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2012: The year of... Material pluralism

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A diverse use of materials has stood out in the architecture of 2012

The word ‘materiality’ has always irritated me. People who use it to describe buildings always seem to want to make something deep and mysterious out of what should be simple and direct: the materials buildings are made of and their impact on those who experience them.

But you might argue that these material qualities and their reception are inherently mysterious, that it isn’t always easy to say why some buildings have convincing materials that move us on an artistic level while others don’t have the same magic. You can see why architects use this pompous word.

When I reflect on the architectural output of the past year, what is most striking and memorable is not the geometry, not the interpretation, formulation or questioning of briefs, not the clever structures and services strategies. They weren’t absent but what stands out is how architects have worked with, and explored, such diverse materials.

Why so? Building Cost Information Service manager Peter Rumble’s forecast for 2012 suggests an explanation: ‘BCIS is currently forecasting a 0.8 per cent increase in materials prices in 2012 compared with 2011. There was a 5.7 per cent increase in 2011. There is little upward pressure on materials prices currently, particularly from emerging economies, which has caused spikes in materials prices previously. Domestically, there is also little pressure on prices, with construction output set to fall sharply in 2012.’

So clients are getting more for their buck, especially when it comes to materials specification. Likewise, many architects are taking opportunities to specify high-quality and innovative materials. Even when they make tongue-in-cheek proposals, they may, in one respect, be pleasantly surprised when the tenders come in. And despite the pressures of public projects, and D&B procurement with its relentless substitutions for specified projects, for once, architects find they have allies in planning departments where consents are conditional on the use of proposed materials, rendering their designs QS and VE-proof.

Davis Langdon director Tony Brett and associate Stephen Walton observe certain market trends in materials: more architects are specifying semi-precious metals, which may be recyclable; prices for bronze and copper have become more competitive; and ETFE is a growth material, which is being exploited for its structural, light-transmitting and insulating performance.

BIM is helping architects harness the potential of materials

Powerful computer technology, BIM and improved working procedures are also helping architects to harness the potential of materials and use them more cost effectively. Although materials specification in 2012 has been noticeable because of its variety – perhaps driven by competition between technologies – three types stood out: glass, metallics and synthetics.

When enhanced energy conservation standards came into force under the revised Approved Document L in October 2010, many thought that, despite client and user expectations, all-glass and substantially glazed facades were history, especially with even stricter regulations in the pipeline, additional pressure from other environmental standards and fuel costs.

As is often the case, these concerns were like the juggernaut’s stop at the tollbooth – brief. Wilkinson Eyre’s Crystal in London’s Docklands (27.09.12) reminded us that all-glass envelopes with carefully orientated facets and insulated dummy panels are alive and performing well, subject to concerns about this project’s embodied energy profile. I’m also reminded of the backlash against pseudo-vernacular architecture towards the end of the last millennium when everyone dressed up in their fanciest Modernist outfits. If you look around you now, you’ll see that gables, trad materials and details are back in full force. You almost feel as though you’ve turned down the music at the party if you pass comment.

But to return to glass, it’s been a good year for innovation. Take Saint-Gobain’s SageGlass, a dynamic non-organic electrochromic-coated, double or triple-glazed unit able to change from ‘clear mode’, with 67 per cent light transmission, through various gradations of tint, down to 2 per cent. Or its Glassolutions Cool-lite Extreme – a double-glazed unit with triple silver coating on face 2, providing high light transmissions as well as enhanced solar control. This is being pioneered in the 62 Buckingham Gate development in London, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects with Swanke Hayden Connell, scheduled to open next year.

(1) Robin Partington Architects' Park House

(1) Robin Partington Architects’ Park House

Again in London, in its Park House mixed-use development in Oxford Street, Robin Partington Architects (1) used associative and parametric modelling to automate design processes and accelerate design iterations to realise a complex curvilinear glass envelope. Structural and facade engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan, continuing to break new ground in glass technology, was also involved in Park House’s Glass Lens entrance sculpture, working with Carpenter/Lowings Architecture & Design. And, of course, there was The Shard.

In the metalwork department, the gold-cladding bandwagon rolled on, but architects not content to be timid followers found other metals more attractive – vide Clash Architects’ new bronze-clad Churchill War Rooms entrance in Whitehall (AJ 05.07.12), Coffey Architects’ bronze mesh curtains at the BFI Library (AJS 10.12) and David Chipperfield Architects’ B2 Building in King’s Cross (2), now on site, which resuscitates cast-iron architectural technology with basket-weave-patterned columns recycled from car brake disks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to use this material structurally because of disproportionate collapse complications. And then there were the diagrids: the canopy of John McAslan and Partners’ King’s Cross Station redevelopment and the steel flange-plated ArcelorMittal Orbit on London’s Olympic Park by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond with Ushida Findlay Architects (AJ 14.06.12). Projected neighbourhood residents may well be traumatised by what is surely the strangest thing since Sun Ra’s Disney album.

(3) Pernilla and Asif Ohrstedt's Coca-Cola Beatbox

(3) Pernilla and Asif Ohrstedt’s Coca-Cola Beatbox

But the highlight of 2012 was plastic synthetic materials. Again in the Olympic Park, we had Populous Architects’ fabric wrap for the Olympic Stadium and Pernilla and Asif’s Ohrstedt’s Coca-Cola Beatbox (3). This featured what Daniel Bosea of structural engineer AKTII describes as a ‘flock’ of ETFE pillows, on which visitors could play rhythms and tunes, in a self-supporting structure with reciprocal triangular connections.

Scotland’s National Arena in Glasgow, by Foster + Partners, currently on site, is another parametric project, with ETFE cladding. Finally, we had Alison Brooks Architects’ through-coloured Corian rainscreen-clad Lens House and Carmody Groarke’s glass fibre-panelled Filling Station (4), both in London, White Arkitekter and Sprunt’s GRP- clad Southend Pier Cultural Centre and Capita Symonds’ St Silas School in Blackburn (AJ 29.11.12), with pastel polycarbonate external fins.

(4) Carmody Groarke's Filling Station

(4) Carmody Groarke’s Filling Station

More traditional materials got a look-in, as with Tim Ronalds Architects’ Colyer-Fergusson Building for the University of Kent. This featured bespoke external concrete blocks, faced in a flint and pebble mix incorporating granite chippings, with matching jambs, lintels and smooth precast sills.

The word seems to be out about rainscreens and thin sheet steel sandwich panels: handle with extreme architectural caution. And as for timber cladding, we just might be witnessing a bonfire of the orange crates. Still, it would have been nice to have seen fewer Noddy houses in 2012. Leave those to the house builders, and the planners, if they insist.

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