Ipswich Icons: Architects and builders giving us quality still
PUBLISHED: 20:00 09 May 2018
John Norman takes a look at annual RIBA Suffolk Craftsmanship Awards.
Something a little different this week. I have just completed the adjudication of the annual RIBA Suffolk Craftsmanship Awards: an opportunity for me to gauge the state of the construction industry in the county as well as rejoice at the ongoing skill and quality displayed by the tradesmen and women involved.
The results of the competition will be announced at the Joint Board Supper, which will take place at Trinity Park on May 17, but before then an overview of what I’ve seen.
There has been a record number of nominations this year – an indication of a healthy economy in the construction industry, although there is an imbalance between the small number of large new buildings and the proliferation of refurbishment of the existing stock.
Both in the commercial sector and with domestic housing there has been a predominance of extensions and restoration, rather than new building. The lack of investment in new commercial buildings and production facilities across the county continues to be a concern, a situation which leads to undue emphasis on the few nominations in this sector.
This article does not seek to name buildings which will be receiving certificates but simply highlights the diverse range of construction projects which building owners and their architects consider worthy of an award. It also seeks to reflect the purpose of the competition, which is to confirm that lasting quality is still being delivered by Suffolk-based building contractors. It is pleasing to note that contractors continue to employ skilled craftspeople across a broad range of traditional trades.
This demonstration of skill and ability is predominant in the external envelope of a building, in the roof, the external walls and exposed joinery components. Slating and tiling on pitched roofs is enhanced by detailed lead work at abutments and chimneys, and external walls which for the last century have been in brick are using an increasing amount of timber panels, cedar or larch –which, left unpainted, matures into mottled silver and needs no further maintenance.
Timber is of course substantially friendlier to the environment than bricks, which require copious amounts of energy to convert raw clay into a material of lasting quality. Houses plastered externally (rendered) frequently demonstrate a high level of skill, but we don’t often see anything other than “flat-work”. There are very few craftspeople with the skill to add decoration; even simple panelling seems to have all but disappeared. Outstanding examples of the plasterer’s skill are more frequently found internally: walls that curve in two directions or on the underside of winding stairs.
There have been some quality examples of internal plastering in this year’s competition and those contractors involved should pay particular attention to the results. Nominations this year included a fair number of additional classrooms alongside existing schools and I travelled to the far corners of the county to inspect examples: from Ipswich to Brandon and from Haverhill to Lowestoft.
There are two things which make judging of these educational projects difficult. The first is that school budgets are much tighter than those seen elsewhere (the cost per square metre can be half of that seen in some privately-funded buildings).
The second is the lack of architectural merit. There may be simplicity in a rectangular classroom but they contribute little to the ambience of the school. I’m sure the internal arrangement in, for example, Suffolk One or Pakefield High School adds inspiration to the learning process. It is of course refreshing to witness a continuing investment in our educational infrastructure and although some has come about with the change from the three-tier system, those schools that are delivering quality learning are also growing.
Finally, by way of example, can I make mention of Westhorpe Village Hall, an outstanding community building which, by default, was built to a tight budget but shows just what can be achieved with close collaboration between architect and contractor. The completed building is a joy to behold, an asset worthy of the investment and an example of quality craftsmanship at work. The full results will be announced in this paper following the dinner.