Thursday, 18 November 2010

MSSA Talks: An Exploration of Timber Structures by Malcolm McGregor

MSSA Talks  - the new name for the Manchester Student Society of Architecture Lecture Series - hosted it's second event of the 2010-11 academic year on Thursday 18th November 2010 with an interesting and thought provoking presentation by Malcolm McGregor, a Director at London based Pringle Richards Sharratt (PRS). Entitled 'An Exploration of Timer Structures' Malcolm McGregor outlined how the practice's research into the structural and aesthetic qualities of timber in a range of building typologies - principally in the form of Cross Laminated Timbers (CLT).

The talk began with McGregor outlining his own personal experiences in the architectural industry which included an explanation of his architectural education at Bath University where he was schooled in principles of CIAM modernism and by Peter Smithson (during his Part 2). These rational, pragmatic influences could be seen in the later projects where he often referred to creating a 'modern' design. He also spent 8 years working in Germany after the fall of the wall, before joining PRS.

Sheffield Winter Garden. Image Copyright PRS

After setting up his own frame of view for the audience McGregor proceeded by talking about a number of 'failures' - projects he felt didn't adequately resolve the use of timber in either their design or construction - by the practice. These included the Westend Housing proposal for Berlin and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. The reasons given were wide ranging but were effectively due to cost and the perceived risk of timber structures during a fire. Shrewsbury Music School, the first CLT project built in the UK with an acoustically sealed and naturally ventilated performance space, and the Sheffield Millennium Galleries and Winter Garden were highlighted as the first non-failures. The Sheffield project in particular seemed to be highly successful in creating a new public space in the city, an aspiration the practice would appear to duplicate in later projects.

Interlaced with the projects McGregor referred back to several design processes and methods of inquiry used by either himself or the practice, including the important part a sketch plays in these processes as a tool for quick consultation and expanding ideas. He also touched on notions of prototyping, testing with both computer and built models, research and developing a critical position. The acknowledgement that certain projects are simply a reiteration of earlier design concepts, albeit refined with each iteration, was a refreshing statement for the students in the room to hear, as was the importance to understand the critical relationship between architecture and the client/funding institution.

TfL West Ham Bus Garage. Image Copyright PRS

The rest of the talk was devoted predominately to two projects - the TfL West Ham Bus Garage, London and Hull History Centre, Hull. The first project grew out of a need to relocate three bus garages from the Olympic site to a new, consolidated, location for 350 buses. A series of vaulted sheds form an "acoustic shield" to protect neighbouring residential properties from the busy (and often late running) operations of cleaning and managing buses. The vaulted forms are made possible by a structure of timber arches (laminated glulam beams on this occasion) that aimed to be everything an "a tin Ikea-like shed" isn't. A high level of natural light is allowed to permeate into the workshop spaces to improve the working environment. The environmental credentials of the scheme include a 100kW tall wind turbine , CHP, biomass, water harvesting, recycled aggregate in construction and a green roof to promote biodiversity have resulted in the site generating 27% of its energy demands through on-site renewables.

Hull History Centre, Hull. Image Copyright PRS

The Hull project saw the creation of an innovative new centre that holds the joint local studies archive of Hull City Council and Hull University. Resonating with the Sheffield project the practice sought to create a new public route through the city that became a "public court" under an ETFE promenade. The project marked a shift for the practice in that the timber structure was manufactured locally, by Kingston Craft Centre, whereas previous projects have used German/Austrian/Swiss firms. A striking and challenging design, that posed some issues for the manufactures who were not equipped with CNC equipment of their European counterparts, has been excellently detailed and the final solution offers a facility "the envy of archivists everywhere" (in the words of Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster).

In summary the talk offered a fascinating insight into how the practice has worked to provide "harmony in timber" to deliver their beliefs in an architecture that is "modern, elegant and sustainable."

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