Cop a look at the cladding on that

Cladding isn’t just cosmetic. It’s where practical design meets aesthetic desire to create buildings that not only catch the eye, but provide places we’re comfortable to be

Photo: Netley Primary School, London

AESTHETICS is a notoriously subjective factor, but the truth is the look and feel of a building goes a long way to making us feel at home, as it were, whether that’s in an office, a school, or indeed a residence.

It’s not enough to perform according to a set of physical design criteria – energy efficiency, environmental, health and wellbeing, for instance – it must also appeal to our senses if it is to be accepted and become a fully realised human space.

No easy task. Externally, cladding is perhaps one of the most important aspects of ensuring a structure meets the criteria of both form and function. It’s more than just cosmetic, however; the exterior itself serves a physical purpose, screening against the elements as much as providing something welcome to the eye.

Modified timber materials are increasingly finding use as an ideal means to combine the architectural ‘eye-candy’ with a rugged environmental performance – in more ways than one. By treating and otherwise modifying softwoods, of course, pressure is taken off more sensitive sources such as tropical hardwoods. It also has sound carbon credentials, and there is the natural appeal of wood too.

Accoya is a prime example. Manufactured by Accsys Technologies, it has found its way into a growing body of projects, from structural use to decorative (but no less functional, for that), including cladding.

The material was used in the refurbishment of Netley Primary School and its campus in London, which provides a prime example of its capabilities as a cladding material.

The original Netley Campus, situated near to Euston, was a sprawling complex with a mishmash of architectural styles. It consisted of a mainstream Victorian primary school, a separate 1970s Foundation Unit, an Autistic Spectrum Disorder unit, a Community Learning Centre and a Primary Referral Unit. The fragmented development of the site had resulted in a disorientating layout and some of the building was no longer fit for purpose.

Architects Pollard Thomas Edwards were hired to deliver the refurbishment project. To give the building a strong presence, the team finished the building with Accoya cladding, which benefited from a dark translucent Sikkens coating system. The finish not only adds significantly to the townscape, but the Accoya cladding is also durable and stable, providing a long lasting, low maintenance finish, able to cope with the harshest weather conditions.

“The Netley Campus is a real hub for the local community providing several services within one complex. However after years of make-shift upgrades the building no longer met the needs of the students and services users,” said Phil Roche, managing director of Abbey Woods, the company that supplied the Accoya for the project.

“As a result the purpose of this project was to deliver a state-of-the-art facility, which would meet the needs of the community. Given the self-funding nature of the project the architects were keen to use long-lasting materials which would require little maintenance and we immediately recommended Accoya for the project. The finished building is impressive and the architects have been impressed with the performance of Accoya throughout the process.”

The finished project has gone on to scoop an Education Estates Award and it was highly commended by the Camden Design Awards. Applying modern materials to such antique architecture as Netley is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of design. Achieving those practical and aesthetic considerations of building performance, but in a way that remains sympathetic and respectful of the original, to create a thoroughly modern synthesis is surely a real test of cladding’s capacity to deliver what’s required of it.

Well, school buildings are one thing, residences quite another. Over in Norway, cladding material – this time Kebony – was put to good effect in a project to renovate a rundown farmhouse.

As with the school above, the combination of original 19th century construction combined with modern methods and materials, has served to showcase the essential attributes – cosmetic and functional – required of cladding systems, whether used in refurbs such as this or in newbuild applications.

Situated on the east side of the River Glomma, it endures some tough weather conditions; one of the reasons why the architects tasked with the project – LINK – chose Kebony.

The owners were keen to preserve the historic building, intending to restore one of the last historic farmsteads prominent in the area. They sought to develop an annex to extend the existing residential property and redevelop the original triangular-roofed farmhouse building. Some sections needed to be demolished, other parts required significant attention.

LINK’s design was heavily influenced by traditional gable-roofed farmhouses with the newbuild intending to modernise the antiquated aesthetic in a minimalistic manner. Both the roof and façade of the extension are clad with Kebony, chosen by the architects as it helped maintain the traditional style of the original farmhouse. The wooden cladding gives the barn its striking external appearance and creates a natural look and feel, with an additional benefit of integrating sustainability into the build.

“This project has been fascinating to work on with the traditional Scandinavian design style interwoven with modern architectural elements. The Kebony cladding is a really exciting way to keep traditional architecture alive without the negative environmental impact associated with hardwood deforestation,” said Martin Ebert, LINK’s lead architect.

Materials such as Kebony or Accoya have their own aesthetic, as do the alternative cladding materials out there, but they all share a common purpose – to guard against the elements and to make us feel we’ve arrived at a place worth our well-being.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine