Gordon Talbot on the interplay of materials and research at Ian Ritchie Architects

Buildings.

Ian Ritchie Architects (IRAL) occupies a former Thames shipping company office with a large stainless steel and glass extension it designed, in a low-rise area of Limehouse, east London. The practice comprises 20-30 architects, fluctuating with the scale and number of projects.

There are also ‘satellite’ practices, forming what Ian Ritchie calls ‘Ritchie Net’. To date these are eight independent architecture studios based in Europe and Asia which share IRAL’s design ethos and rigorous methodology. All are headed by architects who have worked in the main office, with which they continue to collaborate (as well as with one another), giving each practice the capacity to take on larger projects.

We’re interested to see how they age over time when exposed to the elements”

The open-plan studio is on the first floor, where the timber trusses of the old office roof have been revealed. Meeting rooms, a photographic archive, library, materials library, kitchen and model shop are located on the ground floor. Both kitchen and model shop open onto a private yard, where a number of materials samples have been deliberately left exposed to all weathers, some for more than 30 years. This exercise reflects the practice’s concern with material-technical innovation, sustainability and attention to the durability and longevity of the buildings it designs.

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Model shop

Where are your materials?

There are groups of materials kept throughout the office, and even on personal desks, for easy reference. For example, Sussex House in Covent Garden is the latest completed project, and samples of the materials we used are kept together for team reference. There are many samples, especially of cast glass, from the recent Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, plus samples from the Royal Academy of Music project that we completed last year.

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Materials in the yard

We have materials stored in the outside area too – either things we’ve come across and are interested in using in the future, or samples from ongoing and completed projects, and include woven metal samples developed through R&D with industry. We’re interested to see how they age over time when exposed to the elements.

There’s a piece of glass from the Ecology Gallery we designed in 1989 for the Natural History Museum. It was the first time anyone had glued structural glass fixings, and we’ve left it to weather for 30 years. Now and then we give the glued bit a yank to see if it’s still holding. There’s a bespoke piece of explosion-formed stainless-steel decking for a bridge that’s been surface-etched for an anti-slip finish, and we’re curious to see how that performs over time.

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The practice is known for innovative developments and use of materials and its collaboration with industry, and we find being surrounded by materials can act as a creative trigger in the design process. You see a material – perhaps an industrial material not commonly used architecturally – and realise it might be used in a new or different way. It might have a visual quality, or a tactile or even poetic one quite aside from its functional qualities. Occasionally we need a material to fulfil a specific function, and that’s the other impetus behind our materials research. We sometimes have to do that kind of research under time pressure, which is fun though it can be a bit of a sweat. We might have seen a material before, perhaps used in another context or another industry, which might be suitable for our needs.

Do you have a dedicated materials library?

The technical information available online is now so extensive that we’ve got to the stage where we’re comfortable with dispensing with our technical library – except for a few rare or valuable items – and replacing it with a more formalised materials library of tangible samples. It will be an extension of our outside materials library, but organised differently and more formally. It’s always a challenge to organise samples: does one file them by job or by material?

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Does anyone in particular manage it?

Not really. To a degree it’s self-organising, though once a project is completely finished the papers get tidied away and the materials are centralised and moved either outside or to what will now be the holding area in the library. About every five years we have a massive clear-out, though inevitably soon afterwards Ian will say, “Do we still have that sample of …?”

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You’re not incredibly strict about what goes into the materials library? You don’t think, oh, that’s not the sort of thing that we use?

Anything that anyone in the studio is individually motivated by, we’re all interested in. On the facade of Sussex House we were trying to reproduce a series of artworks – flower images for which Ian had produced the drawings. We were going to cast them in bronze, but there were issues of cost and weight, so we ended up producing them in Sto, a manufactured material which isn’t the kind of ‘authentic’ material we would normally use. The flowers were 3D-routed and have reproduced very well, without affecting U-values.

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Do people collect stuff without it having a particular purpose?

Definitely! For example we like a very beautiful timber beam construction that we have in the library, produced through laser-cutting and glueing, for its economy of material, though we haven’t yet found a suitable project for it. There are insulation materials being grown out of mushrooms which are interesting, though we haven’t any samples to hand yet. There are many thought-provoking materials presented at exhibitions such as Glastec, Bautec, Facades+, and academic forums, such as Facade Tectonics, for articulating the outside of buildings. Though these can be at an early stage of development, they’re often what we like to see as samples.

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Do you make many factory visits?

Every project involves visits to factories. Some are because we want to see particular aspects of materials, processes or assemblies that we are looking to be convinced by, or where we have a specific concern about the process of fabrication. For the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre we made many visits to factories because there were several newly-developed components going into the building.

For instance, we went to see a fabricator of cast glass in Germany. That was important for understanding how they worked and whether the glass could be toughened satisfactorily. Then we visited the trade contractor/installer in Italy, to make sure they had mastered how to prefabricate the assemblies. Any factory visit is usually two-fold: it involves research plus follow-up and Q&A. Usually whenever we go to see a manufacturer it’s for a specific purpose, but almost inevitably we see something else which is really interesting, so I always advocate that if possible we go to see where and how any material or assembly we use is made, we do so eyes-wide open.

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Patinated copper.

“We have an ongoing fascination with copper. We designed a pre-patinated vent in copper for the Jubilee Line at Culling Road, and a sample that formed part of the processing has been outside since 1996. And in 1997 we developed a woven phosphor bronze soft-cladding ‘cloth’ for Plymouth Theatre Royal’s Production Centre – which used only 10 per cent of the amount of copper compared to a 3mm sheet material. Another sample, for Westfield (White City), has been outside since 2006. There’s one from The Royal Academy of Music which is a recent evolution of the copper-blue finish from Aurubis, which we originally developed with Outokumpu, Finland, in 2005. We created some of the early samples of patinated copper in house, using chemical boxes, as experiments with the patination process. That was fun! We became interested in patinated copper because of its resilience many years ago, during a period when we did many experiments with metals.”

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Glued brick, used at Mercers Walk in Covent Garden.

“The building is in black brick, but we wanted to adhere to the Victorian tradition of using a white window reveal to help bring light into the rooms. Instead of painting the brick, we looked into getting a more durable finish by using glazed brick, where light really reflects off the glaze. We then had to look at the way the two different kinds of bricks would work together, how to glue them, and how to achieve a very clean edge, especially with the glazed bricks, which chip easily.”

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Coloured stainless steel.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Metal Improvement Company (part of Curtiss-Wright) who peen metal: firing tiny glass fragments or stainless steel ball bearings at the surface. Controlled shot-peening is used in the aerospace industry to even out stresses, such as in turbine blades, engine parts and other airframe components, but we were really interested in peening as a surface treatment for stainless steel. We used peened stainless steel on our Jubilee Line station and it’s since been used frequently by others since. From that came the idea of taking chemically-coloured stainless steel – these samples are by Rimex – and instead of keeping the very bright surface, peening it very gently to get a matt effect which we find much more interesting. When we designed the Hammersmith & City Line station at Westfield London we carried out experiments on the thin sheet material, and discovered that the more it is peened the more matt and varied the surface becomes. We ultimately used a gold anodised aluminium on the station for various reasons, including cost, though the research awaits future applications.”

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“Meshes have always been of interest in the practice, from very fine, filter-type mesh to larger industrial conveyor-belt scale. We tend to work with two companies, both of which are very interested in developing materials. When deciding on a material to use we need to consider more than its known capabilities; we need to define its purpose. Are we screening, rain-screening, filtering and reflecting light, or doing something else? Our fondness for using mesh originally came from security issues. For example, we’ve used conveyor-belt mesh on the outside ground floor of our office. The manufacturer makes this kind of mesh in various sizes for conveyor belts used in screening aggregate and quarried materials, down to the finest mesh used for sands. By using it architecturally, we opened up a whole new world of material.”

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“This is sample of ribbed cast glass from Lamberts in Germany. It’s ultra-low-iron, and white without any trace of a green tint, and has a ceramic coating on the inside to diffuse light. Inside there’s a fibre from Wacotech to give a 0.9 U-value at 140mm. Two layers of this material placed back to back allow 11 per cent of daylight to be transmitted to the interior. So in a building with a deep interior space and a reasonably high facade, you can insulate the facade but still get natural light into the interior to avoid the need for artificial light for most of the day. We coupled, with a thermal break, two sheets to make a structural component spanning 4.2 metres which would deal with wind and other loads. It’s a remarkably economic and an interesting new cladding product. On the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre we unitised it so Frener & Reifer, the facade contractor, could build up the individual paired units toe-to-toe, preassemble three or four units together, and deliver them as a cassette to site.”

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“In some respects this is a precursor to the cast glass above. We were looking to see if we could re-use waste glass by reheating to fuse it. We made some interesting briquettes in 1997 from the experiments.”