Practice partners Clare Wright, Naila Yousuf and Sandy Wright on working with specialists in brickwork, stone and green roofs as well as an on-site artist
Clare Wright: I met Susanna through her sister Kate Heron, a professor at Westminster University, when I was an external examiner there. Susanna is a site-specific artist whose work I had been interested in, so I was pleased we hit it off and hoped that we’d be able to collaborate one day.
The opportunity arose at St John’s College, Oxford, where we added a new study centre to a grade-I-listed Baroque ensemble. For a facade on to the President’s Garden, we had the idea of creating overlapping planes of stone, with glazing hidden between, with a water pond base, so changing shadows across the stone would be created as a reinterpretation of the traditional library stained glass window.
Susanna won a competitive process to be involved, and we worked closely with her from an early stage of the project. After Sandy and I visited Andalucia to look at stone and the caustic effects on water features in Seville and the Alhambra, Susanna went to visit too.
The collaboration took four years with a lot of experimentation and toing and froing between Susanna, us and the client. The 20m by 5m wall comprises three planes of Clipsham stone carved inside and out. We discussed with Susanna how rain runs off buildings so that it was detailed accordingly, and reviewed together how the stone would sit in relation to the water.
During this time, Susannah created a red, abstract painting that embodied the spirit of her design for the wall and the lines that formed the relief. She showed the client the drawing and told them they had to trust her, and to their credit they did.
As part of the design development, Susanna created test blocks and set these up in her studio and we all got very wet with buckets of water, seeing how the stone worked with the water. When she had finalised the design, she created her stone model with numbered depths for different parts of the relief, which was divided into a grid of panels. This was then upscaled into a guide for CNC-cutting the stone by specialist subcontractor Stone Circle.
All the different parts of the stone grid had to be spot on to the millimetre for the relief to work, and they are. When you get a breeze you get these amazing caustics all over the walls, inside and out, as the sunlight and water reflections on the carving change constantly with the time of day and weather conditions.
It was a joy to work with Susanna and her team. We had a lot of fun together, although as it was quite a major piece of art, we were very serious about it too.
Naila Yousuf: We worked with Dusty Gedge at London’s Museum of the Home, where we created a garden for the 21st century on the roof of a new studio building as part of the museum’s Gardens Through Time series.
Dusty is the top green roof expert so we went straight to him for advice before the design of the building was even developed. His approach was so refreshing. He’s extremely practical and really broadened our horizons on how green roofs attenuate water and can support passive systems – they are an integral part of the architecture. And he gave the museum the confidence that it was something it could maintain.
Along with Dusty and head gardener Heather Stevens, we carried out research trips to Beth Chatto’s drought-resistant garden near Colchester, the BiSolar roof at Here East on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and architect Justin Bere’s house in north London.
Dusty came up with a climate-resilient approach rather than specifying native species as used to be the norm. He advocated European and South American counterparts to British species that would do well in hotter conditions while not threatening the ecosystem. Around the perimeter, we have Mexican plants such as yuccas and succulents, with Mediterranean alliums and herbs in the middle, and pollinators around a path of York stone. Different depths of topsoil from 200-400mm were designed in to suit particular types of planting, with ceramic waste chippings in between.
Dusty also advised us and engineers at Alan Baxter on the design of the primary structure, with the engineers working back from his green roof specification to determine the depth of the steel and Vierendeel trusses around the roof lantern, which helped set the ceiling levels. When we got to the working drawings, we worked with Dusty to review the technical drawings and specifications and he came down to site to check he was happy with how the green roof was being set up.
Every time I visit, I’m impressed by how the roof looks. It changes with the seasons, almost like a mirror of its environment, which adds interest to the local area's roofscape and continues to generate delight for visitors and passers-by.
Dusty’s very good at challenging the status quo. He’s a leading advocate for green roofs to be part of planning policy, and the days of new buildings being built without a properly designed green roof are surely numbered. It’s amazing how thinking has moved on in the last few years. The climate-resilient garden was Wright & Wright’s first green roof and we’re hoping to collaborate with Dusty again soon on another project.
Swanage Handmade Bricks
Sandy Wright: For Lambeth Palace Library we wanted to create a great tweed of brickwork rising nearly 40m high and were very much influenced by the existing handmade brickwork found on the 15th century Morton’s Tower at the entrance to the palace.
We collaborated with Swanage Handmade Bricks in Dorset, which I’d last worked with 30 years previously. It produced some 300,000 handmade clay bricks. In effect, the brickwork was handmade twice: once by Swanage, and again by the bricklayers as they constructed the wall, with us as architect working on the details and patterning somewhere in between.
A lot of architects have lost touch with visiting places of manufacture but it’s absolutely essential, as is building mock-ups and trialling. Some of us went down to the works and even had a go at making our own bricks. You can’t just specify out of a catalogue. You have to convince yourself, and many others, that you’re choosing the right ones.
We were interested in Flemish bond in oranges, reds and purples with burnt headers mixed in, a bit like a speckled egg. Swanage built mock-ups and tested chevron and cruciform patterning. They did dry-lay patterns in the factory and in a compound on site, which allowed us to experiment easily by moving the different coloured bricks around.
We spent a lot of time working out the combination of bricks. It took two or three months to get the right mix with the right mortar and the right kinds of joint – in the end, we used bucket-handled joints. A clever chap in our office came up with a program that allowed us to see how the wall would look with various percentages of burnt headers; the second we saw the right option, we just knew.
Swanage ended up producing a mixture of standard bricks, standard specials and special specials, which were required because our building was designed to follow the angle of the site boundary. These included special lintel bricks.
At the brickworks, the bricks had to be mixed up in the right combinations in each batch so that the bricklayers, Grangewood Brickwork, had just the right mix of bricks to hand as they worked through each palette. They took around six months to lay. Swanage was always on hand; if ever there was anything they were needed for, they’d nip up to the site. The quality of brickwork is impeccable and is a testament to both the skill of Swanage, the bricklayers and Knight Harwood the main contractor. It won the Best Public Building and was the Supreme Winner at the Brick Awards last year.
Sandy Wright: For the replacement of 28 stone columns at St John’s College, Oxford, we worked with a team of stone experts, from independent stone petrologist Dr David Jefferson to Paul Allinson at Dunhouse quarry, Bernard Burns and Alan Burd at stonemasons Szerelmey, Andy Toohey at engineer Price & Myers and Jon Brock at Beard, the main contractor.
It’s difficult to disentangle the input of each, as we were all working together to find the right solution. It was very much a group effort and a very interesting journey.
The columns lined the grade I listed Canterbury Quadrangle, which was built in 1636 and is regarded as one of the most important samples of English baroque. The 2.5m-high shafts were created from local Bletchingdon marble. This had been laid off-bed and, as a result, had developed fissures over the centuries, some serious. The columns needed replacing, but the original quarry was closed.
We turned to consultant David Jefferson, an expert in geology and petrography in heritage conservation and archaeology, who had been widely recommended. It was reassuring for the client to have independent advice. He helped us find a suitable stone that was strong enough, would weather well and had the right appearance for the setting. He came up with Swaledale Fossil, a carboniferous limestone from a quarry by Barnard Castle. Going to the quarry with him was a very interesting process. He had a special hammer and knew just by listening to the sound it made on the stones whether or not they were good to use.
There’s no British Standard for stone columns. But we didn’t want something that would last only 200 years. So we had to do extensive testing, sending away sample blocks to laboratories for compression, weathering and frost testing, to get the reassurances that would satisfy not only ourselves but the client, planners and Historic England.
After the testing, it was decided to cut the stone for the bases and capitals on-bed and the shafts off-bed. Even though the shaft stone was off-bed, this is a far stronger stone than the original columns, so will last much longer. We also relied heavily on the expertise of the Dunhouse quarry. It produced samples of columns with different degrees of polishing, which we tested on site. It polishes up well. The fossils come out in a great pattern and there’s a real life to it.
The new columns are now installed and are much straighter than the ones they replaced, which had ended up as much as 30mm out of plum. It was a real treat to work with the team, and also with a patron who wants to build buildings to last for the next 500 years.
As told to Pamela Buxton