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Getting down to the details

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TECHNICAL & PRACTICE: Earlier this year a seminar was held at the Architectural Association to mark the publication of Working Details Book 7. Five speakers gave their views on detailing

Roddy Langmuir

Good details make up the language of architecture, says Roddy Langmuir of Edward Cullinan Architects, but beware of the cliche.

Good details transcend mere technical competence - they belong to and extend the aesthetic of the building. And they must know when to be quiet and when to yell from the rooftops.

When we talk about the role of details in architecture we often use language as metaphor - punctuation, grammar, syntax, cliche. It is the architectural language that is the important binding glue; without it, a building just becomes 'bad shopping', and we are all familiar with buildings in which the ingredients have got the better of the recipe.

Part of the architect's skill in detailing is involved with products.

Sometimes we do a bit of 'quality shopping' and simply select them; on other occasions we turn them upside down and inside out, and this approach reaches its zenith in what is called technology transfer. In the most celebrated examples, very expensive components - yachting masts - do the simplest tasks, prop up a beam, or an intricate camera shutter device controls sunlight coming through a glass wall.

Do we get more brownie points for turning manholes into window frames or silos into stair shafts? The whole game is fraught. But we're experimenting and that is what building should be about.

Another holy grail - remember Egan - is mass production. It is often a lot of hot air; most buildings have nothing in common with cars while the rhetoric, for instance, about Future Systems' work would have you believe that the components were not laboriously handcrafted.

The huge majority of our buildings need to respond to the unique richness of their political, social and programmatic context. Maybe that is why architects always love returning to the more plastic form possibilities of materials such as insitu concrete, timber, metal castings and earth. And that is just great as there will always be a role for detail invention.

Here are a few favourites from our work. The Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Science consists of four-storey pavilions arranged around a half-buried central core with a curved shell concrete roof, which supports a roof garden.

Inside, the crux is a detail - a cast steel pin-joint between the massive concrete roof structure and the supporting concrete piers. It is at eye level, so you can go close and see the effort that has gone into the detailing. It is a lovely thing, a stainless steel pin and an amazing steel casting which looks like a guppy fish.

Archeolink in the north of Scotland is a building of grass and glass with a concrete internal structure. We tried to make the blades of glass as simple as possible while respecting the need for thermal insulation.

We did it by creating a zone between a highly insulated doubleglazed inner facade and a single glazed external plane which became a guardrail around the roof, carried blinds and created a shaded zone.

The glazing has no mullions; panels are supported on a transom.

Paul Collinge

I'm a Modernist and I'm going to die a Modernist, declares Paul Collinge of Aldington, Craig & Collinge.

I see no separation between concept and detail. Detail is the realisation of a concept; without a concept there is no detail. To me the concept is the core of the design; the detail is one element, but it is the most important to realise the design.

The two are linked through a reciprocal process - going to the detail referring back to the concept, again and again. And unless the concept is clear, you do not get a clear result.

My own philosophy relates to the making of space. I look within any brief for those spaces which can be described as 'introvert' and those which are 'extrovert'. And then I like to play the two against one another, so you have open and closed, rough and smooth, solid and transparent.

Thirty years ago I designed a group of houses round a courtyard. The introvert elements (sleeping, washing) and the extrovert elements (living, eating) are reflected in the design as an expression of opposites.

This leads on to a way of thinking which links architecture with landscape, planning and materials. I see no separation between any of these.

We do small-scale buildings - we don't compete on a larger scale, maybe from choice and because of the way we think. One of the early details I resolved 20 years ago was how to handle the connection of glass to solid by using an element built into the wall which modulates the glass. It's all about how to handle space and how to connect inside to outside.

A decade later I applied the same philosophy to a listed water mill which was to be converted to offices with a reception on the top floor.My aim was to make the route an interesting one and to connect inside to outside. The design is therefore conceived as a piece of glass which is a continuous 'core' driven through the building.

The conservatory is at the rear of a listed building. In spite of centuries of change, it is a crafted building made by the local blacksmith. The difference between inside and outside is blurred. All the elements are very simple and represent a 'truthful expression'. I see no separation between architecture and structural engineering at all, apart from the fact that we have to keep the weather out and they don't worry too much about that. I may die a Modernist but I may well come back as a structural engineer.

Matthew Wells

How do structural engineers approach detailing? asks Matthew Wells of Techniker. We do have different ways of thinking about details compared to architects, not only the fact that we are not interested in water ingress. One aspect is junctions between materials. I see these junctions as disturbances in a pattern of forces. If we are working through an equation in a structure, the boundary conditions can be manipulated to make the structure behave in a certain way - by altering those conditions you can change the solution.

Another point: all buildings move;

our main concern as structural engineers is how the envelope and the parts move relative to structure and non-structural elements.

Finally, I look on details as a way of 'encoding' construction. I am interested in the way buildings are put together and I need to understand how this is done. An example is the Royal Victoria Dock bridge, a 135m footbridge over the dock which links a new housing development with the Docklands Light Railway. Our approach was to achieve a 'narrative', to give the bridge a feel of transience.

So we undertook to construct it without any bolts and without any welding. It is prefabricated off-site, brought to site, piled up and stressed together with toggles. It can be dismantled in two or three days - in other words, it's a kit of parts.We employed techniques used before the introduction of helical bolts; you can see similar wedges used in old railway stations.

Another interesting - possibly overworked - detail can be seen in Eva Jiricna's Orangery in Prague. It is a 100m-long enclosure formed of faceted frameless glass panels suspended from a cruciform grid of tubular steel. The stainless steel nodes which hold the cruciform structure together are all tied on single bolts. It is an example of the the 'milk stool' problem - it is easy to get a structure to bind on three legs, but harder to get it to bind on four legs. It would have been easier to use four bolts. In the end we bent the node slightly, and the solution successfully resists the wind loads.

Stephen Procter and Alan Matthews

Stephen Procter and Alan Matthews of Proctor Matthews are interested in ideas about the transition between inside and outside, and the manipulation of volume.

What interests us in buildings is the skin, the penetrations of this skin, the threshold and the selection of materials. We work on commercial, tight-budget buildings where net to gross area is important; the need to maximise space led us to ideas about enveloping space and about the transitions between inside and outside. An example - our speculative office/laboratory building for Oxford Business Park is a simple envelope using materials in a pared-down way.

The walls are stack bonded blockwork with windows shaded by cedar screens. The services are stacked up on a triangle in the corner of the trapezoidal site. The entrance is 'pulled out' of the plan and is an assembly of bold, sculptural elements; a light steel frame, a silver semi-cylindrical drum, a filtering screen of cedar and galvanised steel, and steps and a ramp, which use crushed glass aggregate set in resin.

Our housing at Greenwich Millennium Village creates a village structure which achieves a 'townscape' quality and yet also had to fulfil the Egan agenda. Screens and steel frameworks are used to create courtyards and thresholds which give private external spaces to each house.

An earlier holiday home in Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk, shows our habit of framing materials. The four-bedroom house is L-shaped and built of brick cavity walls and flint. On the first floor we put the local building material - flint - into steel trays, to celebrate its tactile qualities and colour.

Jayne Bird

You don't get the end product right unless you concentrate on the nitty-gritty of detailing, says Jayne Bird of Nicholas Hare Architects. We do not employ technicians; everyone, including partners and associates, gets down to detailing at one-to-one scale.

We like to be honest about the materials we use. For instance, we don't use brick in stretcher bond which looks like a cardboard cut-out, we use proper, oldfashioned Flemish bond structural brickwork which allows good, deep windows 'punched' in the wall for articulation. In comparison, glass is used as a tight, taught skin which can be held in place with Planar steel castings.

An example of how our work develops in detail is a project at the back of Regent's Park, the new Education Centre for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. For planning reasons most of the building had to be set below ground level, with a landscaped terrace above it. To illuminate the lower levels we envisaged a 'cone of light' - a large, single rooflight which would also be a positive statement in the landscape.

The problem - how to make the cone - demonstrates how architects must have a good knowledge of materials in order to solve detail problems.We couldn't use single glazing because of the U-value/condensation problem.We knew a double-glazed cone would be no good, the panels would have to be faceted, the weight would be enormous and it would have to carry a lot of framing. Then we tried acrylic - and it worked. Acrylic doesn't go yellow like some other plastics and it is produced as a pure form; you simply pour it into a mould of the shape you require and it is structurally self-supporting. Our cone is 4.5m in diameter and 50mm thick - with that sort of quality and thickness there are no problems with condensation. The cone sits on a concrete drum - four curved precast sections infilled with cast in-situ concrete. A pool runs round the edge and acts as a gutter.

A bronze collar, made in eight sections, sits at the base of the cone.We made sure that a single contractor took responsibility for waterproofing all junctions.

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