Thursday03 September 2015

Julian Harrap Architects: Royal Society of Chemistry refurbishment project

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So many refurbishment projects today involve redressing the work of the 1960s

Architect Julian Harrap Architects
Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates
Location Piccadilly, London, W1

Such has been the role of Julian Harrap Architects, which over the last 10 years has carried out five separate refurbishment projects to the grade II* listed Royal Society of Chemistry to alleviate the worst of the 1960s (and 1980s) interventions.

The society is one of five scientific societies situated around the courtyard of Burlington House. Its predecessor, the Chemical Society, moved there in 1857.

Harrap’s latest and most complex phase has involved reworking a 1967 intervention to the first floor library carried out by architect Pinckheard & Partners.

At the time, principal John Pinckheard described the elegant, original 1870 two-storey library as “a lofty and largely unutilisable space”, so he promptly sub-divided it horizontally by inserting a new floor at second floor level.

Harrap’s £3 million refurbishment didn’t remove the fibrous plaster-clad ceiling, but it has mitigated the 1967 intervention by removing the false ceiling at the outermost sides behind the columns.

The blue/grey colour scheme features a stippled stone for the columns and an Etruscan red band for the entablature. Together with a specially designed carpet, these changes, based on a paint analysis of the original, tone down the interior and reinterpret the 19th-century colour scheme.

In addition to integrating modern services into a historical interior (the library had no air-conditioning and the heating system was antiquated), the architect also faced the challenge of improving the circulation, and found ways of encouraging members to the upper gallery by inserting a new stair and bridge. These modern insertions now allow members to move freely from the east to the west of the upper gallery and then down the only surviving cast iron spiral stair, now positioned at the south-west corner of the library.

Harrap’s beautifully detailed refurbishment has transformed what was once a stuffy and underused library into an elegant interior that offers all the 21st-century mod cons while restoring some of the building’s Victorian grandeur.

The bronze-plated baluster and cord-covered handrail on the library bridge.

Credit: Julian Harrap

The bronze-plated baluster and cord-covered handrail on the library bridge.

New staircase and library gallery bridge

To resolve the circulation issue and make it easier for members to move into the upper gallery, Julian Harrap Architects used a narrow double-storey bookstore formed in 1967 and located to the east of the library.

In this space, now called the Long Gallery, a new mild-steel stair bronze finished with solid oak 70mm-thick treads was inserted at one end drawing members to the upper gallery and the newly created Members Room.

Closing off four windows and forming a wall on the east side of this former bookstore has allowed the steel stringers to the new stair to be concealed within the wall. At every fourth tread the steel bracket extends upwards vertically to form the principal balustrade. Fixed to the top of the mild-steel balustrade is a flat-section mild-steel handrail wrapped with a tightly bound cord made of 100% bright spun rayon yarn with a 2/20 yarn count. Senior associate Robert Sandford says the idea of wrapping the cord around the handrail was inspired by the steering wheels of 1930s British sports cars.

First-floor balcony plan.

First-floor balcony plan.

Bronze brackets placed every 500mm on the handrail stop the cord from slipping.

The same cord treatment for the handrail has also been used for the new bridge, which is discreetly positioned at the north end of the library at upper gallery level. The bridge, which had to arrive on site in two sections and be passed through a window, now allows members to move from the east to the west gallery and down the original 1870s cast iron spiral stair. Unlike the stair handrail, the bridge handrail is round and is bronze plated mild steel and 44mm in diameter.

“To try and replicate what’s been lost in the room and to try and thin the structure down and make it more skeletal, we’ve used mild steel and oak as the principal materials for the bridge,” says Sandford.

To make the 7m-span bridge more slender, its beam sections were reduced by suspending it from the floor steels of the 1967 floor above.

Connected to the bridge to support its principal beams are four stainless-steel tension rods — these are fixed to the 1967 floor and are aligned with the original half columns to the rear of the library. The rods mean the span of the bridge can be divided into thirds, which has the desired outcome of reducing the depth of the beams from 250mm to 100mm.

Balustrade handrail.

Credit: Julian Harrap

Balustrade handrail.

Alcove lighting

Before the 1967 interven-tion, daylight streamed in through a rooflight at upper gallery level. In an attempt to again give an illusion of light in the upper alcoves, Julian Harrap formed 10 600mm-wide x 2m-long openings in the ceiling on the east and west sides and inserted an American-made panel called Flatlite.

The panel comprises processed phosphor crystals sandwiched between a thin aluminium electrode and a clear top electrode. When these two panels are connected to a power source the resulting field causes the phosphor to glow. Flatlite is different from other electro-luminescent lamps because it is manufactured in long and very thin rolls up to 760mm wide and more than 365m long, giving the specifier great flexibility and choice.

Upper alcove light panels.

Credit: Julian Harrap

Upper alcove light panels.


Flooring Axminster Carpets
Faux books Decora Mouldings
Cord binding E&A Wates
Timber Morgan Timber
Specialist joinery C R Knight
Steel fabrication K L Designs
Specialist glazing Fusion Glass
Flatlite panels Amber & Green
B-Line light fittings Aktiva

Project team

Architect Julian Harrap Architects, Client The Royal Society of Chemistry, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, Main contractor Poultney Gallagher, Electrical Allen Electrical, Lighting design Sutton Vane, Mechanical installation JCW Air Conditioning


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