Posts Tagged ‘Design’

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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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!

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?

Esprit d’escalier: the wit and symbolism of the staircase

04/05/2012

What is it that fascinates us so much about staircases? More symbolically rich than any other building element, the staircase gives rise to a multitude of associations.

The staircase is a place of fleeting conversations, chance meetings, contrived accidents, secret assignations, ghostly encounters, lost opportunities for witty responses, and a symbol of lofty ambition.

It can be a descent into the underworld (‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’) or a Jacob’s ladder leading into heaven.

Do you dream about going up or down stairs? It could mean that you are coming to a decision on a complicated issue… The bottom of the stairs represents your current reality; the top landing is the conclusion for which you strive.

Any budding guitarist, of course, will attempt to learn the inevitable ‘Stairway to Heaven’ intro. (The bane of many a music store.)

There is even a page on Pinterest entirely dedicated to ‘Wonderful stairways and staircases‘.

For photographers, staircases are a constant source of inspiration. When viewed from above or below, the stairway takes on a purely graphic, geometric quality – like an abstract pattern rather than a physical object.

Out of self-indulgence, I thought I would share with you some of my favourite images of stairs and steps – below.

In the meantime – if you need to find, compare and select staircases, balustrades and handrails, ESI.info is a good place to start:

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.

The realities of living in a PassivHaus

07/02/2011

Thermal image of a PassiveHouse (Young Germany)

Once the scaffolding is down and the blower door test has been passed, what is it actually like to live in a PassivHaus? How does it feel to occupy a house that is kept warm using only your own body heat; a house that is completely airtight and needs no conventional heating system? How does it change your behaviour, needs and habits?

PassiveHouse as a concept

The concept of the passive house (or PassivHaus for the internationalists amongst us) is becoming increasingly well known amongst British architects, contractors, developers and clients. It has moved from being yet another forward-thinking construction method that is adopted in mainland Europe but largely ignored in this country, to being championed by a number of UK built environment professionals.

Information abounds when it comes to PassivHaus certification requirements, test results, design detailing, building physics and heat capacities. The Passipedia website is a good resource in this respect. It also gives an interesting historical review of  passive houses from the past. Did you know, for example, that Fridtjof Nansen’s 1883 polar exploration ship Fram functioned like a PassivHaus? Nansen wrote:

(more…)

Breton architecture – a sense of place

06/08/2010

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

Lighting and innovative facades

29/07/2010

Facades has been a theme of sorts on Building blog over the last couple of months. Re-reading the articles sent me off in various interesting directions.

Mader Stublic Wiermann is a design team based in Berlin that specialises in the use of lighting to create, to my mind, spectacular facades that transform the shape and nature of buildings.

Chelsea Art Museum by day

Above is the facade of Chelsea Art Museum (built in 1850) in New York by day. And below is MSW’s plan for its light facade.

Chelsea Art Museum - Mader Stublic Wiermann

Chelsea Art Museum - Mader Stublic Wiermann

MSW explain:

A layer of vertical LED-rods will be installed on the facade of the Chelsea Art Museum, with a gap in between the building and the new structure. The LED structure will surpass the height of the building, to be in line with the taller buildings immediately surrounding the Museum.

The installation will feature abstract images moving across the building, at times even appearing to extend the structure of the Museum beyond its actual size… The effect will be to make it seem as though a new structure is being developed over the original facade as the viewer is watching.

The new facade does not replace the existing one, rather, it plays with its surface and volume. Consequently, art, normally contained within a museum, will step beyond the confines of the building to interact with the city and its inhabitants.

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, realities:united

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, realities:united

Above is the illuminated facade designed by Realities:United (again from Berlin) for the Espacio de Creación Artística Contemporánea in Cordoba.

The facade facing the river, the main face of the building to the outside, is designed as a screen perforated by numerous circular holes where monochromatic LED lights are located with the colours red, green and blue.

Using a computer program, video signals will generate images, texts or colours which will be reflected in the surface of the river and will permit installations specifically designed for the location.

During the day, natural light will filter through the perforations and inundate the interior covered walkway.

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, realities:united

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, realities:united

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Changing tack slightly for those faced with the more prosaic task of dealing with monolithic concrete facades there are some low tech solutions.

anArchitecture reports on Carsten Nicolai’s autoR facade, the production of which is described as ‘a self-organizing process’.

Visitors actively contribute to the design of the facade by individually applying stickers designed by the artist.

Looks quite fun!

Carsten Nicolai, autoR, 2010 Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Carsten Nicolai, autoR, 2010 Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Or there’s Facadeprinter who have developed ‘an inkjet-printer in architectonic scale’.

The Facadeprinter is a communication-tool. Even the application of the artwork is part of the message; straight and direct. A work of art is converted to a vector or pixel file and shot dot by dot onto the facade. The viewer watches the emerging artwork like the drawing of a magic pen.

Three Stones - Facadeprinter

Three Stones - Facadeprinter

According to the blurb Facadeprinter has three main applications. Large-scale distance printing, live performance and, most intriguingly, communication in a crisis.

Outlook |  Communication in a Crisis - Facadeprinter

Outlook | Communication in a Crisis - Facadeprinter

They explain:

The Facadeprinter can be integrated into post-disaster relief efforts. The machine’s printing process allows the quick installation of new visual communication displays. For example, the locations of medical facilities, sources of fresh water supply, danger zones or collection points can be marked for effective communication.

We developed this concept for the International Design Forum of the Japan Design Foundation (JDF) in Osaka. The Scenario: A fatal disaster strikes a city, causing widespread suffering and a loss of orientation in the chaos. Printing instructions onto walls provides orientation and information, affording an effective and economical method of assisting agencies and organizations in post-disaster relief efforts.