Benson & Forsyth’s Nottingham Pod finds its place in past and present
Aluminium proved the versatile solution when it came to integrating this a mixed-use hotel and retail scheme with the city’s medieval layout
Benson & Forsyth’s design for a retail and hotel development in Nottingham, The Pod, is an example of a contextual yet radical contemporary architecture.
This mixed-use scheme, which last year won the architect the international Power of Aluminium competition, has been carefully knitted into the fabric of one of Britain’s great former industrial cities.
The project addresses a vital contemporary issue — how to build well within existing urban fabric yet produce an architecture that is of and for the 21st century. The aluminium elements, particularly the aluminium-clad screen wall on Bottle Lane, are the scheme’s finest elements.
Benson & Forsyth project architect Ross Lambie says: “The use of extruded aluminium systems, with their variety of specialised components, offered the opportunity to resolve many of the technical and aesthetic challenges we faced.”
The Pod is a large development comprising three floors of retail at the base with four floors of hotel accommodation above. The hotel entrance and reception are located in a refurbished Victorian building on Fletcher Gate.
The architect has intelligently integrated the new development into the city following the medieval street pattern, which is still evident today. It is located at the gateway of the original Saxon town and the Norman settlement, which surrounded the castle. The bulk of this scheme — particularly the hotel — is hardly evident when walking up the 4m rise of Bottle Lane to Fletcher Gate.
Cities such as Nottingham, sadly, still bear the scars of post-war development, when the art of making cities seemed to have been lost and the selection of materials was neither durable nor beautiful. The Pod is a demonstration of how a standard commercial paradigm can be delivered inventively, demonstrating the power of design in the hands of an architect. Benson & Forsyth has made an informed contribution to city living and the future of the city.
A language of screens
In response to the urban context and the diverse performance of the project, Benson & Forsyth has developed a language based on components that are deployed as screens of glass supported by aluminium with steel substructure and planes of render. The hotel rooms, which exploit the excellent views across Nottingham, required high thermal performance, and acoustic isolation from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.
Project architect Ross Lambie says he was “anxious to avoid the repetitive characteristics of generic hotel facade detailing”.
He achieved this through the use of insulated render and continuous ribbons of aluminium windows interspersed with insulated panels.
A range of eight colours including black, orange and blue has been interspersed on mullions with the aim of “subverting the rationality of the modular grid”, a visual theme that the architect has used in all metal and glass screens of The Pod. This provides diversity and delight within each element, while also acting as a unifying theme.
The scale of the glazed elements increases from the aluminium-framed hotel windows to the larger high-performance glazing of the public areas of the hotel to the highly transparent retail facades that form the base of the development. In essence, this is an inverse of the rusticated stone base of an Italian Renaissance Palace.
The architect has developed a family of components for the two retail glazed screen walls at ground level. For each elevation the scale and grain of the surrounding buildings was carefully considered, forming rooms in the city.
The retail facade to Fletcher Gate addresses a wide, busy urban thoroughfare, which is made more dynamic by trams, yet is characterised by high-quality late Victorian façades. This screen provides maximum transparency while picking up on the height of the parapets of the adjacent masonry buildings. The triple-height curtain walling is braced internally by 305 x 165mm steel I-sections. The aluminium transoms are dark grey with light grey transoms — flashes of colour, particularly yellow, white and red, are introduced on the elliptical mullion capping sections.
The screen wall to Bottle Lane uses this family of components, but in response to this narrow pedestrian route, the scale of the façade is broken up by the introduction of two horizontal bands within each floor height.
The horizontal strata is further emphasised by the use of diverse panel widths that derive from the modular set out. As this facade stands on the boundary line, fire-rated steel curtain walling has been used.
This is finished in aluminium, providing excellent durability on the weathered surface.
Architect Benson & Forsyth Architects, Client Bildurn Properties, Structural engineer BWB Consulting, Contractor Laing O’Rourke, Rooflights, windows and curtain walling Schuco, Fire-rated curtain walling Schuco/Jasen, SubcontractorBaydale
Aluminium and sustainability
Despite being a high-energy product, aluminium can make a strong claim for being a sustainable material.
The aluminium industry has been keeping data on its performance dating back to 1888 and can demonstrate that bauxite — the raw material from which it is extracted — is responsibly sourced.
New bodleian library
Aluminium windows were installed in Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1937 library in Oxford. Wilkinson Eyre, which was appointed in 2006 to refurbish the building, says the windows are an early example of their use in the UK and they are generally in good shape.
Since 1992 all bauxite mines have formal rehabilitation procedures and currently the area of rehabilitation equals the area of mining. By the end of the 20th century the energy required to produce a tonne of aluminium had been reduced by approximately 70% and further improvements continue to be made.
By 2010 only 14.5 kilowatt hours of electricity should be required to produce 1 tonne of primary aluminium. Moreover, more than 50% of aluminium globally is smelted using hydro-electricity.
Selection beyond fashion
The Council for Aluminium in Building report Aluminium & Sustainability: A Cradle to Cradle Approach sets out the credentials for aluminium to be recognised as a sustainable material. In its primary form, it has a high-embodied energy. However, architects and specifiers have learned to consider the selection of materials carefully, beyond fashion and first cost. Using a little of a high-energy material wisely and purposefully can be a more sustainable strategy than the ideological selection of materials if one considers their responsible sourcing, effectiveness, durability and the potential recycling.
In 1937, Giles Gilbert Scott chose to have the windows of New Bodleian Library Oxford made from mill-finished aluminium. These windows have provided more than 70 years of problem-free service for Oxford University with only bi-annual cleaning and the repair of the occasional broken window pane.
Original 1923 Wembley Stadium
During the demolition of the Robert McAlpine’s original Wembley Stadium in 2003, 96% of the aluminium was recovered in a process the International Aluminium Institute describes as“urban mining”.
Mill-finished aluminium oxides to a stable sugary grey colour, which is inherently durable. Aluminium can be readily finished by anodising or with polyester powder coating, and it is now possible to obtain 25-year guarantees for both finishes.
Recycled aluminium only takes 5% of the energy to produce when compared to extracting aluminium from bauxite. This is like a car that averages 35 miles to the gallon being able to travel for 700 miles per gallon — the type of step change needed to counter global warming.
Aluminium can be recycled over and over again without loss of performance and it can be up-cycled if necessary. Aluminium is not like a fossil fuel and about 75% of aluminium produced since 1888 is still in use.
Are we becoming a post-consumer society where the everyday recycling of packaging enhances the cultural perception of aluminium as a sustainable material?
The recycling rate of aluminium packaging in Britain is currently only about 30% whereas the Delft Report in 2004 shows recycling rates from buildings on the Continent range from 92-98%.
Aluminium is valuable and infinitely recyclable. The Pod demonstrates that it is a vital material in the creation of high-quality architecture and can form a key component in the creation of a sustainable future.
Aluminium & Sustainability
A Cradle to Cradle Approach, edited by Justin Ratcliffe and David Earle, Council for Aluminium in Building, 2008 can be downloaded from
Michael Stacey is professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham and director of Michael Stacey Architects.