Posts Tagged ‘Cladding’

Norwegian stave churches: 1000 years old and still standing


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


Spotlight on solar air heating


Andrew Brewster leads the Renewables Design Team for the CA Group – a specialist building envelope manufacturer and installer. In this guest post, he puts one of the lesser-known solar technologies under the spotlight:

Solar air heating is a proven technology that has been developed specifically for heating large spaces. With high-profile advocates including The Royal Mail, Marks & Spencer and Jaguar Land Rover, the technology is increasingly expected to become part of the sustainability strategy of those companies leading the charge for environmental responsibility.

Harnessing sunrays to heat large spaces

What is solar air heating?
Solar air heating works by harnessing the sun’s energy via a Transpired Solar Collector (TSC), or SolarWall®. The SolarWall® technology pre-heats fresh, outside air, which is then actively drawn into the building’s heating system, contributing considerably to a reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

The technology is 100% renewable and has the effect of dramatically reducing a building’s overall heating requirement, providing significant savings in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

SolarWall® in action
CA Group recently installed the world’s largest SolarWall® on a single building for Marks & Spencer, at the retail giant’s 80,000m² East Midlands Distribution Centre (EMDC) in Castle Donington. The 4,500m² Transpired Solar Collector is expected to reduce the building’s heating requirement by somewhere in the region of 30%, by generating more than 1,135,000kWh and saving over 256t of CO2 per annum.

The SolarWall® can be seen in action at the Jaguar Land Rover training academy in this video:

The benefits
The revolutionary solar air heating system has the lowest capital cost and the highest known efficiency of any active solar technology in the world (up to 80%), generating in excess of 500 Watts of thermal energy per square meter on a clear day [Dr. Chuck Keutcher, U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)].

It also offers the quickest return on investment, with an estimated payback period of three years on new build and eight years on retrofit applications. So as well as being an excellent option from an environmental perspective, it is also one that makes good commercial sense.

Global recognition
SolarWall® has been available for almost 30 years and is used in over 35 countries globally. A number of companies have tried to emulate the system but, due to a lack of understanding and third-party testing, they have been unable to replicate SolarWall®’s level of system performance.

In the UK, as part of its ongoing development and accreditation, the technology has received the independent endorsement of five leading authorities: Oxford Brookes University, the Welsh Assembly, Cardiff University, BSRIA and BRE.

CA Group has seen a significant uptake in the technology because of the very tangible results it delivers. As awareness of the technology’s capabilities increase, the Group anticipates that solar air heating will become part of the sustainability strategy of more and more companies looking for cost-effective ways of making the biggest impact on their CO2 emissions.

CA Group’s interactive Renewables Guide offers further information on solar air heating and other renewable options geared towards the generation of power and heat for commercial, industrial and distribution centres.

300 years of brick-making: the Chailey kiln


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

Breton architecture – a sense of place


Paul Gauguin painted in Pont-Aven, moving from Impressionism to "synthetism"

Staring at the dreich, Scottish rain outside my office window, it is hard to believe that I have just come back from two sun-drenched weeks in Brittany.

I am trying to recall the sights, sounds and smells of Nevez, Raguenéz, Pont-Aven and Bénodet: the rough granite coastline and shimmering sea, the super-salty surf that the kids were gleefully dodging, the sudden and short-lived rainfalls drumming onto the roof of our tent. (Not to mention the local cider and caramel au beurre salée…)

A windy walk along the beach in Bénodet

Houses on the hill in Pont-Aven

I was struck by how closely the area’s many new-build houses resemble centuries-old Breton homes. While introducing some new features (maritime-style, circular windows were popular), the designs stayed close to the regional vernacular.

The buildings were  tall, wide and shallow structures, with thick masonry walls in white or cream render – good thermal mass for keeping warm in stormy winters and cool in blistering summers.

Windows were often small and placed mainly on south-facing facades, and roofs were steeply pitched slate or thatch with elaborate dormer window detailing. Gardens had sparse planting, clusters of pine, and the ubiquitous pink-and-blue hydrangea.

From Dol-de-Bretagne (Wikimedia Commons)

I assumed this uniformity to be a result of tight planning regulations – or is it self-enforced by Breton clients, architects and builders? Either way, the distinct architectural style helps preserve and reinforce the region’s identity.

Nevez cottages (Breizh33 on Flickr)

As much as I hate seeing innovative, brave design being stifled by overly conservative planning control (and royal interference…), I do enjoy spending time in places where new-builds retain a sense of history and local context. A difficult balance to strike, perhaps. Do you have any examples of places where they have got it right?

Maria (11) setting up 'home' in a big Breton pine

Norwegian wood: sustainable timber at the Chelsea Flower Show


The 'Naturally Norway' garden by Darren Saines

Garden designer Darren Saines, based at Jessheim near Oslo, entered the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for the first time this year. He came away with a Silver Gilt medal for his ‘Kebony – Naturally Norway’ garden, inspired by the country’s hardy flora and fauna.

Inspired by Norwegian landscapes

Sustainable design was one of the main considerations for the Naturally Norway team, which aside from Darren also included Norwegian timber producers Kebony.

Kebony, first-time exhibitors at this year’s Ecobuild, manufactures a wood product that has been made harder, more durable, dimensionally stable and weather resistant through a non-toxic process they call Kebonization, which uses liquids from biowaste material.

In simple terms, the process transforms sustainably managed softwoods so that they resemble hardwoods – both in terms of appearance and performance.

Kebony timber cladding

Used primarily for cladding and decking, but also suitable for furniture and other joinery applications, Kebony timber has attained the Swan eco-label (the official Nordic eco-label, introduced by the Nordic Council of Ministers).

Kebony timber decking

From the Naturally Norway press release:

Darren’s design philosophy is to create a nature-inspired garden grown to flourish in and resist the diverse Nordic climate with plants chosen for their unusual natural shapes and structures. The garden has been designed to reflect the unique landscape of Norway – from flora and fauna to fjords.
… The planted areas will be defined by natural stone from Lundhs, with a centrepiece of a dramatic 40-year-old stunted pine tree set in natural larvikitt rock – the Norwegian national stone – that has been ‘rescued’ from a quarry.
A sleek central pavilion, designed by Darren and Norwegian duo StokkeAustad, incorporates a ‘living cube’ and is a space that adapts to the seasons, immersing the senses outdoors. Designed as an extension of the home for use throughout the year, the structure features intriguing applications – a discreet kitchen, shower and even day bed. An undulating water feature surrounds the pavilion reflecting the tranquil Norwegian fjords.
… Kebony wood is used as a sustainable alternative to tropical timber for the decking and pavilion structure while energy is created from bio ethanol burners. Unique glass will be used within the living cube, tinted to provide unusual lighting effects and self-cleaning for low maintenance. Flamed stone will be applied to terraced areas and granite from Southern Norway for its unique pearly façade. Even the boundary walls have been constructed from an eco-product called Durisol, blocks made from 80% recycled wood, linked together like Lego.

I will leave you with some more images from this beautifully twilit garden (and will try not to feel too homesick in the process):

The glass and timber pavillion

Plants that thrive in the short Nordic summer

Blurring boundaries: indoor/outdoor living

If you are interested in landscape design generally, have a look at our sister blog External Works.

‘Kebony – Naturally Norway’ photos by Helen Fickling.

Environmental psychology and facade design


Ancient façade, via Bibliothèque de Toulouse on Flickr

In the last few weeks on the Building blog, we have looked at innovative building envelopes in various forms. We’ve speculated on current and future technologies, including smart facades and biomimicry.

Building facades always seem to catch people’s imagination and attract emotive reactions. We only have to look at the Chelsea Barracks debacle between Prince Charles and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (which took place this time last year) to know how powerfully people can react to upfront building design.

Is it simply that people respond most readily to the part of a structure that is most ‘in-your-face’, or are there more subtle forces at play? The Handbook of Environmental Psychology, by Robert B. Bechtel, Arza Churchman and Arzah Ts’erts’man, is an interesting read in this respect. From Chapter 21:

Many sound principles allow us to predict who will co-operate when resources are scarce, how cultures vary in their privacy seeking, what meanings are conveyed to observers by which building facades, and to describe residents’ strategies for dealing with spatial conflicts in their homes. Preferences, attitudes, spatial cognitions, and emotions in response to the built and natural environment: all are understood much better than they were three decades ago.

The book covers subject areas such as healthy design; environments for aging; climate, weather and crime; community and urban planning; children’s environments; and personal space in a digital age. If you have 70-odd pounds to spare, you can buy it here.

I recently started a discussion in the Architecture group on LinkedIn regarding the future of facade design, and want to share some of the dynamic, insightful and optimistic comments that followed:

Anne Elliott Mercia of Integrated Framing and 2SCALEarchitects :

I think that the high-tech materials and systems are really interim technologies until we can learn how to make equivalent materials from more environmentally benign sources, like the water wall. Eventually I do believe we will be able to “grow” building structures from bone or shell-like materials.

Adham Refaat, Owner of Architecture Los Angeles:

Building skin of the future is breathable; able to sweat out moisture and heat and breathe in cool, fresh air in hot seasons; preserve heat and let the sun in in cold seasons. Building skin of the future is alive with micro-particles that react to direct sun and open like flowers for shading, and collects condensation and rain water for re-use.

Shreesh Thergaonkar, Deputy Chief Architect at Gherzi Eastern Ltd:

Building facades are the most important elements in today’s architecture, and the most needed. They have a very bright future.

Shell by sunshinesyrie on Flickr

More than two ways to skin a building: smart facades


tanakawho on Flickr

How does an architect approach the design of a brand new building? What are the primary considerations – function, form, structure, materials, setting, sustainability?

Each designer will have their own priorities, but to the public – outsiders, neighbours and visitors – a building’s cladding forms a large part of our first impression. The cladding is the building’s face, and we often take it at face value.

Increasingly, though, new technologies are allowing a building’s skin to have functions beyond weatherproofing and decoration.

Smart skin: translucent insulation

Impression of a SmartSkin zero-energy building

Dutch architects and engineers Jon Kristinsson and Andy Dobbelsteen have released details on a new smart skin system for zero-energy buildings, conceived by Dr Noor van Andel and Mr Peter T Oei. Tests on prototypes have shown promising results.

‘Smart skin’ is a new concept: a thin translucent skin for buildings instead of walls. Groundwater is used to buffer the temperature difference between night and day and even between summer and winter. Most often, technicians think that energy losses can only be reduced by using thick insulation, or at least high-performance insulation. ‘Smart skin’ is a typical Dutch idea from a wet country with an averagely mild climate and high groundwater level. ‘Smart skin’ is not a well-insulated wall, but uses the thermal mass of groundwater for heating or cooling.

A PDF outlining the project can be downloaded here.

Smart skin: building-integrated wireless access

In another project, Ji Hoon Jeona, Woonbong Hwang, Hyun-Chul Park and Wee-Sang Park have researched the buckling loads of smart-skin composite panels, in this case for use with wireless LAN systems. Here, thin-strip antennas are incorporated into laminate cladding for building-integrated wi-fi access.

Smart skin: biomimicry

MRA's Kepos eco-hotel

An Ecofriend blog post brings details of MRA‘s Kepos eco-hotel. Designed by John Naranjo, the hotel absorbs solar and wind energy through an open skin. The double-skin building facade is meant to replicate a forest canopy:

The technical and sustainable attributes that are being reinforced by the biomimicry concept include learning from the life-supporting aspects of our living environment, obtaining energy, recycling and reclaiming resources and materials. The main component that will be applied to the building’s exterior canopy will be a special layer developed by SMIT called GROW. This canopy incorporates a combination of photovoltaic and piezoelectric technologies in one system that will absorb both solar and wind energy in one open skin.

Smart skin: carbon absorption

In a previous post, we have glanced at how living algae facades can be used to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. We have also (in our very first, tentative and terribly short blog post) looked at the emergence of living walls.

Smart skin: this is just the beginning

Through nanotechnology, biomimicry, photovoltaic energy generation, dynamic facade technology, membrane development and a growing emphasis on ‘intelligent’ building materials, building facades will increasingly have to work harder, becoming more than just a pretty face.

Cladding images, specification details and case studies can be found on

Foster’s Masdar City: putting sustainable energy to the test


OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr

Foster + Partners’ Masdar City development in Abu Dhabi is getting a lot of press and blog coverage at the moment. The project is, in the architects’ words, “a six million square metre sustainable development that uses the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies, to achieve a carbon-neutral, zero waste community. It will be a centre for the development of new ideas for energy production”.

Building recently published pictures of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The nicely detailed terracotta-coloured GRC cladding of the city’s first completed building reflects aspects of traditional Islamic architecture.

Masdar’s energy will come entirely from renewable resources:

• a 40–60 megawatt solar power plant
• roof-mounted photovoltaic modules
• wind farms outside the city’s perimeter
• geothermal power
• waste-to-energy
• the world’s largest hydrogen power plant

Behind the scenes, Masdar will also host the world’s first real-time study to test the effectiveness of smart home appliances in reducing electricity consumption during peak demand periods, as detailed in Abu Dhabi’s newspaper The National.

Narrow, shaded streets (OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr)

General Electric (GE) selected Masdar City for this pilot project because its electricity will be distributed through a ‘smart grid’ that combines power transmission with the internet.

The two-year Masdar City test will use ‘demand response enabled appliances’ specifically designed for the pilot programme, and will involve some of the city’s first residents. Test results will be of great interest in the European Union, which aims for 80% of all households to be equipped with a smart electricity meter by 2020.

For an alternative view, see this debate on Treehugger on whether a development like Masdar can ever be ‘truly sustainable’.

ESI references:

Cleaning Europe’s waterways: the floating island of Physalia


Physalia on the Seine, Paris

Vincent Callebaut Architectures has designed Physalia, a floating structure that takes its name and shape from the Portuguese Man o’ War. It has, however, a friendlier purpose than its venomous, invertebrate namesake.

Variously described as an amphibious garden and a floating island, the structure is designed to sail down the polluted rivers of major European cities, purifying the water as it goes.


The East elevation: solar panels and vegetation

Entirely self-powered via solar panel cladding and pneumatic roof membranes, Physalia crafts are intended to help clean the Seine, Thames, Volga, Danube and Escaut using the following process:

  • The vessel has an aluminum surface covering its steel structure.
  • A titanium dioxide layer of anatase form reduces water pollution when reacting with ultraviolet rays.
  • In addition to being a self-cleaning vessel, it can absorb and recycle through a photo-catalytic effect.
  • Physalia’s double hull is criss-crossed by a hydraulic network that filters the fluvial water and purifies it biologically, thanks to its planted roof.

The deck of the vessel

Other projects have fused conceptual architecture with water purification systems: the Whitney Water Purification Facility and Park, designed by Steven Holl Architects, was chosen as one of the Top Ten Green projects for 2007 by the American Institute of Architects.

The ecofriend blog showcases another floating island used for water purification on a smaller scale: this one, in Poland, is powered by people on exercise bikes…

(Images by kind permission of Vincent Callebaut Architectures.)

ESI references

Brattøra conference hotel: reinventing atrium hotel design


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.