Ceramics: innovation from tradition

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THINK architectural innovation, digital design or 3D printing, and ceramics might not be the first materials that spring to mind.

But the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is championing the marriage of traditional materials with modern production methods.

Its Ceramica exhibition at the RIBA North gallery in Liverpool explores how they can combine to produce more sustainable components for use in construction.

And while you might think of ceramic building materials as bricks, tiles or paving, Ceramica’s centrepiece is a piece of interior design – a ceiling comprising 200 identical slip cast conical lights.

Conical lighting components developed by ECAlab's ceramics project

Curator Suzy Jones says: “They have been created using digital optimising engineering technology to create the most efficient shape or form, and that form diffuses and enhances light distribution, ultimatley reducing the amount of power needed to light buildings.”

The exhibition is the culmination of six years’ work by the Environmental Ceramics for Architecture Laboratory (ECAlab), an industry-backed collaboration between Liverpool, Leeds Beckett, Liverpool Hope and Glyndwr universities.

“It’s important as a platform to talk about use of components in future buildings,” says Jones.

ECAlab brings together designers, engineers, architects and ceramicists to develop new architectural applications for ceramics with an environmentally sustainable focus.

Co-founder Rosa Urbano-Gutierrez says: “Aluminium, glass and acrylic have a huge ecological footprint in terms of the energy and water used to extract or produce them. Ceramics are something you can find anywhere; you don’t need to transport them and they require very little processing before firing, which can happen very quickly. It takes less than a second to fire a tile.”

After using advanced modelling to create their ceiling design, ECAlab sent digital files of the high-gloss white prototype cones to a range of artists for interpretation. The process resulted in a range of textures, colours and forms, from translucent China Clay and porcelain to elaborate and decorative moulds and rustic clay variations.

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They hope that by bringing together artists, architects and engineers in this way, they will find innovative ways of reducing energy consumption.

Fellow co-founder Amanda Wanner says: “We don’t work with form for the sake of form. We want our works to have an environmental function. At the moment they are just prototypes but we envisage that business will commercialise them.”

They have already had a tentative approach from a small architectural practice working on a public building. Meanwhile, one of the artistic collaborators, Edit Szabo, specialises in functional products such as frost-resistant street furniture and acoustic tiles to clad home theatres or concert halls.

Szabo’s interpretation of conical design incorporated fibreglass to create a glowing, translucent, light and very strong material.

One Eagle Place [Image: Paul Carstairs/Arup]

Lex Harrison, a designer and ceramic material specialist for engineering giant Arup, senses ceramic might be about to have its day again, having fallen victim to changing fashions in recent decades.

He’s worked on showpiece buildings such as One Eagle Place (pictured above), off London’s Piccadilly Circus, where decorative faience (glazed terracotta) – created by Lancashire’s Darwen Terracotta – offers a splash of vibrant colour.

“There could be an important future for these materials because of their fireproof quality and durability,” he says. “The colours don’t fade if they are looked after.”

Darwen Terracotta’s work can also be seen on Islington’s Plaquemine Lock pub, a bright echo of London’s traditional terracotta tiled pubs of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Islington's ceramics-fronted Plaquemine Lock [Image: Howard Sooley]

And Harrison says specialist manufacturers are embracing modern technology alongside traditional methods to create exciting new buildings, adding that technological advances are beginning to make an impact commercially.

“While cost can be an issue on the most creative projects, there are examples where companies are using more up-scaled volume production methods and trying to incorporate craft techniques into that,” he says.

And, just as ECAlab’s work explores the use of 3D printing in ceramics, he points out: “Firing large clay objects has always been a challenge due to shrinkages, distortions and cracking, but there may be a day in the not-too-distant future when 3D-printed, storey-high ceramic building components become a reality.”

But it’s the potential created by the ready availability of source material from the earth that gets RIBA’s Jones excited.

“It’s an incredibly sustainable material that’s available all over the world in lots of different forms, and you can combine digital tech with local craftsmanship,” she says, envisaging optimised designs being made freely available.

“Creative, useful roles make people more happy, and therefore individually they are more sustainable people.”

Ceramica runs at RIBA North, Mann Island, Liverpool until 10 February, 2018. It hosts a Moulding Futures symposium, with speakers including Arup’s Lex Harrison, on 8 December, 2017.

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