London calls Makkum

15 December 2013

London/Makkum co-creation results in innovative, durable façade cladding on ‘consecrated’ ground

For a very special address in the City of London – 5-7 St Helen’s Place – our company has developed its own ceramic building elements finished with glaze. They are in several sizes and are to be incorporated into a special three-dimensional façade. This is part of a radical modernisation for which Eric Parry Architects has drawn up the main elements. The building work is being carried out by Brookfield Multiplex and the façade is being constructed by Szerelmey. According to the schedule, the project should be completed in 2016.

Contact between Makkum and Eric Parry Architects commenced in 2011. The architects selected our company for our expertise in glazing, including the successful restoration work we carried out on several buildings by Berlage and Dudok in the Netherlands, which were closely related to their reference work, Berlage’s Holland House.

5-7 St Helen’s Place is owned by the Leathersellers’ Company, which was founded by royal charter in 1444 as the professional association of leather merchants in the capital. Nowadays the organisation acts mainly as a charitable institution and training specialist. St Helen’s Place, a historic square in the heart of London, is on ‘consecrated’ ground. Because of its archaeological importance, the city council keeps a close eye on every stone that is moved. To convert the location into a contemporary complex of homes and workplaces, the existing buildings were recently demolished. Only the historical façade has been retained. Everything behind it had already been modernised several times. The complex being built now is intended to withstand the test of time for at least another century, in accordance with a particular stipulation in the statutes of the Leathersellers’ Company.

This durability clause led Eric Parry Architects to think of using glazed ceramic building blocks for the new rear façade. Glazed ceramics are after all exceptionally durable and low-maintenance. In addition, glazed façade elements give facades a distinctive tactility, which was an essential requirement in the historical context of St Helen’s Place. The rear façade of the building, originally a monastery complex, almost leans up against the mediaeval St Helen’s Church, and thereby plays a prominent, visually-defining role. The natural nuances of the material are perfectly suited to Eric Parry’s definition of ‘refinement’: it should already be visible from a distance and should become almost tangible the closer one approaches the material.

For this prestigious project we took a major decision. Instead of making use of existing semi-manufactured items, we opted to do everything ourselves. We developed building modules based on the traditional slip-casting method. The handmade modules are cast in more than sixty different forms, which gives the façade a richly varied relief. The glazed blocks are mounted in a stainless steel construction and then pointed.

Durable building
The production of the glazed building elements – more than ten thousand of them, with thicknesses from 25 to 40 mm – is now in full swing. Jan Tichelaar says that the return on the steep learning curve his company has been through in the course of preparation and production is extremely substantial. ‘This joint venture gives us the opportunity to show, in a unique location, what we are capable of when it comes to actively considering innovative material solutions. We translate this into production methods in which craftsmanship and efficiency go hand in hand. By adapting the traditional method of slip-casting to modern processes, we are able to develop complete glazed ceramic building elements that can be broadly applied. It was above all a challenge to gear our production method to the required thickness of the elements, which goes up to no less than 40 mm. This solidity is essential if the material is to stand up to the very strict obligatory hard and soft body tests.’

The project was given an added dimension as a result of the typically English way of doing business. Jan Tichelaar: ‘The architect is highly regarded here, and you can sense the respect for the creative process and the design on every side. You notice that everyone involved has the collective will to make something special on the basis of the various disciplines. This also applies to the city council, whose Department of Planning kept a constant eye on the process. It makes quite an impression when someone like Peter Rees comes to Makkum personally to have a look. As London’s City Planning Officer, he has been the face of the City of London for almost thirty years. It is not without reason that he is called ‘the man who built the City’. Every detail is analysed and critically considered, but always in a constructive manner. It was inspiring.’

Progress of the project
The demolition work at 5-7 St Helen’s Place took two months. Immediately after that new foundations were laid, which rest on 140 pillars. The progress of building can be followed at The main contractor is Brookfield Multiplex, the international building company with Australian roots which now has 3,368 personnel working in eight countries around the world. The actual façade construction will be done by Szerelmey Ltd., a company founded in 1841 and now the UK’s leading façade-building specialist. Work is going according to schedule. It looks as if 5-7 St Helen’s Place will be completed in 2016, then to be left alone for at least the next hundred years.

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