Modern construction meets historic architecture

Modern construction meets historic architecture

Modern construction in historic surroundings brings a myriad of design and technical challenges, with planning requirements often at odds with modern building methods. In this post, James Ormerod, MD Aliva UK, explains how new cladding technology is helping to meet these challenges head on.

CladdingElliott House in Edinburgh – once weathered, the stone cladding will blend seamlessly with the surrounding buildings

Blending modern buildings with historic surroundings is a major challenge for UK architects. We are lucky enough to have a rich architectural heritage; one that councils and communities rightly want to preserve, but this means that gaining planning permission is a big hurdle for any project. This is particularly true in conservation areas and historic settings, where there are often stringent requirements for any new development.

Introduced in the late 1960s, there are now around 10,000 conservation areas in the UK. As well as historic landmarks and rural villages and landscapes, these also include the centres of some older cities and towns, former industrial sites and even some significant early housing estates.

Specifying products for restoration, refurbishment or new build projects in these areas can be technically challenging. Modern construction is increasingly moving towards lightweight frames and the use of materials that can’t support heavy loads. This means that planning requirements can sometimes be at odds with both the proposed design aesthetic and latest construction methods.

Lightweight construction versus traditional stone

In historic and conservation settings, planners often require materials that are in keeping with the surrounding buildings, and in the UK more often than not that means stone.

Stone construction is a big part of our past and in certain cities in particular – think Oxford, Edinburgh or York – the local stone has had an enormous impact on the architectural aesthetic. It’s not surprising then that in these places, planners set the requirement to build in stone.

CladdingLocal stone has played a big role in the architectural history of cities like Oxford.

Modern developers don’t like building with traditional wet laid stone blocks. One of the main reasons for this is that it significantly slows the speed of construction. Stone cladding addresses this issue, offering thinner panels that can be produced from a range of different types of stone.

Increasingly though, even traditional stone cladding panels, which are usually about 40mm thick, can be too heavy for the frames of modern buildings. This is the challenge facing architects and contractors. While a client may need speedy completion and acceptable costs, this has to be balanced against strict specifications from the planners.

Stone cladding that’s a third of the weight

We have been involved in many projects where this tricky balancing act is needed. It’s been driving new technological developments in cladding that are proving that it is possible to use authentic stone on lightweight frames.

Recent developments in our fixing technology have made it possible for us to manufacture natural stone cladding panels at 20mm thick. In addition, we’ve recently introduced an even thinner and lighter type of stone cladding called Aliva Air, which I believe will remove the headaches of marrying modern construction methods with the UK’s architectural heritage.

The principle behind Aliva Air is simple – a thin veneer (approx. 10mm) of stone is cut and then bonded to a composite panel with a stainless steel backing. Not only do the panels weigh in at about a third of the weight of traditional stone cladding, they also use considerably less stone to cover the same number of square metres.

Two recent Aliva projects in Scotland provide the perfect examples of how this new technology is already being put to good use.
For both projects, the local planners had specified that particular types of stone must be used in the build. In Glasgow, this was local red sandstone, while in Edinburgh it was buff sandstone. The architects and contractors on each project wanted to use frames that wouldn’t take the weight of traditional stone cladding.

Our solution in both cases was to take the type of stone specified by the planners and turn it into large composite Aliva Air panels.

CladdingElliott House in Edinburgh – reveal panels in the window embrasures create the appearance of solid stone blocks

For Elliott House in Edinburgh, the development wasn’t just in a conservation area, but also adjoining an existing historic building (as can be seen in the image at the top of this post). Besides using the same stone as the older building, we used reveal panels in the window embrasures – as pictured above – and monolithic corners, which create the appearance of solid stone. It also complemented the design of the surrounding architecture while still retaining a modern feel.

In Glasgow, there was more flexibility in the design and the red sandstone Aliva Air panels were used portrait and designed in a radial format to create a stunning curved stone façade.

CladdingBeith Street development in Glasgow uses locally sourced red sandstone on super-thin Aliva Air panels

The success of these projects in bringing together lightweight frames with traditional building materials has us excited about what the future holds for Aliva Air and our other lightweight stone technology. In a country with such a strong architectural heritage, products that bring together new construction methods and traditional materials will help to revolutionise the way we look at development in conservation and historic areas, allowing us to truly embrace the concept of old meets new.