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Heatherwick comes out fighting in Worth Abbey row

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Thomas Heatherwick has denied claims that his designs were flawed after cracks appeared in bespoke pews created for his refurbishment of a Grade II*-listed Francis Pollen church in West Sussex

The Garden Bridge designer was appointed to refurbish the 1974 Abbey Church in 2009, and his scheme included choir stalls, desks, benches, credence tables, server seats and confessional rooms.

But it has emerged that some of the pews, laminated in American black walnut with inlays of lighter ash, were taken out of use after cracks appeared in the seats.

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that monks at the abbey had instructed solicitors to pursue Heatherwick Studio over the design.

Heatherwick Studio accepted that there was a problem with the church pews, but blamed the problem on poor workmanship by the contractors appointed by the abbey. Joinery firm Swift Horsman was contracted to create the furniture for the refurbishment. It went into administration in December 2012; the refurbishment project was completed in September of the previous year.

Heatherwick Studio said: ‘It is a great shame that this wonderful project was let down by the workmanship of the abbey’s wood contractors, who were responsible for detailed design and fabrication from our concept.

‘It is our independent experts’ opinion that it could and should have been completed properly by the contractor.

‘Even though we are not in any way responsible, we have offered to work with the abbey to help them resolve their issues.

‘We believe the fact the contractors have since gone out of business is the only reason we are involved at all.’

Among the reported criticisms of Heatherwick’s design was a reliance on glue for the structural integrity of the furniture.

But James Coulson, director of timber consultant TFT Woodexperts, which was employed by Heatherwick to appraise the work at Worth Abbey, said blaming glue was ‘nonsensical’ and that stress-testing had painted a different picture.

‘If only the joints were made well this problem would not have happened,’ he said.

‘The testing showed that the problem lay with the workmanship and not the design.’

Worth Abbey declined to comment on any aspect of its interaction with Heatherwick Studio over the problems with its church furniture.

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