibration in the clean room. The slab had to be built under cover, and it was in solving this problem that steel came into its own.

The main frame is of steel, as is a separate frame - isolated with springs - and the whole is clad in flat-steel composite panels from ame-Euro and its associated company Euroclad. The steel skin and bones could be erected quickly, creating a controlled environment for the 3000m2 clean room with provision to increase it to 9000m2. Speed was of the essence, since the sooner the plant was operating, the sooner Newport Wafer-Fab could expand into the new markets on which it had set its sights.

Ron Fitch, technical director of cladding supplier ame-Euro, remembers 'the incredibly fast-track timescale . . . a matter of weeks for 7000m2'. Its ability to meet time deadlines and budget restrictions helped M & W Pearce get the appointment. 'qpl liked the project we did for it in Shinzen,' says Hammersley. 'It was on time and within budget.'

The 12,000m2 building comprises four principal parts: the clean room itself; an office block; an energy centre to meet the need for precisely regulated air changes, heating, cooling and electric current; and the 'rotunda'. The latter projects into a small lake, the water of which reflects light into the ground-floor staff restaurant. Above are a customer presentation suite and a viewing deck. Between the rotunda and the clean room lies the office block, while the energy centre is slightly detached at the opposite end from the original Inmos building.

Achieving absolute consistency in finish between the production facility, restaurant and office area was essential. The 3500m2 of oyster-coloured Colorcoat pvf2 all comes from the same batch, and ame-Euro's chosen panel, the Proteus 5, has flush joints and concealed fittings. 'We developed a totally modular system,' says Fitch, 'where windows and panels all fit with the same detail.'

The cladding can also be curved to fit the rotunda. Another larger area of Colorcoat pvf2 panels - this time Europanel from Euroclad - covers the production facility walling. With a 2mm ribbing on its surface, a 'top hat' vertical joint and a horizontal tongue-and-groove butt joint, it still achieves an overall look of consistency.

Sceptics may argue that such a massive building can hardly look like a Ford Capri. But its aesthetic difference from Inmos is as unmistakable as its changed performance criteria. Clad in oyster composite panels with a core of mineral wool for fire resistance, it is inscrutable, where Inmos, with its coloured chequerboard cladding and projecting masts and cables, is demonstrative. Given th/e basic level of chip technology 15 years ago, and to a public which had yet to experience the joys of owning home computers, Inmos probably looked like a micro-chip many times magnified. Now that the technology is so familiar and functional requirements so much tighter, the architecture has less need to tell a story and more to serve a rigorous brief.

Newport Wafer-Fab is a building with an output in waste as tightly controlled as its product. Nothing enters or leaves except by design. It is, thinks Hammersley, the first air-tight building of its scale in the world. The need for a hermetically sealed building is well served by the materials. The roof, for example, is an interesting bespoke design tested to destruction by Taywood for resistance to internal air pressures from the plenum. It comprises a structural steel liner, used in place of purlins, over which another profiled steel deck is fixed. On top of this second deck is insulation and a single-ply membrane. Great attention was given to the sealing of all laps and all fastenings were vapour-sealed. This design eliminates all penetrations into the plenum. All unnecessary members and fixings are designed out entirely, and the clean-room ceiling is a steel grid of gantries carrying all the services from production which allows for complete flexibility in use of equipment in any part - a crucial requirement given Newport Wafer-Fab's variety of client needs.

In this relationship between technology and architecture, the architecture has to lose. A single tool for producing silicon chips can cost up to $5 million. The building has to create the environment where these extraordinary devices can turn out their microscopically accurate circuits which are so essential to modern life. There is no point in the architecture trying to compete in creating a sense of wonder; it will almost certainly lose, or drive the client out of business. The most that can be expected, deserving the highest praise, is something that modestly and effectively fulfils its function. Newport Wafer-Fab makes no pretensions, but it does what it is supposed to do: facilitate technological wonders behind a modest, inscrutable skin.

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