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Music to the eyes

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PROJECT PROFILE: STRUCTURAL BRICKWORK - George Demetri sings the praises of a new music room

Interpreting architecture in ways the architect never intended is an easy trap in which to fall. So it is very tempting to see some parts of the almost monastic, white, curvedceilinged interior of the new music pavilion at Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls as vaguely reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp.

But this was not Victoria Perry's intention when she set out to design a modern building in a very traditional setting. She does, however, admit to being influenced by the genius of Alvar Aalto.

Yet the monastic atmosphere that has resulted could not be better suited to the studious contemplation of musical harmonies, enhanced by spectacular views of the hills in Monmouthshire. The pupils of Haberdashers have a well-designed and equipped music facility to ensure their talents are nurtured to the full.

Background Haberdashers is a charitable trust comprising a total of seven private schools that provide secondary education in England and Wales.

The school for girls in Monmouth wanted to extend its music department to provide much-needed concert and recording facilities. Although originally keen on an extension, the architect persuaded the school board to opt for a separate, free-standing pavilion. The result speaks for itself.

But the site presented a few obstacles: steeply sloping and surrounded by traditional buildings in brick and stone, it also lies smack bang within a conservation area. Local conservationists wanted something along traditional lines, but the architect once again argued successfully for a contemporary building, much of which would be set snugly into the steep slope to minimise the bulk.

As a result, the smart little pavilion has a Tardis-like effect on visitors, who may be surprised at just how much interior space has been accommodated within a modest volume. As well as the main rehearsal chamber, a recording studio, lobby, kitchenette, store and WC have been provided.

Although designed in a modern idiom, the £262,000 project is built of traditional, solid, loadbearing brickwork laid in English garden wall bond, a wall construction common in Monmouth. Apart from the part-glazed elevation to the terrace, the most obvious concession to modernity is the curving stainless steel roof, a form reflecting the slope of the hillside and alluding to the curves on grand pianos and other instruments.

Structure The building is a basic 20m x 12m brick box with one side partially glazed. To resist the forces from the slope on the higher side, the rear wall is a solid, two-brick-thick retaining wall reinforced by mild-steel bars set in concrete-grouted pockets. It reduces in section to one-and-a-half bricks above ground level.

Because of reduced ground pressures, flank elevations required thinner wall sections, although wall thicknesses are increased on the glazed elevation to accommodate padstones and rainwater pipes and to achieve fortress-like deep reveals. Frames set well back from the outer face of the brickwork further enhance this effect.

Although loadbearing brickwork is the main structural element, the overall structure is best described as hybrid:

where steel roof beams terminate above the 3.2m uninterrupted ground-to-eaves glazing, they are supported by the slenderest of rolled hollow steel sections, which form elegant pilotis immediately in front of the glazing.

The use of stainless steel standingseam roofing on woodwool slabs necessitated the construction of two drips or steps in the roof slope. While this in itself is not a problem, it has resulted in a rather clumsy detail at the junction with the black-painted ply fascias, chosen because of budgetary constraints that disallowed the stainless steel fascias originally intended.

Brickwork Soft, hydraulic lime mortar in the solid wall construction used throughout was designed to obviate the need for movement joints and the sometimes tricky detailing normally associated with cavity wall construction.

However, the type of lime mortar used took longer to set than originally anticipated, causing some delays in the job's progression. Although a pozzolanic additive subsequently cured the problem, it also resulted in an intense, white-coloured mortar that has now started to tone down.

The adjacent old stable block provided the reference for the brickwork: the Brick Development Association provided guidance on local brickworks producing similar red bricks. This was fortuitous because the client had expressed the desire that materials should be sourced locally wherever possible.

As most of the brickwork is relatively straightforward, there are few specials: tapered soldiers form the flat arches above the door and slot window openings, while the solid bricks used to form the crisp, flush window sill details have a sloped upper face to facilitate drainage. Queen closers are also incorporated near changes of direction to maintain bond.

Internal It is a measure of just how ingrained cavity-wall construction has become that the local authority was at first wary of traditional solid brickwork due to the risk of water penetration to the inside face.

But it eventually approved a construction involving a 29mm insulation board with integral vapour barrier applied to the inside face of the brickwork. This was overlaid by timber studs at 300mm centres, on to which two layers of plasterboard and skim were applied to achieve the required acoustic reverberation. This complete wall build-up achieved a U-value of 0.42.

The sweeping curve of the dramatic ceiling is brought to life by the light entering through the clerestory window.

The all-pervading whiteness is tempered by the locally sourced oak floor, contributing to the pavilion's overall serenity and inspirational ambience.

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