Pretty in brick

Clay Technology magazine
20 Oct 2017

Brick served as a connector between past and future of Leeds’ Victoria Gate Arcade refurbishment, as Ines Nastali reports.

Brick connects. While you might argue it’s the mortar that serves as the connection of constructions, it is the choice of brick that can make the difference. For example, embedding a refurbished building façade within the history of its surroundings. 

Proof of this theory was delivered by Friedrich Ludewig, architect at the Acme London studios. He spoke at Allies and Morrison architects in London at the beginning of October. The studio served as the meeting point for an event organised by the Brick Development Association, celebrating recently finished projects.

Ludewig took guests on a brief historical tour of the Victoria Quarter (also known as Eastgate Quarter) in Leeds, outlining why he and his team chose to refurbish a shopping centre within the Victoria Gate Arcade with a brick façade. 

‘The exterior of the building evolves from the 19th and 20th century language of the surrounding Blomfield and Victorian brick and terracotta buildings, and consists of sculpturally pleated brick elevations, changing in rhythm and scale to respond to the context,’ Ludewig stated. ‘We wanted to create a very specific response to Leeds, which has a history of workers from cloths and weaving factories on one side but also a very posh side to it.’ The side of the quarter that housed wealthier people features Yorkstone, while the other side features bricks, so ‘we were left with a bit of a medieval mess here,’ Ludewig added.

While the team didn’t want to copy Blomfield’s effort, the architect behind many of the surrounding Victorian buildings, they tried to replicate the structures of the brick, harmonising with the locale.

Planning is king 

Once the decision to use brick had been made, Acme needed to decide who to contract for the manufacturing of the bricks and how to get the product to the building site. ‘We thought about using robots, but landed on pre cast,’ said Catherine Hennessy, another architect who worked on the project. This decision was driven by the nature of the project. ‘Planning is king in retail, if you say you open on a certain date, you do,’ she added.  

Speaking about the choice to go with bricks, Acme stated, ‘The chamfer and the offset of the bricks create depth to enrich the perception of the whole. The three-dimensional texture of the brickwork, and how we could form pleats and steps, was an important factor in the decision to form the external façade from brick-faced precast concrete panels.’ The architects said they devised a series of width modules of seven, nine, 11 or 13 bricks, which could be repeated in differing lengths. All the brickwork was pointed off-site and complete panels were lifted into place and restrained back to the steel frame.

The supplier 

Ketley Brick was chosen to supply 360,000 bricks, consisting of Staffordshire Red Brick Slips, Staffordshire Red Special Bricks and Staffordshire Red bespoke snap headers, which created a special perforation after the bricks were broken into two pieces by hand. This reduced cutting costs and therefore the carbon embodied in the building.  

Acme supplied Revit software drawings, which were then translated into 3D-planning software at Thorp, which was contracted to do the pre casts, to make the panels even more accurate. Luke Smerdon-White, Technical Director at Thorp Precast, explained that ‘a Class A brick was really the only option for this project. On the exposed surface of the projecting headers, water can be held and the brick therefore needed to be of a high specification with low water absorption’.

Thorp provided self-supporting panels with a steel frame, which were stacked on arrival at the construction side. Before pre cast production began, one of the panels was sent to Leeds for a test to see if pigeons would use the exposed bricks to build a nest. ‘Pigeons need to be able to turn around on the structure they want to roost on, so if you keep the exposed brick construction below 60mm, they won’t be able to do that,’ Hennessy said, adding that information is needed for starlings. 

Consequently, Ketley Bricks stated, the choice fell on robust bricks that would complement the history of Leeds. ‘It became clear early on in the project that many bricks would have five exposed faces, choosing the right one would be key to the project’s success. Dimensional stability, an absence of inferior faces, low water absorption and high frost resistance, high strength and the right finish to complement the predominantly Victorian local vernacular were all key requirements.’