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Ian Abley

Ian Abley

Ian Abley is a qualified architect with a long CV and extensive practical experience. He is currently undertaking research for an EngD on the subject of “Improving the efficiency of the UK masonry construction sector”. While his day job has been as a detailer and site architect, Ian has a track record of research and publication. Following the conference Building Audacity he edited Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age (Wiley-Academy, 2001) as a collection of essays concerned with change in the construction industry. With Professor James Woudhuysen of De Montfort University in Leicester he was then co-author of Why is construction so backward? (Wiley, 2004), and Homes 2016 (Blueprint Broadsides, 2004). He has recently co-edited Manmade Modular Megastructures (AD magazine, January/February 2006), occasionally writes for Building Magazine, and is starting a regular column in Construction Manager.

With his wife Kate Abley he runs audacity, a campaigning company that advocates developing the man-made environment. audacity organises authoritative international research, large conferences, a provocative website and a dynamic school of writers, public speakers and photographers.

Ian Abley was on the panel at The Great Megastructures Debate at Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne on 15 March 2007 and is on the panel of Engineering the Future at the one day workshop Facing the Future on 5 November 2011.

Proceedings of The Great Megastructures Debate

Ian Abley can be contacted on 07947 621 790, or via email on

Ian Abley EngD Theme:
Improving the efficiency of the UK masonry construction sector

An improvement agenda in masonry construction can hardly be considered novel. Bricks, blocks or stone, and the mortar or adhesives they need, have always improved. The process of continuous improvement has been essential in the masonry construction sector to maintain manufacturing competitiveness, and advance the performance of ever more composite building fabric. Improvement in product and technology has needed to happen while ensuring the practicality of masonry construction, recognising it is the skill and care of masonry operatives that delivers the architectural result.

The bricks, blocks, stone and mortar that make masonry construction have improved in response to regulatory and architectural change. The skills of the workforce have simultaneously adapted, and the insights of the men and women that make masonry have informed innovations. Yet in this current period of rapid change in both environmental policy and aesthetics, the pace of change requires a conscious effort at improvement across the masonry sector. The Modern Masonry Alliance was established to raise the reputation of masonry for predictably long life, high performance, and low maintenance construction at a good price per square metre. With of course the £/m2 rate the key to building more floor area for a given budget.

With the aim of realising conscious and collective improvement in the staple of masonry construction the MMA has sponsored a four year Engineering Doctorate at the Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Research at Loughborough University. The MMA has sponsored Ian Abley, an architect by training, to deliver on the EngD theme of “Improving the efficiency of the UK masonry construction sector”.

Ian’s academic supervisors are Dr Jacqui Glass and Dr Dave Edwards. His industrial supervisors are Martin Clarke of British Precast and Michael Driver of the Brick Development Association. The EngD started in October 2006, and will conclude in July 2010, after a series of focused projects have been delivered upon.

Ian Abley is a qualified architect with a long CV and extensive practical experience. He will undertake the EngD “hot-desking” between institutions and practices with premises in London, where his family is based. Offers of support have already come from Rynd Smith, Head of Policy and Practice at the Royal Town Planning Institute, David Birkbeck at Design for Homes in the Building Centre, EPR Architects and Whitby Bird Façade Engineers. The last two were Ian’s former employers, prior to YRM architects. Other associations will be developed as the EngD advances – and not simply in London.

With kind sponsorship from the MMA in September 2006, audacity launched an imprint, starting with James Heartfield’s Let’s Build! – Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years (audacity 001, 2006) With Chief Executive of The Housing Corporation Jon Rouse as the keynote speaker, Let’s Build! as audacity 001 was launched at Superbia - The case for suburbia on 23 September 2006, at the Centre for Suburban Studies, Kingston University. As Jon Rouse has said, "I really like what audacity do".

With that sort of encouragement it is Ian’s intention to continue to use audacity as a means for generating debate about policy and practice throughout the EngD programme. This will allow for more journalistic enquiries to proceed in parallel to the academic rigour of the EngD that the CICE expects. It will also allow the ongoing research of the MMA sponsored EngD to be disseminated to a much wider audience, invited to engage with the various projects. A few examples are worth highlighting:

At the narrowly technical end of the EngD enquiry Ian has established a research effort to develop what he calls Vacuum Insulated Masonry - or VIM. There is accelerating demand from government to improve thermal insulation, simultaneously with other advances in construction performance. The benchmark was arguably set in Darmstadt, Germany, in the mid-1990s with the Passivhaus programme. This has since been offered as a service by the BRE. This is available on, and requires – amongst other things – a U Value of 0.15 W/m2K as a substantial leap from current Building Regulation.

To achieve that sort of thermal performance with mineral fibre or foam insulants the wall thickness must be increased to ridiculous dimensions. In frame construction that can be expensive and in masonry cavity construction requires excessively engineered wall ties with consequent thermal bridge losses. A Vacuum Insulation Panel, as is used in fridge manufacture and now produced at vast economies of scale by North American companies in China, can realise a U Value of 0.1 W/m2K, better than Passivhaus, from thicknesses of between 40 and 25mm. It all depends on the VIP manufacturer.

Ian has established an association with Chris Meyer of AcuTemp, the best VIP manufacturer he could find, Scott Green of pultruded polycarbonate wall tie supplier CSM, and Darren Williams (himself Loughborough University graduate) at Lafarge. The team is prototyping VIM 01 as a brick faced concrete sandwich cladding panel using the self compacting concrete “Agilia”. Once this initiative begins to be proven then subsequent VIMs will be investigated, with the aim of achieving a VIM on-site using cavity brick and block construction. For example VIM 02 could easily be site built dense concrete blockwork, or one of a variety of brick or stone faced load-bearing concrete block constructions. Glued thin joint masonry, perhaps even delivered as off-site manufactured panels, might be another VIM option.

The investigation of a range of VIM technologies is the companion to advances in solid masonry wall construction, of which aircrete is most notable. Aerated concrete can easily be used to realise higher performance standards. Alongside insulated formwork systems that ease the use of insitu concrete, aircrete and VIM promise to take existing masonry products much further towards the point where improvements in thermal performance have been made obsolete. At that point the need for thermal upgrade over the design life of the cladding or structure is no longer an issue. With thermal performance being resolved with the suite of other performance requirements the Building Regulations will increasingly demand.

That is an example of a narrowly technical enquiry, and Ian is keen to ensure that higher performance walls get easier, not harder to construct for 100 year building design lives. A related but more typological enquiry is the idea of the Upgradeable Brick Home, or UBH (Ian likes project acronyms!) This idea is not new, and came from his last employment at YRM Architects. There he read F.R.S. Yorke’s “The Modern House”, which was essential reading in all its editions from 1934 to 1946. Yorke was the “Y” in YRM, and collected a series of case studies that shows us in 2007 that Modern Methods of Construction are very far from novel. Within that book was a discussion of bathroom and kitchen pods being developed in pre-war America, and which are now are back in architectural fashion.

Ian had been working on the pre-tender design for the prefabricated shower pods for Heathrow Terminal 5. It occurred that the sort of pod capabilities we have today could be developed in exactly the way Yorke had recognised at least 60 years ago. What if the masonry sector concentrated on what it does best – building rectilinear living space with a 100 year design life, into which, or onto which, is attached the kitchen, bathroom, toilet and utility rooms around an upgradeable services stack.

Again, not a new idea – several efforts have been made in the past to rationalise typological house planning. What if the short life, high use, and fast obsolete or out of fashion elements of the home were easily upgraded every 10 years? Bought as a depreciating asset so that the household enjoyed 100% of the use for a monthly credit payment, the pods could be replaced as a service without any need for DIY. That would leave the large masonry living accommodation intact, but assured of being up to date with fittings and building services over its life time.

Ian has maintained links with an informal team of prospective pod manufacturers, and alongside design research with companies capable of delivering good value masonry living accommodation he will set up a series of workshops over the course of his EngD.

That thinking, related to VIM, will lead to a pattern book approach for the efficient design of upgradeable brick homes – the obvious one being an update of the Georgian or Victorian terrace. That has raised another level of enquiry: What if such house designs could be typologically pre-approved as “permitted development” in exactly the way Type or System Approvals can be obtained in Building Control?

Such an approach needs to address the relationship of housing type (and internal floor area) to density of households per hectare. This particularly fascinates both David Birkbeck of Design for Homes, and Rynd Smith at the RTPI. The aim is to investigate the efficiency benefits to the masonry sector should planners become confident enough to permit pattern books of repetitive house types. The legislation for planners to do that is arguably in place, and as the typological approach has shown in the past, there are a range of site topologies that can easily be anticipated.

Much of Britain has a legacy of typological housing, which relates to established plot widths that as the superstructures wear our require replacement. The same thinking could not only apply to new sites, but to the mass of terraced, semi-detached and detached housing that already decides how redevelopment will tend to take place in a nation of freeholders.

These three examples – VIM, UBH and Type Approvals – represent early thinking. They may be conceived of as three components to the EngD:

  • Technological efficiency
  • Typological efficiency
  • Topological efficiency

Things will change in the process of pursuing these initial ideas, since that is the point of the EngD, distinct from the project based limitations of architectural practice. But the initial ideas of VIM, UBH and Type approvals show how the improvement agenda for masonry construction can range from the narrowly technical up to the strategic policy decisions of the planning system.

More importantly the examples show how the EngD is leveraged in collaboration with a wide range of professional specialists and interested product manufacturers. It is likely that some of the improvements to the efficiency of UK masonry construction will follow from the way masonry is planned, designed, detailed and most importantly worked.

This is all something of an experiment, only made possible by the goodwill of MMA members, and the mutual interests of other product manufacturers not ordinarily in a relationship with a masonry trade body. Ian looks forward to working with those who want to retain the proven benefits of masonry, but who can also see that bricks, blocks, stone and mortar can be made (beautifully) far more efficiently.

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Manmade Modular Megastructures
Manmade Modular Megastructures by Ian Abley (Editor), Jonathan Schwinge

Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age
Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age by Ian Abley and James Heartfield

Why is construction so backward? by James Woudhuysen and Ian Abley

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Useful Links


Let’s Build! – Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years

The Great Megastructures Debate proceedings

Reaching for the Sky. Review of The Great Megastructures Debate by Laura-Jay Turnbull

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