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."

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Year Out Diary: Part 4


Finding work is difficult at the best of times, but what does one do when the work needed to progress is unavailable, and to work outside of the field doesn’t aid your career path significantly. Of all the architectural students that graduated with me in the summer, very few have found themselves work in an architect’s office. Several have chosen that the profession is no longer suited for them, others are taking time out to decide, not worrying about the need for a job, but several are stuck in an endless trap.

Unable to progress with what they want students have to succumb to pressure and delve in to other jobs as a necessity. These jobs will offer support and a means to an end, but are simply an extension to the waiting.

All through university you are paying to design, with guidance. Part 1 sees a student arrive at a notable level of maturity, sufficient enough to work in the professional environment, still with guidance. Ascertaining the degree enforces the conclusion that we are capable of designing, however lack the knowledge to transition to a built form. This all means that although we are unable to be independent architects, we can still practice and design architecture.

Luke Tyson, a student at the MSA, has found himself in this predicament that is the architectural professions sever lack of positions. Instead of retreating from the battle of finding work, he worked out a way around it. With the help of old tutors and a generous amount of people plans have been laid out for a new architectural community to be set up in the heart of Manchester.

Stepping away from the typical business environment of an architect’s office, Y4 plans to offer Part 1 students the opportunity to gain the relevant year out experience needed to progress in a cooperative work scheme. Competitions will be the main focus, but the workshop-based group will be able to decide what it is they want to design. They will be practicing architecture in a modern adaptable system. Unpaid means the project will be self sufficient, contributors just work the 20hrs needed a week over a few days, leaving the rest of the work for paid work.

The fact that something like this is able to happen only helps to support the importance of adaptability and elevates the study of architecture to a new area of ethics.

The scheme is still being finalized, however Luke has begun to run a blog for the project. Job vacancies, competitions and other news will be posted on the site. If you are interested in the scheme Luke can be contacted at Any support available will go a long way.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Part 1 Year Out: Diary Entry 3


Finding a year out placement is proving to be more difficult that first envisaged. Practices seek to interview potential employees, but then wait until the work is in, providing them with a wide variety of choice, but leaving prospective students waiting indefinitely. I have attended countless interviews, only to return home having no idea when a decision might be made. This problem isn’t that of the companies, more just the bad luck current architectural student’s have in graduating into a difficult period. The practices themselves cannot afford to risk the employment of people without security of work and pay. So we simply have to persevere and wait until the time is right.

What is one to do? Knowing that work is not readily available we have to adapt to the current environment. If nothing is happening, make it. Look to competitions online for student entries, use your knowledge of the architectural field and branch out. Employer’s look for people who have expanded out of their original limits, and ventured further a field to different areas of work that still relate to the profession. Design is a humungous area, with architecture just a small percentage. Graphic design is heavily apparent in Architecture, working with that will only benefit you.

RIBA have adjusted their guidelines to allow for the disposition we find ourselves in. Although an architectural placement is preferred, you can branch out while staying under the bracket of year out experience. Work on a construction site is allowed, as is work in a planning office. If you are thinking of working in these areas double check with whomever you are doing your PEDR with, as they have the final say.

Through the contact of a friend and a boredom of no success, I managed to get work as an intern at an international architectural magazine down in London. Unpaid, and only a sofa promised for a short period, I decided to move down simply to escape the trap of finding work in an environment of little work. 3 days a week, 10 – 6, the job was different to say the least. Although an architect’s magazine, the work was far from it.

Publishing is an interesting profession. The experience I gained while there was more than useful. It wasn’t architectural, rather administrative work. Except architect’s work in that environment, to be able to fit right in at a company is tremendously beneficial. I also learnt that just asking can get you along way. So much is available to those who ask. What I received always varied, but it still was something. It showed me that you can achieve anything at any scale; you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

I have now got a job, at a new practice in Manchester. I start soon, and although I am glad to be out of the internship and London, it was still a critical tipping point to my architectural career. The people I met, and the contacts made will always be available to me. I also would never have got this job if I hadn’t been down there. Finding work is difficult, and the unknowing prospects of it are a pain to deal with it, but learn to turn it on its head and use that spare time to accomplish other things.

by Jack Penford Baker