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
www.passivhaus.org.uk, 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:
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
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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