Posts Tagged ‘Concrete construction’

The road to perfection: Trollstigen Visitor Centre



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.




Shadows through sand: translucent concrete


Concrete may have started out as a heavy, low-tech material, associated with architectural brutalism and 1960s high-rises. How times have changed… Already on the market, or half-way towards becoming commercially available, are concrete formulations with any number of surprising qualities.

Silhouette & sand dunes, by Daniel Oines on Flickr

These days, concrete can be lightweight, waterproof, recyclable, bendable, self-healing, and even (arguably) environmentally sound. And now, concrete – that most solid-sounding of building materials – can be translucent, too.

Here is how light-transmitting concrete is made: layer upon layer, ultrafine optical fibres are paralellised and distributed through a fine-grained concrete mix. When set, the concrete is cut and shaped into panels or tiles, which are then polished to the desired texture.

With structural performance indicators including a compressive strength of 49N/mm2 (MPa) and bending strength of 7.7N/mm2 (MPa), translucent concrete may be used as a load-bearing material.

Luccon concrete, supplied by NY Stone Manhattan (on

When used as part of an external wall or placed in front of a window, these concrete panels need no light source other than the natural daylight that is diffused through the solid surface. If the concrete is mounted internally in the shape of wall, floor or ceiling panels, artificial light sources can be used to create special effects.

As you can imagine, designers have started playing around with this concept and its various applications:

  • The optical fibres, backlit with coloured LEDs, create concrete walls that shimmer in different shades according to where you stand in a room.
  • Points of optical fibres in different diameters, distributed unevenly through a dark concrete panel, create the illusion of a starry night sky.
  • The light-transmitting fibres can be arranged into the shapes of logos, company names, symbols and signage.

Two companies involved in the development, manufacture and supply of translucent concrete:

LUCEM Lichtbeton

LUCEM LABEL tiles with custom logos, names and icons

LUCEM bar counter with coloured background lighting


Main entrance of Museum Cella Septichora, Hungary

Iberville Parish Veterans Memorial, Baton Rouge

More information can be found in this Gizmag article on light-transmitting concrete. And finally, here’s one that DIY’er Calvin Drews made earlier: a video on how to make your own light-transmitting concrete.

The relative sustainability of building materials – guides and sources


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 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.


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.


The BCSA is the national organisation for the steel construction industry. Its website,, 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.”


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.


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

Concrete Short Course: Concrete Surfaces, Textures and Finishes


The Building Centre is offering a course for the design and specification of concrete, on Monday 25 January 2010, 4.00 – 7.30 pm.

The course is aimed at architects, structural engineers, project managers and construction specialists who wish to be updated and briefed on architectural site cast concrete.

Key requirements in concrete specification

The course will cover:
Key requirements of visual concrete specification
Essentials of concrete mixing and ensuring consistent colour
Selection of form face materials
Good formwork practice
Site workmanship in handling and compacting concrete
Pigmented and textured finishes, plus guidance on achieving a fine concrete finish with minimum blemishes
Common concrete defects and how to cure them

ESI References

Stimulating development – sustainable concrete as a goal

Masdar City

Masdar City

Masdar, the Abu Dhabi-based developer of the planned carbon and waste-neutral Masdar City, has announced a competition for sustainable concrete.

• Produce concrete with minimum of 50kg/m3 of CO2 reduction compared to that of a Masdar baseline mixture
• Develop concrete at equal or lower unit cost than that of the Masdar baseline mixture
• Design concrete with equal or better performance than that of the Masdar baseline mixture in terms of workability, constructability, heat development, curing requirements, mechanical properties, shrinkage, durability and service life
• Ability to produce 500,000 cubic meter per year

Prize fund
• First – $150,00 for a sustainable concrete production method
• Second – $50,000 for the lowest-carbon footprint concrete mix

Other resources on the environmental impact of concrete
• The concrete industry is responsible for 5% of humanity’s carbon footprint – but it’s more complicated than you may think as concrete actually absorbs CO2 over its lifetime
Geopolymer concrete technology
• Is carbon neutral concrete an option?
• ‘Carbon Footprint of Concrete Buildings seen in the Life Cycle Perspective’, Danish Technological Institute

ESI references:

Darwin cocoon wins Concrete Society award


The world's largest curved, sprayed concrete structure

The Darwin Centre Phase 2 forms part of the western extension of the Natural History Museum.

It provides a climate-controlled home for 20 million plant and insect specimens.

It also creates a working space for research scientists, as well as an exciting visitor destination.

Designed by Danish architects C F Møller, the cocoon was declared Overall Winner at the recent Concrete Society’s Awards for Excellence ceremony.

Judges said the structure will become “a benchmark for the production of extreme shapes in concrete”.

The extension contrasts with the original 19th century building

ESI references: