Posts Tagged ‘Building structure’

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

Fractals in architecture: good for the soul?

20/02/2012

What comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘fractals’? Maths and geometry lessons? Swirly spirals in cosmic colour-schemes on student bedsit walls? Self-similar shapes in nature, like snowflakes, ferns and broccoli? The drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock?

Wikipedia says a fractal is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”.

Fractal architecture is generated by the application of fractal geometric principles to the design of facades and building forms. Here are some examples of fractal architectural facades.

Yannick Joye, from Belgium’s Ghent University, argues that this type of geometry has been used in architecture for two main reasons:

1. Fractal rhythms, created by midpoint displacement, are used as a creative tool to generate a variety of architectural components, such as planning grids, strip windows, noise abatements etc. Examples can be found throughout architectural history, from Doric entablatures to modern facades.

2. The typical measurement techniques of fractal geometry are used to analyse the structure of buildings. The box-counting dimension, for example, is a measure for the recursivity of detail on ever smaller scales. An extract from Joye’s Fractal Architecture Could Be Good for You:

Carl Bovill [1996] has applied this method to different building styles. He found that Wright’s organic architecture shows a ‘cascade of detail’ on different scales, while in Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture, the box counting dimension quickly drops to 1 for smaller scales. This finding is consistent with the fact that ‘Wright’s organic architecture called for materials to be used in a way that captured nature’s complexity and order … [while] Le Corbusier’s purism called for materials to be used in a more industrial way, always looking for efficiency and purity of use’.

In the following illustrations, forms like arches and domes reoccur on different hierarchical scales throughout a Hindu temple, the Stadhuis (Town Hall) in Bruges, and the Notre Dame de Paris.

Stadhuis, Bruges

Notre Dame de Paris

However, as satisfying as fractal geometry may be to mathematicians, Yannick Joye is more interested in a less visible side-effect of fractal architecture. From an aesthetic point of view, Joye (whose specialist field is philosophy) points to research showing that human beings are innately attracted to fractals, that fractal shapes and images have a calming effect on us, and that this affinity may be related to our long-ago habitat – the trees:

… as a result of evolution, the brain has a preference for fractal structures, and feels relaxed when surrounded by these. This means that one of the reasons why we like the fractals in Gothic and Hindu architecture is that they remind us of our ancient, natural habitats. Because our brains have not fundamentally changed since prehistory, these biofilic responses are still at work.

A classic example of fractals in nature: the fern (Freefoto.com)

Do you see fractal architecture as calming and harmonious, or do you have more of a Euclidean frame of mind? I would love to see examples of the buildings that appeal to you the most.

300 years of brick-making: the Chailey kiln

17/02/2012

In a world of mass-production and building products whose inherent sustainability is lost in the amount of air, sea or road-miles it takes to get them to site, it is (at the risk of sounding a little bit Luddite) comforting to know that some products have been made in the same way, in the same place, for centuries.

In 2011, the Chailey brick factory in the middle of the Sussex Weald (owned by Ibstock since 1996) celebrated 300 years of continuous, traditional brick-making.

The Chailey clamp in operation at night

Bricks from the Chailey kiln are still produced to an original recipe, which includes a blend of local Wealden clays from Ibstock’s own quarry. The stock bricks are fired in a traditional clamp (one of only three still in use in the UK), giving them distinctive textures and warm colours. All Chailey bricks are then sorted and packed by hand – although the craftsmen and stackers do not, presumably, wear this traditional garb every day:

Ibstock stackers at the Chailey site

Clay pipes, tiles, pottery and bricks have been made in and around South Chailey since 1711. Since 1792, successive generations of the Norman family owned and operated the factory until it was finally sold to Redland in 1959.

The Chailey factory has the capacity to manufacture approximately 14 million bricks per year using a soft mud moulding process. It also manufactures pavers and brick specials. This video on Ibstock’s website details the history of the Chailey site and shows the traditional, clamp-fired production process.

The fire hole at Chailey

The Bulmer Brick & Tile Co – specialists in purpose-made bricks for restoration and conservation projects – also make their bricks in accordance with time-honoured methods. Fired in a coal-burning down-draught kiln, their facings, rubbers and specials are made from London clays that have been dug from these Suffolk seams in a near-continuous line since Tudor times.

The Minter family: skills handed down through generations

Another building product largely unchanged through time is the traditional plain roofing tile, which has been made to a standard size since 1666 (when the Great Fire of London gave rise to product standards and building regulations). Historically – and for obvious reasons – factories for making bricks and tiles were sited right where the clay source occurred, and that’s where they remain.

Image by Hotblack on MorgueFile

The relative sustainability of building materials – guides and sources

06/12/2011

The trade associations, enthusiasts and lobbyists for different building materials are busy telling us how sustainable their material of choice is, and how it out-performs all others. Amongst the myriad claims, facts and figures, how can we establish which material is the most environmentally friendly?  And is that even the right question to ask?

Timber is a natural material and absorbs CO2 while it grows, steel is eminently recyclable, concrete is ideal for thermal mass construction, whereas bricks are durable and can be reclaimed.

Even if we discover which has the lowest embodied carbon, for example, we may not agree on what sustainability actually means. Are we talking about cradle-to-grave lifespans, economic viability, wildlife considerations, energy performance, aesthetic impact, recyclability – or even taking a holistic view of the building’s use and social sustainability within a local community?

In the absence of a unified framework of assessment and an agreement on relevant metrics, the debate will continue.

At the end of the day, each project needs its own, tailored assessment. A good designer will select from all options and choose what is fit for purpose, rather than become too attached – by habit or preference – to one material or another.

But in order to make that choice, we need a level-headed view of the facts available for each material, accompanied by real-life case studies. We also need to consult with people who are in the know about the different accreditations and codes, and can give an unbiased overview. Below are some sources that make a good start.

Codes and certifications: consultancy

  • Mel Starrs, Associate Director at PRP Architects, specialises in sustainability and green buildings. Her Elemental blog is full of useful information.
  • The CodeStore.co.uk has a directory of CSH consultants and assessors. Materials is number 3 on the Code’s list of 9 sustainable design criteria.
  • Jennifer Hardi works for the BRE’s Low Carbon Future team and is also part of the technical support team for the Energy Saving Trust’s Best Practice Helpline.
  • Bruno Miglio is a Leader of Global Materials Science at Arup. The team offers advice on the use of materials in engineering and architecture – from design to reuse or demolition.
  • The BRE’s Green Guide to Specification assesses building materials and components in terms of their environmental impact across their entire life cycle.

Concrete

This is Concrete showcases sustainable construction projects and encourages project-based feedback, presenting case study evidence to support the sustainability credentials of concrete.

Sustainable Concrete has information on concrete production, performance and end-use, and provides indicators on materials efficiency.

MPA (Mineral Products Association) runs the Concrete Centre, which contains news, publications, webcasts, online services, advice and design tools.

Steel

The BCSA is the national organisation for the steel construction industry. Its website, SteelConstruction.org, has a section dedicated to sustainability. The BCSA’s Target Zero project “will generate costed solutions for structural steel framed construction that achieves highest BREEAM ratings and changes to Part L of the Building Regulations, meeting emissions reduction targets towards zero carbon by 2019.”

Timber

TRADA has a library of downloads that detail the sustainability of timber. The Association’s Technology Assessed scheme also helps establish whether a company’s literature gives a fair representation of the benefits and characteristics of a product or service – a useful tool against greenwash.

The Forestry Commission also provides comprehensive facts and figures on the timber trade.

Stone

All members of the Stone Federation of Great Britain have to comply with this Sustainability Statement. The Federation provides a Technical Advice Service for the commercial and domestic use of natural stone.

Stephen Critchley – a Master Stonemason in Central London – is a font of knowledge on ancient and modern uses of natural stone, giving talks, workshops and demonstrations.

The simplest view of the sustainability of natural stone – there is tonnes of it about and it lasts for a very long time – is outlined here by CED.

Bricks and blocks

Bricks, in the words of the Brick Development Association, are “a versatile and durable building material, with excellent life cycle performance, energy efficiency, high thermal mass and responsible manufacturing.” Its publications on the sustainability issues of bricks and brickwork are listed here.

Sustainable Build details the manufacture and use of bricks as a sustainable building material in this article, and also comments on stone vs brick.

What other sources have you found useful for determining the sustainability of specific building materials? Please leave a comment and let me know!

This post was inspired by an interesting conversation on Twitter with structural engineers David Sharpe and James Thomson.

Compare and select building materials on ESI.info

PassivHaus: the devil is in the detail

07/10/2011

The PassivHaus concept is quite a simple one: create an airtight, super-insulated structure, install mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, address thermal bridging, and find yourself with a building that can essentially be heated by a hairdryer. However, as with most things, the devil is in the detail…

Here, I take a look at the following questions:

What does a PassivHaus look like?

PassivHaus is really a design and build process, as opposed to a particular style of architecture. Whilst we may have preconceived ideas of a PassivHaus-certified building’s aesthetics, it could (at least in theory) look pretty much like anything – especially given that existing buildings can be retrofitted to PassivHaus standard.

100 Princedale Rd, Paul Davis + Partners

This was done at 100 Princedale Road – a Victorian house in a London conservation area – by Paul Davis + Partners and contractor Philip Proffit of Ryder Strategies Europe Ltd. This house was the first of its kind in the UK to achieve PassivHaus accreditation, meeting its target to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. (Granted, with the subject of the retrofit starting out as a drafty, four-story old house, there was plenty of scope for improvement.) In other words, a passive house can be anything from a large, new office building to a centuries-old, traditional house. Below are some examples:

Single-family residence in Brooklyn, NYC | Gregory Duncan

Eurogate Sozialbau, Vienna – Europe’s largest PassivHaus settlement? | Tiger46 on Flickr

Passive house office building in Austria | Tõnu Mauring

What does a PassivHaus cost?

The Footprint article on the Princedale Road Retrofit for the Future project includes an interesting breakdown of the cost / payback time / bills before and after completion, making a comparison between refurbishing to PassivHaus or Decent Homes criteria. The Green Building Store, in conjunction with Building magazine, has also provided a breakdown of costs for the Denby Dale PassivHaus in West Yorkshire.

What about air quality?

The more passive (or other enclosed, airtight and sealed) houses we construct, the more important it is that we keep monitoring and assessing the quality of the air circulated in these buildings. Are we avoiding moisture build-up? Is the air too dry? Is there enough of it? Will we see a concentration of emissions inside these buildings, over time, from the building materials used? What are the potential positive/negative effects on occupants’ health and well-being? Housebuilder’s Bible author Mark Brinkley experiments with air quality and CO2 levels in this House 2.0 blog post, relating his findings to PassivHaus standards.

To ensure a good level of fresh air supply, most passive houses are ventilated and heated by mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). Heat from the warm air that is being extracted is passed to the incoming fresh air through a heat exchanger – with the result that heat loss is minimised and heating costs are reduced. Ducting is an integral part of this: “Marion Baeli, the architect on the [Princedale Road] project, stressed that in a retrofit with MVHR, the coordination of ductwork requires considerable design attention, and should be integrated right from the start.” (Footprint)

Airflex Pro suspended ceiling ductwork installation (Airflow Developments on ESI.info)

Which products are used in a PassivHaus?

The PassivHaus Institut provides a list of certified building components, products and systems suitable for use in PassivHaus construction. Presumably, as this concept gains popularity and awareness, the list will grow. We have already looked at ventilation. Other important components are energy-efficient windows, airtight seals and thermal insulation.

But of course, a component is only as good as its installation. As well as architects who know how to design a successful PassivHaus, and manufacturers who can make products suitable for this type of construction, we need contractors with the right skills and experience. (PassiveHouse Builders, Passivhaus/LCC, Passive Development and Viking House are some of the firms I have come across.)

Project Green Home, Palo Alto | Mark Hogan

What is it like to live in a PassivHaus?

Bill Butcher, the construction manager of the Denby Dale house, kept a 17-instalment diary during the building process. But what happens post-occupancy? How does the building perform, and how does it shape the lives and behaviours of its occupants? In a separate post, I have taken a closer look at the realities of living in a passive house.

What is the next big thing after PassivHaus?

In the absence of a unified, international environmental standard for buildings, there is a certain amount of ‘competition’ between the different accreditations. There is no shortage of acronyms to choose from, and there are almost as many opinions on which accreditation makes the most sense as there are design-and-build professionals. (For a sensible take on PassivHaus vs the Code for Sustainable Homes, see “The Bout of the Decade” by Sustainable Homes.)

Andrew Holt heads the practice Architectopia in Norway, and also runs a course on sustainable architecture. He has worked extensively on PassivHaus developments. In an Arkitektnytt.no article, he talks about what the next big thing after PassivHaus might be. Mentioning BREEAM, zero-emission housing and “plus houses”, Andrew emphasises the importance of tailoring the standard to the individual project, using different tools to come up with a package that is fit for purpose. He comes to a refreshing conclusion (my translation):

What follows ‘after’ the PassivHaus standard should be a variety of different possibilities, so that our ambitions are based increasingly on the individual project and its local climate and conditions. This would facilitate greater innovation, creativity and cross-disciplinary co-operation. This approach demands a high level of competence within the project team.

An understanding of what the PassivHaus standard is, is a prerequisite for high-quality construction within the energy-efficiency sector. An understanding of what the PassivHaus standard isn’t, is a prerequisite for moving forwards.

PassivHaus office in Langenhart | Train.bird on Flickr

London 2012 velodrome

19/01/2011

The Bike Show is a weekly radio show and podcast from London community station Resonance FM. This week host Jack Thurston talks to Richard Arnold of the Olympic Delivery Committee and architect Mike Taylor of Hopkins Architects, who presents the design vision and explains how he hopes it will not only be fast but environmentally sustainable.

The 90 million building’s ongoing use, after the 2012 games, is firmly at the centre of it’s design. Many sustainable features have been included to ensure that it is not too costly to run once the Olympics have left town. The architect mentions natural light, insulation, energy use, recycled materials and FSC timbers.

(more…)

Brattøra conference hotel: reinventing atrium hotel design

08/01/2010

Clarion hotel and the adjacent public park (Space Group)

Construction is underway on Scandinavia’s largest conference hotel at Brattøra in Trondheim, Norway. Due for completion this year (2012), the project was designed by Oslo-based architects Space Group and is being built by Skanska. Consulting engineers are Arup & Partners in London.

The lobby has a fjord view (Space Group)

The project encompasses the 35,000m2 Clarion hotel, which will have 400 rooms and a conference/culture hall to accommodate 2000 people, as well as a public park and an aquarium.

The white glass facade with a pixellated silk-screen print surrounds the hotel’s most striking feature: a star-shaped, golden atrium. Unlike conventional atrium designs – where a grand, central, vertical space is exposed under a glazed roof – the Brattøra lobby has a much more complex structure. It combines a series of views and angles, from panoramic fjord scenery to more intimate glimpses of the surrounding area. This puts the hotel into context with Trondheim’s cityscape, where a large grid of straight streets is intersected by narrow, mediaeval closes.

Throughout the project, its designers have emphasised sustainability and an affinity with the site’s architectural typology. Public consultation and interaction with local politicians led to some elevation design changes during the early stages of the development.

The golden, star-shaped atrium (Space Group)

Some hotel chains, like Apex, now employ in-house architects specifically responsible for sustainable design.

One way to make hotel design greener is to avoid new-build altogether: Conran & Partners won the 2009 Hotel of the Year award for their conversion of a Victorian warehouse into Boundary, a new hotel in Shoreditch, East London.

The International Business Leaders Forum has a number of publications with guidelines for the sustainable siting, design, construction and management of hotels.

The Lego house

28/08/2009
James May revisits a childhood ambition

James May fulfills a childhood ambition

As the search continues for innovative and sustainable building materials, Top Gear’s James May has had a house built out of Lego blocks. Thousands of volunteers turned up to help him build the colourful structure in a Surrey vineyard.

ESI information on more traditional building materials: