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The road to perfection: Trollstigen Visitor Centre

10/02/2013

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I made a point of visiting Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter’s Trollstigen visitor centre last summer. I suppose it is a peculiar byproduct of architectural tourism, that a visitor centre itself can become as much of an attraction as the natural feature it was set up to serve.

It is tempting to talk about the challenges of imposing contemporary architecture onto settings that are literally as old as the hills. How to marry the old with the new without creating discord; how to create an impact that is big enough to impress and subtle enough not to spoil or overwhelm the surroundings.

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However, for a Scandinavian practice to meet those challenges successfully isn’t actually all that remarkable. It seems to happen all the time. The National Tourist Route project (of which RRA’s Trollstigen centre and the surrounding hard landscaping form a part) gives plenty of textbook examples of how it should be done.

This project also presented a slightly different challenge, though. Trollstigen (“the troll ladder”) is a road rather than a destination. Opened in 1936 and winding steeply between the Geiranger fjord and the highlands, its 11 hairpin bends are breathtaking – but still form a stretch of road from A to B.

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What Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter have achieved is to create a destination out of a piece of land that was essentially a thoroughfare. This is as much down to the landscaping as to the actual buildings (restaurant, gallery and tasteful-troll-tat gift shop) themselves. The buildings cover 1200 m2, whilst the surrounding 150,000 m2 of landscaping encompass cascading pools of icy-clear water, carefully designed paths, and viewing platforms edged with weathered steel balustrade panels that jut out over the dizzying precipices. The effect of the finished landscaping work is to look as if it, too, belongs here – moulding into and meandering through the ancient landscape.

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Along these paths – true to Scandinavian tradition – visitors had built hundreds of little cairns, piling stone upon stone in order to leave something behind other than their holiday budget. In an environment where everything is breathtakingly and record-breakingly big (the nearby Trollveggen is the 2nd largest expanse of vertical rock in the world), we bucked the trend and built the world’s smallest cairn… We think.

world's smalles cairn

I will leave you with a few more of my images from Trollstigen: the smooth concrete side of the visitor centre contrasting with the rough hillside above, and the imposing Trollveggen (“troll wall”) crags.

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Green, green grass of home: Norwegian turf roofs

26/09/2012

For a moment, let’s leave aside the technical benefits (or otherwise) of green roofs, and just enjoy how they look in the landscape.

In an article for the forthcoming ESI.info Expert Guide on facades, roof finishes and rainwater management, director of the Future Cities project Austin Williams writes:

Green roofs are now lauded for their biodiversity, carbon neutrality, pollution-busting, happiness-inducing, rainfall attenuating, energy-saving goodness. Putting grass on a roof has evolved into a moral agenda that almost brooks no challenge … Specifiers need to be aware that green roofs are not a miracle cure.

This turf roof blends almost seamlessly into its hillside surroundings. Spot the chimney and small skylight on the left!

Needless to say, green roofs alone won’t meet all the challenges involved in creating a built environment that really works… Sometimes it’s good to view them from a purely aesthetic angle.

That is just what I did last August in Norway. On many of our walks during those two weeks, there were turf-roofed cabins round every corner – although because of their camouflage tops, we often did not spot them until we were right up close.

Most of the pictures in this blog post were taken at or around Herdalssetra, an isolated hill-farm that has been in continuous operation for over 300 years. The 30-odd buildings here are generally small, old timber shacks. Their turf roofs are simply a part of that vernacular and a reflection of which materials were most readily to hand at the time. However, we often saw green roofs in new-build housing developments in major cities like Oslo and Trondheim.

This post, then, is intended as a low-tech visual feast and nothing more. I hope it conveys some of the beauty of the Herdalen valley. Look at these pictures and imagine the bleating of goats, the crunching sound of fjord horses grazing in juicy pastures, the smell of sun-warmed juniper and dwarf birch, all to a backdrop rush of snow-melt waterfalls – and you’re half-way there!

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Norwegian stave churches: 1000 years old and still standing

11/09/2012

A stave church, or stavkirke, is a timber church with a structural framework of timber staves (beams) resting on timber sleepers and carrying timber wall plates. The wall frames are infilled with vertical planks.

Borgund stave church

The exterior varies from simple and rough-hewn to painstakingly ornate, and in size the churches range from small, shed-like structures – such as Haltdalen stavkirke – to the more imposing Heddal stavkirke, which is the largest of its kind still standing. (At the end of this post, you will find the legend of how the latter was built in only three days.*)

In medieval Norway, the stave frame was the prevalent construction method for churches. There were at least a thousand of them – some sources say as many as two thousand – the length and breadth of the country, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. But by 1650, most of them had disappeared. Following the devastation wrought by the Black Death, many churches fell into disrepair, whilst the Reformation brought a change in the construction, style and use of churches.

Tarred pine shingles clad the steep roof sections

Today, only 28 of the original stave churches remain. Set on stone foundations, the rest of the buildings are entirely made from wood; from the dowels to the roof shingles. It is amazing to see how well some of them have lasted.

The best preserved is Borgund stavkirke in the county of  Sogn og Fjordane, in which most of the existing structure consists of original timbers.

Built from pinewood between 1180 and 1200, it is a striking, darkly ornate structure at the heart of a lush valley. I took the pictures in this post when I visited Borgund last August.

From the interior. In places, rune inscriptions can still be seen.

The intricate carvings, small-format shingles, and black dragons’ heads craning their necks from projecting gable apexes, are miles away from the simple, neutral style we tend to associate with Scandinavian architecture.

Through the centuries, stave churches were preserved by covering the timber in tar. When I visited this summer, the church had just been freshly tarred, making the external wood even darker than normal and lending it a rich, warm scent in the sun.

The external gallery, freshly tarred

The magnificent detailing and impressive longevity of it all made me think of the immense contrast between the church itself and the bleak, sparse living conditions of the people who built it. For farmers and craftsmen eking out a living in a remote Norwegian valley, building such a structure must have been an immense undertaking.

Medieval carvings, beautifully preserved

* There is an old legend about the building of Heddal stave church.

A local farmer, Raud Rygi, wanted to have a new church built. A mysterious stranger came along and offered to do the impossible: to build the church in only three days. His fee for this task was one of three things: either the farmer would have to fetch him the sun and the moon out of the sky, hand him his own heart on a plate, or guess the stranger’s name. Unsurprisingly, Raud chose the third option. He thought he would have plenty of time for name-guessing, as surely nobody could build a church in three days…

However, on the first night, the materials were already in place. On the second night, the steeple was raised. Despairing, and with only one day left before the church would be complete, Raud wandered round the building site at dusk. Suddenly, he heard a haunting voice rising out of the mountain, singing a lullaby: “Hush now, little one, tomorrow Finn will bring you the moon, the sun, and Raud’s heart for you to play with…”

Riddle solved: the builder was Finn, the troll. Raud Rygi’s life was saved, and Heddal had its new stave church.

Runic inscriptions on a church wall

The Old King’s Road, leading up to Borgund stave church

Finding construction products online: how do we make it easier?

30/08/2012

In this video, social strategist Su Butcher talks to architect Matt Franklin of mbf DESIGN about how he used ESI.info to find a balustrade product for a specific project:

Finding construction products online can be a challenge for architects. There is certainly no shortage of information: trawling Google for the most common building product phrases will return massive amounts of data. But the chances are you will end up with a trawl-full of irrelevant information mixed in with the things you were actually looking for, and sifting through it all can be incredibly time-consuming.

Add to that the fact that manufacturers’ own websites range in quality and structure from the excellent to the downright appalling, and that you have to keep navigating backwards and forwards between websites in an attempt to compare similar products side-by-side.

Whilst it’s good to have a variety to choose from, sometimes all you want is to arrive quickly at a sensible shortlist of relevant products. Too much choice, and information presented in non-standard ways, can be a hindrance. So how do we take the pain out of construction product searches?

A dedicated website can make this process so much easier. You can search, compare and select products using filters that are specific to that product type. You can contact multiple manufacturers in one go, asking for quotes or further information. You can save products into project folders and share them with your team.

Why not register for free with ESI.info and use the site as a handy tool next time you set out to trawl for construction products?

I’d love to hear about how you usually search for building products online. How does it work for you? What do you find frustrating? How could it be made easier? Comment on this blog, or join the discussion on Twitter (hashtag #ESIinfoTV)!

If you’re a manufacturer or supplier of construction products and you want to get listed on ESI.info, follow this link or give us a ring on 01786 407000!

Why aren’t we all enjoying a quiet night’s sleep?

31/07/2012

The introduction of Building Regulations Part E in July 2003 represented a big step by which all residential developments in England and Wales had to undergo pre-completion acoustic tests and meet certain airborne and impact sound performance figures. In 2004, building to Robust Details was added to this, providing an alternative method to pre-completion testing to show compliance with the Part E of the Building Regulations. So – nine years on, is everything as quiet as a mouse?

Patrick Dent, AMIOA MEng and Technical Director of Total Vibration Solutions Ltd, explores the issue of noise.

Image by Romana Klee on Flickr

Have these regulations meant that all new build dwellings and those formed from a material change of use are being constructed in a way that provides no noise issues and leaves each and every resident as happy as the proverbial Larry? Well, the simple answer is no. My weeks rarely go by without speaking to an individual who is having noise issues within their newly constructed apartment or house, yet when we investigate their complaint we find that the development met the requirements of Approved Document Part E of the Building Regulations.

So what’s going wrong? Do we need to revise Part E of the building regs? Are we overlooking certain things in the testing? Or do the regulations simply not give a result that the end client deems acceptable?

In truth, there are a wide variety of reasons why we are still encountering noise problems. One factor that caused a great deal of issues originally – although a lot of developers and specifiers are now aware of this trait of certain materials – was the problem of creep. Acoustic underlays and under-screed materials, which offered good acoustic performance initially, would continue to deflect under load over time and not recover to their original thickness. This would result in the resilience in the floor being lost, floors dropping, and floors that met the pre-completion testing initially, suddenly failing six months later.

This is quite an easily rectified problem that can be overcome by developers and specifiers ensuring that they do not use materials that are susceptible to creep. Foams are particularly prone to creep, so any foams used in this capacity should be closed-cell and cross-linked, however any reputable manufacturer or supplier should have test data available on the creep performance of their materials.

The more complex problems come when we investigate noise complaints where there clearly is a noise problem, and yet the development still passes the impact and airborne tests required to comply with Part E of the Building Regulations.

One such example I was made aware of recently involved some luxury apartments where the occupants had got together and complained that the sound insulation in the floors of their apartments were not good enough. An acoustic consultant was called in to independently test the floors. The results gave on average an airborne DnT,w+Ctr of 50dB (Part E requires a minimum of 45dB for new builds and 43dB for dwellings formed by material change of use, which the apartments actually were in this case) and an impact figure LnT,w of 52dB (Part E requires a maximum of 62dB for new builds and 64dB for material change of use). In other words, figures that any developers would be very happy with, and that were comfortably within the requirements of the building regulations.

However, what the acoustician did notice was the incredibly low background noise level. So although the noise levels caused by people walking above wouldn’t be noticed within a building with a more “normal” level of background noise, in these luxury flats, such dramatic but inconstant changes in noise level makes the sound very audible and quite disturbing.

A lack of background noise makes occasional sounds all the more noticeable

This brings us to the fact that an individual’s threshold of hearing and their perception of noise will change depending upon the environment that they are in. Part E of the Building Regulations doesn’t take the background noise level into account – so in this case, the occupants of these luxury flats are left feeling aggrieved at what they perceive as poor sound insulation in their building, whilst the builders would point to the testing that shows they have more than exceeded the requirements. So who is at fault?

Problems with background noise levels aren’t the only issues that we see on a regular basis. There is a widely accepted agreement that the tapping machine used in ISO 140 does not provide an accurate reproduction of the noise produced by footfall. Similarly, the test does not consider the low frequency performance and given that what you are hearing – particularly in dwellings formed by material change of use with timber floors – is caused by the deflection of the joists induced by the footfall, which produces sound at much lower frequencies than 100Hz, the ISO 140 calculation methods ignore it.

AcoustiCORK™ agglomerated cork underlay for impact noise and thermal insulation

So does this mean that the tests are useless and we should completely overturn them? Well, the simple answer is no. In the majority of cases, Part E provides a very good standard to ensure that the end occupant is not disturbed by noise. But here is where we need to be careful. It is a standard. It is the minimum requirements that a building needs to achieve. Certain circumstances, such as a low background noise level, a higher degree of luxury etc., will dictate that the builder needs to achieve a far greater level of sound insulation.

You wouldn’t fit out the furniture of a student hall of residence in the same way you would million pound apartments. Neither should you treat the sound insulation in the same way.

How to choose safety glass

09/07/2012

Specifying the right type of safety glass for your project can be of vital importance. The Standard Patent Glazing Company is an expert in the field: founded in 1902, the company specialises in the design, manufacture and installation of patent glazing systems for contracts anywhere in the UK. Darren Lister provides this useful guide:

Toughened Safety Glass (Safety Class Rating A)

Toughened safety glass (sometimes called tempered glass) is produced by heating annealed glass to approximately 620ºC, at which point it begins to soften. The surfaces of this heated glass are then cooled rapidly. The technique creates a state of high compression in the outer surfaces of the glass and, as a result – although most other characteristics remain unchanged – the bending strength is increased by a factor of up to five times that of annealed glass.
When broken, the toughened glass fractures into small pieces (called dice). As these particles do not have the sharp edges and dagger points of broken annealed glass, it is generally regarded as a safety glass. While these dice may cause minor cuts, it is very difficult to cause a severe injury with them, provided the fragments are small enough.
Toughened safety glass must be cut to size and have any other processing (such as edge polishing or hole drilling) completed before toughening, because attempts to “work” the glass after toughening will cause it to shatter.
All toughened glass has the highest Safety Rating available, which is Class A to British Standard 6206.

Laminated Safety Glass (Safety Class Rating A or B)

Laminated glass consists of one or more panes of glass attached to and separated from each other by means of interlayer materials. Laminated glass is usually made from annealed glass, although it can also be manufactured using toughened, heat-strengthened or wired glass. It is no stronger than the glass it is made from and cracks as easily. However, when laminated glass breaks, the glass fragments tend to adhere to the interlayer material. Although the glass itself may be annealed glass, on breaking, any sharp cutting edges are not generally exposed. The performance of the glass depends very much on the type of interlayer, and there are many different types. The most common interlayer is PVB (polyvinylbutyral) sheet, which usually sticks to the glass very well and produces a high-energy absorbing interlayer of uniform thickness.

  • 6.4mm thick laminated glass obtains a Class B safety rating to BS 6206.
  • 6.8mm thick laminated glass obtains a Class A safety rating to BS 6206.
  • All laminated glass with a PVB interlayer at least 0.8mm thick obtain a Class A safety rating to BS 6206.

Wired Safety Glass (Safety Class Rating C)

This is a product which has been regarded as a safety glass for many, many years. The wires in wired glass tend to hold the glass together when it is cracked. They perform this function admirably when used in roof glazing and, most particularly, in providing fire resistance, but up until recently most of the wired glass products on the market were not classifiable as safety glass to BS 6206. Wired glass is now supplied with thicker and stronger wires to obtain a safety Class C rating to BS 6206.

View The Standard Patent Glazing Company’s beautiful photo gallery of completed work here.

Case study: soundproofing a music room using folding sliding doors

09/07/2012

Doors, by nature, will allow a certain amount of noise to escape. However, there are specialist designs and techniques available to help alleviate the level of audible sound. Here is how Baca Architects and Sunfold Systems solved a musical soundproofing dilemma.

The clients wanted the music room to have an open, airy feel

A client approached Baca Architects, requesting that as part of their home they wanted a music room. This room was to form an important element of their living and leisure time.

A central point of the house was perfect for their requirements for entertaining guests and a key part of the family’s time together, but when it came to the times where privacy was required, they needed to be able to close the doors for recording purposes.

To create the open feel the clients required whilst also having the option to shut off the music area, lead architect Robert Barker wanted to incorporate interior folding sliding doors as an effective and visually appealing solution to the overall project. “Noise transfers so easily through most doors, so it was important for the internal folding sliding doors we used to be flawless, to create a balanced sound level,” he commented.

The music room had to be soundproofed for recording purposes

Robert chose to use Sunfold Systems’ timber range of folding sliding doors, the SFK69 painted in white. This is the highest specification timber system available, and is manufactured from triple laminated solid timber sections. As noise control was key, it was vital that the joints, tracks, frame construction and head detail connectors had no air gaps, to make sure that there was no flanking sound either side.

By using slim-width panels and through the natural slim sightlines of the SFK69, both the structure and the appearance of the internal sliding door system worked well together to achieve the desired effect.

Soundproofing sliding folding doors

Set in stone: time travel at BGS Keyworth

04/07/2012

The recently opened Geological Walk at British Geological Survey’s headquarters in Keyworth near Nottingham crams three billion years of the Earth’s history into a beautiful, 130m long stone concourse. Stephen Parry (Mineralogist and Petrologist at the BGS) and Michael Heap (Managing Director of expert natural stone suppliers CED Ltd) did the time-walk with me.

An ammonite-bearing block of Portland limestone

Each step on the Geological Walk takes you 25 million years closer to the present day. What can we learn from this ambitious project? (more…)

Unseen, unused, unusual: roofscapes

15/06/2012

Think how much, in terms of sheer square metreage, of a city’s space is taken up by roofs. For such an essential building element – the sine qua non of even the most basic shelter – roofs are often unseen and unappreciated. In this post, I take a look at some unusual and appealing roof designs… and finish off with a fairytale for good measure.

Dutch roofscape

One of the more spectacular uses of a roofspace is to place a great, big infinity pool on top of it. This is what the septuagenarian architect and urban designer Moshe Safdie did on the Marina Bay Sands opulent hotel and casino in Singapore. The project is, apparently, the most expensive integrated resort property ever built.

The SkyPark pool, Marina Bay Sands (image by Eduardo MC on Flickr)

On a more modest scale, the Urban Sketchers blog “features sketches and often equally colorful stories behind the scenes by 100 invited artists/correspondents in more than 30 countries around the world. Some are architects and illustrators, others are graphic designers, web developers, painters or educators, all sharing the same passion for drawing on location.”

Beauty is sometimes hidden in unusual places. But if you look for it, it will definitely come up where you would not expect it to be. City roofs are a perfect setting for these findings.

In a previous post, we have summarised different types of green roofs as another way to make the roofspace work harder. Turf has been a traditional roof covering in Norway for thousands of years, and this Inhabitat post shows some good examples.

It was not unusual to keep livestock grazing on the roof either – serving the dual purpose of keeping the grass short and the animals fed. Occasionally, you can still see goats on green rooftops in Norway, as well as on the Old Country Market in Coombs, British Columbia, which makes a good trade from this curiosity.

From Hardanger, Norway (image by janticom on Flickr)

The practice was not without its dangers, though, as this old folk tale shows:

The husband who was to mind the house

Once upon a time, there was a man who was so bad-tempered and cross that he never thought his wife did anything right in the house. One evening, in the haymaking season, he came home, scolding and swearing. “Dear love, don’t be so angry” said his wife, “tomorrow let’s change jobs. I’ll go out and mow, and you can mind the house.” Yes, the husband thought that would do very well. So early the next morning, his wife took a scythe and went out into the hayfield with the mowers, whilst the man was to mind the house and do the work at home.

First of all he wanted to churn the butter (…) When he had churned a bit, he remembered that their milk cow was still shut up in the barn and hadn’t had a bit to eat or a drop to drink all morning, although the sun was high. It was too far to take her down to the meadow, so he thought he’d just get her up onto the roof, for it was a sod roof, and a fine crop of grass was growing there (…)

Now it was nearly dinner time, and he hadn’t even finished the butter yet, so he thought he’d best boil the porridge. He filled the pot with water and hung it over the fire. When he had done that, it occurred to him that the cow might fall off the roof and break her neck, so he climbed up onto the house to tie her up.

He tied one end of the rope around the cow’s neck, slipped the other end down the chimney, and tied it around his own leg. Then he had to hurry, for the water was boiling, and he still had to grind the oatmeal. He began to grind away; but while he was hard at it, the cow fell off the roof, dragging the man up the chimney by the rope. There he stuck fast. As for the cow, she hung halfway down the wall, swinging between heaven and earth, for she could neither get down nor up…

Don’t try this at home

Clay and concrete tile roofing: free design guides

07/06/2012

1. Concrete roof tiles guidance

I have come across some interesting design guides on Forticrete‘s website, free to download.

Re-roofing in a conservation area: Hardrow Glade concrete tiles at Friers Court, Wentworth, South Yorkshire

Forticrete is part of the Concrete Tile Manufacturer’s Association (CTMA) and therefore has access to a number of useful data sheets on various topics relating to the construction of roofs.

The association represents the interests of its members – Forticrete, Cemex, Monier, Marley Eternit and Sandtoft – who collectively produce an estimated 95% of concrete roof tiles in the UK.

The association supports the Roofing Industry Alliance, whose main aim is to increase the quality and reliability of roof construction.

Documents are available on the following topics:

  • Changes in rafter pitch
  • Dry fix ridges
  • Eaves detailing
  • Mortar bedded hips
  • Mortar bedded ridges
  • Party wall junctions
  • Side abutment detailing
  • Top edge abutment detailing
  • Valley detailing (parts 1–3)
  • Vent tiles and pipes
  • Verge detailing (parts 1 & 2)
  • Surevent: condensation control in roofs

2. Clay roof tiles guidance

The Clay Roof Tile Council has a technical library full of similar information. The CRTC collectively represents over 90% of UK clay roof tile production. Its members are Dreadnought, Marley Eternit, Keymer, Redland and Sandtoft.

Sandtoft Heritage Service clay roof tiles at the Reform Club, London

The Clay Roof Tile Council’s online library covers information on topics including:

  • Repair and maintenance
  • Design specification
  • Material specifications
  • Health and safety
  • Handmade technologies
  • Machine made technologies
  • Wind uplift calculations
  • Quality control
  • …and a very handy little glossary of terms.

Selecting and specifying roof tiles

On ESI.info, you can find, compare and select roof tiles in concrete, clay, slate, natural stone, fibre cement and zinc. You can also find timber shingles and shakes.

Search results can be filtered using parameters like roof pitch, tile type, manufacturing process, installation method and product accreditation. Why not have a go – and tell me whether you found the site easy to use?