'Life wouldn't be worth living if we didn't take our buildings seriously, ' says Julian Harrap. That attitude is in evidence in Farnborough, where Julian Harrap Architects has sensitively restored a portable airship hangar, which was inaugurated this month as the unlikely centrepiece of a public square at the heart of Farnborough Business Park, a 52ha former Royal Aircraft Establishment site owned by property developer Slough Estates.
Originally built to shelter inatable airships, which were used for reconnaissance in the First World War, the resurrected hangar is part of a historic core of buildings at the northern end of the site that seeks to convey a sense of the site's aviation heritage. Two nearby listed buildings, also refurbished by Harrap, house five wind tunnels - three of which are still in working order and looking for tenants - which have been used to test aircraft ranging from the Spitfire to the Concorde.
Designed c.1910, the hangar, which was one of only six airship sheds in the UK at the outset of the First World War, had a very short life and was permanently dismantled in 1916, when its steel-lattice structure was cut into pieces and reused in the construction of two other buildings on the site. The straight lower legs of the frame were used as the main structure of a fabric and balloon workshop, while the arched upper section was incorporated in a forge and foundry building. And that is where they remained until Harrap was brought in to bridge a gap in communication between the developer, who wanted to maximise the development potential of the site, and the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST), a group of aviationhistory enthusiasts who were keen to see the important features of the site retained.
A survey of the four listed buildings revealed that two of the buildings were only listed because they contained the dismantled hangar. Harrap proposed the demolition of these two buildings in order to extract the structural components of the arch, which could then be reconstructed 'to provide a historic and cultural landmark for the business park and the town'.
This proposal satisfied both the developer and FAST because it simultaneously released two development sites and secured a commitment to the reconstruction of the hangar. The arch has been rebuilt just north of its original site to retain proximity to the remaining historic buildings and due to height restrictions from the adjacent Farnborough Airport. Its east-west orientation corresponds to its original alignment, which was determined by the prevailing winds that assisted the launch of an airship.
The next challenges were: to obtain listed-building consent for the demolition of the two existing buildings; determine how to extract the airship hangar structure from the buildings without damaging it; and establish the scope of required repairs.
Opening-up works revealed that the lower part of the lattice-frame sections, which had been buried beneath the concrete oor slab, were sound. However, one entire arch of the 14 that make up the total structure was missing and had to be replicated, as did the purlins which tied the arches together at the upper levels.
Everything about the structure was designed for lightness, so that it could be easily demounted and relocated. Archival research indicates that it took 50 men five weeks to dismantle and rebuild the hangar. The structure comprises 14 arches of box section made of riveted angles and flats, which are bolted together.
The whole is braced with guy ropes. The salvaged pieces were surveyed and drawn, and a full inventory of all the existing steel was undertaken to establish a schedule of repairs. The historic steelwork was laboratory-tested to provide a basis for accurate structural calculations and to determine any differences between the hangar's steel sections and steel available today, which would be used to replace the missing arch. Associate architect Judy Allen explains that replication of the missing arch was complicated by the fact that steel sections are no longer fabricated in this country to imperial dimensions, so the missing sections had to be sourced from the United States and the Netherlands.
The replication of the rivets that connect the frame components was particularly challenging because the hot riveting technique which was widely used at the time for shipbuilding and bridges has virtually disappeared. Harrap observes that many of the construction skills required in conservation work today have been lost and replaced only by niche specialists whose work is often prohibitively expensive. In this case, Harrap was fortunate to locate Littlehampton Welding, a metalwork company that is still able to do hot riveting. The architect, engineer and fabricator collaborated in an iterative process to resolve the construction details. Alternative designs were explored for the plate detail where four tension members come together, before opting for a cruciform design. Most of these are at such a high level that one can't see them, but Harrap's delight in the elegance of this detail is unmistakable.
The most challenging bit of detective work in the project involved the purlins, of which the only remaining pieces of evidence were a few archival photographs that suggested their tapered profile. Harrap speculates that the original purlins were hollow timber, similar in construction to the spinnaker poles of Edwardian yachts, which stretched timber technology to its limits at the time. The use of timber could also explain why no purlins remain and why the hangar's lattice structure was 'cannibalised' and incorporated into other buildings on the site.
The use of timber for the new purlins was ruled out due to expense and its more onerous maintenance requirements. The new purlins are steel, 1.43m in length, but they are not actually curved, despite their visual appearance. As they are made up from 4mm steel sections of a diminishing cone, which are butt welded together, no joints are visible. The diameter of the steel sections was critical to achieve the desired visual appearance (strong enough but not too heavy) and was based on a trial prototype.
Harrap's initial trial prototype was off by only 25mm.
Specification of the appropriate paint for the project needed extensive research because the hangar required a highquality paint that would be resistant to cracking with movement.
As the hangar had been indoors for so many years, the original lead-based paint was intact below later coats, and original colours could be ascertained, revealing that the end frames had been a slightly darker shade of green than the internal arches. The original colours were closely replicated. As lead paint cannot be used on Grade-II listed structures, the original paint was removed by grit-blasting. The frame was then sprayed with a zinc-based paint, because the heat of galvanising would have distorted it.
New design issues which emerged as a result of the hangar's location in a public place included anti-vandalism measures to prevent people climbing up the frame and lighting.
Harrap designed metal-mesh 'socks' for the base of each arch and carefully sited lighting that was recessed into the ground to show off the hangar to maximum advantage. Benches have been located between the bases of the arches.
Though resurrection of a monument of aviation history at the heart of a business park may reek of heritage tokenism, the quality of execution here is exceptional, largely due to meticulous archival research and careful detailing. An issue raised at the outset of the project was whether the air hangar should be reconstructed on the Farnborough site or shipped to Duxford to be part of the Imperial War Museum. The jury is still out on this question, and it depends entirely on how the new hangar in the park will be used.
With appropriate programming of ongoing activities and one-off events, this extraordinary structure could provide a cultural focus for an otherwise anonymous business park. There might even be a synergy with TAG Aviation's development of the adjacent airfield for private jets and the nearby town centre.
It is encouraging to learn that the masterplan for adjacent housing is being reconsidered to make it more consistent with the site's historic buildings.
Active use would be greatly enhanced and encouraged by the suspension of a protective roof within the hangar. As Harrap has suggested, a tensile fabric or inatable roof would be entirely in keeping with the history of the park, where reconnaissance kites were once manufactured. Such a structure could also introduce an intermediate scale to this dramatic hangar sculpture. Devoid of the airship, the hangar must find a new raison d'être or risk a future as an archaeological relic in a lifeless park.