The Making Of...

30 October 2013

‘Controlling the uncontrollable’

Haiko Meijer of Onix Architects had a clear wish. Can we clad the Student Cloud in a cloud cover using glazed material in the form of prefab building elements? It had never been done before, but the challenge was taken up with open arms. A unique opportunity for Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum to make its presence felt somewhere other than in the usual top segment of the market. In the meantime the production of the strips of glazed tile is in full swing. A special kiln was even purchased for the purpose – the only one of its kind in Europe. It was needed, as Jan Tichelaar put it, ‘to control the uncontrollable’.

The unfinished tile strips were purchased in Germany, from their usual supplier of unglazed material. To Jan Tichelaar’s great surprise, this firm turned out to have been producing tile strips for prefab building on the American market for many years. Various routes to development were then taken and test panels assessed. As soon as it became clear that they could satisfy Onix’s unusual request, and when the client, SSH, had been convinced of the firm’s craftsmanship and innovative strengths during a visit to Makkum, the most important question had still to be answered: which glaze shall we use for the best cloud effect and maximum durability.

Natural minerals
Unusually, after a period of experimentation and evaluation, a glaze was chosen that is rich in natural minerals and is therefore fairly unstable. The choice was made because of the fine, lively nuances in the material. One disadvantage is that during firing minerals react with each other. Their positioning in the kiln requires precision and the material must not be exposed directly to fire.

‘It is a process that is hard to control,’ says Jan Tichelaar, ‘and partly for that reason is a serious challenge. The possibility of developing an innovative application of glaze for this market segment was the reason for investing in a new kiln, in which the heat is transferred to the product in a completely new way. We started experimenting immediately after it was installed. At such a time you become aware yet again of what distinguishes this firm, with its dedicated craftsmen who know these processes and have mastered them down to the smallest details. The results are marvellous.’

Flexible production processes
Production is in full swing. With a total lead time of 20 weeks, Koninklijke Tichelaar Makkum is making about 230,000 glazed strips, good for a façade surface area of about 7,000 m². In this way Tichelaar shows how a small-scale, craft-based family firm can do great things. ‘It’s a question of flexibility,’ says Jan Tichelaar matter-of-factly. ‘In the dialogue with the architect, it soon became clear there was a shared curiosity. So you join in the process of thinking and examine everything so as to respond to the request quickly and effectively. Purely on the basis of our manufacturing discipline.’

Clever logistics
Jan Tichelaar and his team not only added their thoughts to the production process, but also to the logistical aspects and the question of how to keep the cost under control by organising the whole process as efficiently as possible. Aesthetics, craftsmanship and efficiency hand in hand. The strip tiles are delivered to Loveld in Zwijndrecht, which is making the façade panels, in coded batches on pallets. A specific mixture of codes appropriate for each panel is made ready for rapid assembly. This smart cooperation yields a significant saving of time and expense.

Even after the completion of Student Cloud, carried out by the Waal construction company from Vlaardingen, Tichelaar adds an extra cost advantage when it comes to running the building. The glaze is fired at a temperature of 1,100°C, which results in a very compact surface. Once it has been treated, the material is exceptionally strong and durable and above all maintenance-free. Tichelaar: ‘There are buildings in glazed brick in the Netherlands that are still immaculate after centuries. Glaze is colour-fast, proof against UV radiation, dirt doesn’t stick to it, and you can simply wipe graffiti off again. The perfect qualities for Haiko Meijer’s dream – a building that is absorbed into the clouds, as a metaphor for the mobility, elusiveness and hopeful future of its users, the students who come and go.’

Related:

A poetic hive of study, packaged in ceramics

Onix Architects - Unpolished, sharp and contrasting