I have been involved in the Façade industry, predominantly in London, for over thirty years and have seen huge changes. The one constant I would say are the creative and pragmatic people involved in our industry.
In the late eighties I joined Bovis Constructionand became involved with the deliveryof the façade on Foster and Partner’s Headquarters in Grays Inn Road. This hada stellar team including Grant Brooker, Ken Shuttleworth and Robin Partington, with the early double skin façade by Josef Gartnerand the cathedral wall and roof by GIG. Asan engineer I loved the finer points of façade engineering and materials technology and, coupled with an appreciation of good architecture and detailing, my lifelong passion for facades was set.
Following that project I was involved with many prestigious projects including the Rothschild Headquarters by OMA, Central Saint Giles by Renzo Piano, One New Change by Jean Nouvel and One Eagle Place by Eric Parry. I mention these particular projects as they incorporated some artisan elements such as faience, fine mesh and bespoke design, as part of the façade. This entailed lots of time understanding unusual trades, sampling and mock ups and pushing boundaries with an open mind. The results are beautiful and unique. As projects have become more complex and incorporating unusual materials there is an increasing reliance on large scale visual mock ups which bring great benefit provided the programmes and budgets are realistic and allow for this process.
It is important to mention the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology (CWCT), who were very influential in the development of facade engineering in the UK in the eighties, people such as Art Muschenheim of SOM and Stephen Ledbetter of CWCT. At that time we just had the American standards and also limited test facilities. In those days it was not unusual to be spending many weeks at the Performance Test Mock Up (if you had one..) before achieving success. Nowadays this is much more straightforward and we have standards which are internationally recognised. I am pleased to have played a part in this great achievement.
A few years ago I noticed a trend in more tall buildings being constructed in London and I wanted to be part of this exciting development. I joined Multiplex and have been involved in many great projects including 22 Bishopsgate by PLP and One Blackfriars by Simpson Haugh. The 22 Bishopsgate project is the largest Closed Cavity Façade in Europe. It took a visionary client such as Peter Rogers to support such a project with this technology and again a great team, including Rob Peebles and Karen Cook of PLP and Gartner, to design and deliver. When setting up the project sufficient time was allowed in the process for due diligence and applying lessons learned, testing and mock ups.
It was significant to note how open everyone was with sharing lessons learned and as a result the final result represents a major step forward in this technology. One Blackfriars sits elegantly on the Thames and no one can fail to stop and marvel at the complex geometry of the Cap. The resolution of this complex geometry required intense collaboration between architect, structural engineer, and specialist subcontractor Yuanda and shows how far integrated design has developed with regard to facade technology ensuring design reaches the highest level of excellence.
Multiplex project Damac Tower by John Bushell of KPF takes tall buildings to the next level by including a high level bridge spanning between the two towers, which is essentially a 5 storey office building. This has posed technical challenges in terms of movement and tolerance, timing of the cladding installation and not least how to construct it safely. These are now well under construction. Again, projects like this illustrate how much stronger the collaboration is now between engineers, architects and contractors.
Whilst this is all very exciting, it is important not to forget refurbishment projects and one of my favourites has been 48 Leicester Square by MAKE. This entailed the largest façade retention scheme in Europe and introducing a beautiful contemporary mansard roof, by specialist subcontractor Schneider. The engineering challenges of this project were immense, to design and fabricate something with refined tolerances and incorporate elegantly within such an old façade. The existing frame was completely removed and a new steel frame installed and tied back to the existing façade. Waterman Engineers did some incredibly detailed analysis working closely with MAKE, Schneider and Multiplex. Once again we had lots of surveys, full scale mock ups and fabricated the complex corners off site to ensure best fit prior to site installation. The building now sits proudly on Leicester Square.
When I first began in our industry Europe seemed a big place but quickly this became the norm in terms of our supply chain. I did not imagine at that time I would be travelling to the Far East and China to procure facades. This has now become commonplace, albeit it has taken some time to develop a mutual understanding of cultures, expectations, standards and capabilities. It is a small world, rightly so.
I do see it as a very positive development that main contractors, specialist subcontractors and suppliers are engaged early in the design process in order to ensure we have a robust and deliverable design, also including an optimum programme and realistic budget. Early involvement also enables understanding of materials and performance but also pushes boundaries. It is good to see developments such as Liquid Crystal Glass which ensures facades are at the forefront of technology not just in terms of optimising energy usage but also to moderate the internal conditions in order to maximise wellness. Ultra High Performance Concrete will help to take design to another level through realising solidity on a large scale with interesting shapes and aspect ratios whilst not penalising the structural frame. Perhaps we should continue to look outside our traditional supply chain in order to continue to grow.
The UK façade industry has had its ups and downs and sadly we have seen the demise of some really good specialist subcontractors.
There are also excellent companies who have prevailed through being rightly conservative with regard to growth and also with regards to the client base and product offering. Sadly risk profiles are high in the façade industry and sometimes there is an imbalance in the apportioning of risk and perhaps a naivety in terms of taking this on which can end badly. I am pleased that I helped establish the first façade group within a main contractor organisation and have seen this trend grow similarly with the other main contractors. The informed understanding and technical expertise within these groups has seen a more balanced approach to risk and should continue to ensure a more thorough appreciation and understanding of what is possible in terms of realising the design. I always say that the façade team in the main contractor organisation is the bridge between design and construction.
Complex geometry and 3D modelling is really a given in facades. Equally digitalisation is now more widespread and we use Bluetooth technology to track fabrication, transportation and installation of panels and materials. We are collaborating with Arup Façade on one of our major projects to provide a detailed model of the building, with each façade panel having its own file with embedded information which allows the client to understand every aspect of the provenance of the materials included in their facade, fabrication details and associated dates. This is readily accessible and should form a benchmark for such projects moving forward.
I would say that whilst digitalisation is the way forward it is still wonderful to see the Façade Engineering Sketchbooks as part of the façade design package which break down all the components of the façade and suggest how they can be reconstructed. Apart from being artistic in their own right, these provide reassurance of the robustness of the design and an understanding of components and interfaces which bodes well for the detailed design stage.
I am proud of our industry and our journey and I would finish by reiterating that our success is down to the collaboration of talented individuals and clients with great vision. This will ensure that the London skyline continues to develop and inspire.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Autumn 2019 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Editors note: At the time of Publishing, Eilis was Head of Facades at Multiplex
Author: Eilis McShane – Head of Façades, Multiplex
Eilis has a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering, a Masters in Façade Engineering and over 30 years of experience in the construction industry. As Multiplex’s Head of Façades, she is responsible for ensuring that all façade design solutions are compliant with the Client Brief and can be constructed efficiently, while also overseeing key elements of the supply chain, such as systems design, glazing, stone and brickwork. Eilis and her team work on a portfolio of major UK projects, predominantly in London, with recent examples including London Wall Place, Centre Point Tower and 22 Bishopsgate – soon to be the tallest office building in the City of London. In the course of her career, she has also worked on many other iconic London buildings, including Central Saint Giles, One New Change and the Rothschild Headquarters.
As a recognised industry expert, Eilis spent several years on the technical committee for the CWCT (Centre for Window and Cladding Technology), which defines standards and good practice for façade engineering and drives innovation within the industry. She also lectures at schools and universities, hosts continuing professional development talks for colleagues and leads façade training for the Multiplex Graduate Scheme.