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Michelmersh sets a melodius tone at Birmingham Conservatoire

Creamy-buff brickwork encasing Birmingham’s Conservatoire reflects the harmonies working within

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The top of the building incorporates a series projecting brick headers arranged in a square formation.
The top of the building incorporates a series projecting brick headers arranged in a square formation. Credit: J Hopkins

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s new home has been built on a compact urban site adjacent to a dual carriageway on Birmingham City University’s campus. 

This is both an open public performance venue and more private educational institution. It has five performance spaces, stacked one above another over three levels on the site’s small triangular footprint by architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS). To minimise sound transfer between performance spaces, each is structurally separate with a heavy massed floor and wall construction supported on a steel frame to form series of isolated boxes within the Conservatoire’s brick envelope.

Colin Cobb, an associate at FCBS, describes the building’s envelope as a ‘carved solid’, which he says provides a ‘protective castle’ around the noise sensitive interior.

Tough, elegant brick facades protect the venue acoustically. ‘We wanted the building to express a sense of history and timelessness; cladding it in beefy masonry seemed one way of delivering that,’ Cobb explains. That beefy masonry also helps keep out road noise. ‘Making this a brick building, ensured the acoustic solution was in sync with the aesthetic solution,’ he adds.

The building’s monolithic brick walls are cranked and faceted to hug the site’s boundary. Brick planes are articulated with vertical lines of protruding brick ends, a feature described by Cobb as ‘zips’. These neatly conceal the facade’s vertical movement joints. Between them, windows are set in deep 225mm reveals. Most are on the road side to allow daylight into practice studios; the modest scale of the fenestration and the walls’ heavyweight construction help to acoustically control low frequency sound transmission.  

 

The building’s brick envelope provides a protective castle around the sound- sensitive interior.
The building’s brick envelope provides a protective castle around the sound- sensitive interior. Credit: J Hopkins

The brick facade is hung from the building’s concrete frame. ‘The brickwork is supported every two storeys on steel shelf-angle brackets with [horizontal] movement joints that are no more than 10mm wide,’ says Cobb. Brickwork in quarter stretcher bond changes direction at the ‘zip’ detail.

At the top of the building a large parapet wall screens the rooftop plant space. Like the zip detail, it incorporates projecting brick headers, this time in a square formation, to ‘give a balance to the elevation,’ says Cobb.

When it came to selecting the brick, Cobb says no colour was predominant in the area so it came down to finding what would work with the building’s scale. The brick selected was Michelmersh’s Floren Polaris, a grey-white brick on a brown body. To ensure perfect homogeneity at the edges of the brick planes, rather than use specials for the non-90˚ corners, Cobb explains that standard bricks were ‘cut and stuck’ – a technique that involves cutting bricks and bonding the elements together with epoxy resin to form a brick with desired face-angle.

Mortar colour was selected to blend with the brick. Cobbs reports that the local sand is ‘particularly orange’, so an admixture was used to transform the mortar to a colour closer to that of the brick. ‘Tonally the mortar is relatively similar to give a more homogenous surface,’ he says.

The base of the building is defined with a darker brick plinth which Cobb says ‘allows the top be a singular volume that appears to float and does not touch the ground’. Entrances and larger window openings are set into the plinth, while glazed doors lead from the road-side entrance into a timber-lined three-level foyer which also gives access to the building’s lower campus-side entrance. A storey-height change in level is accommodated by a generous timber stair.  

The conservatoire’s world-class facilities, enhanced by FCBS’s choice of brick and impeccable facade detailing, give the city an important new cultural hub. 

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