RMC (now Cemex house), completed by Cullinans in 1990, is threatened with demolition having been declared surplus to requirements. The Twentieth Century Society, along with a number of highly regarded architects, engineers and designers, is backing our application to list the building in order to save it.
The event was introduced by C20 Society Director, Catherine Croft, after which Ted Cullinan drew the story of the design of the building. He presented the story in three chapters:
- Working with our inheritance
- Working with the climate
- Work, rest and play
First he described the existing building; listed 17th century Eastley End House, a stable block known as Meadlake House, a late 19th century Surrey style Arts and Crafts house known as The Grange, a lake, protected trees and a number of listed walls. Ted showed how he created a courtyard of roof gardens over offices to satisfy the planners’ interest in the view from St Ann’s Hill beyond the lake and M25.
The second chapter explained how a metre of soil was put on top of the offices with a trough around the edge with a hedge for sun-shading. The underfloor plenum allowed cooled air to be circulated for night purging of the exposed RMC concrete slab. Ted described how the roof vents for the labs and the kitchens were designed as chess pieces.
In the final chapter Ted explained how the buildings supported recreation as well as workspace - the gardens can be walked across and enjoyed.
Catherine then opened up the discussion to the audience, which included many members of the original design team, on why the building should be saved.
Former member of Cullinans, job architect Richard Gooden of 4orm, said that RMC was important for its innovative use of thermal mass and the novel linking of landscape, place and building. It feels that it has always been there.
Miriam Fitzpatrick of Dublin University, who did her Part 3 on RMC explained how the marriage of the landscape and the making of place didn’t seem to be high on the agenda in the 1980s, but everyboby loves a garden.
Greg Penoyre of Penoyre & Prasad suggested RMC’s range of work environments was cleverer than Google’s LA office he had recenly visited because it creates a unique range of places for reflection. As a workplace RMC is special and hard to repeat.
The RMC environmental engineer, Max Fordham, explained the building, being in the greenbelt, had had to meet strict conditions to get planning and those conditions should still apply - making it difficult for anyone else to replace what is there. He explained an advantage of the single-storey office building is its ability to create a natural rooflight down the middle, saving on energy in lighting. RMC has all the attributes of a smart office building but was one of the first not to need air-conditioning. The swimming pool was separated by an air curtain and a heat pump - now very fashionable but at the time, novel.
Chris Twinn, of Twinn Sustainability Innovation, recalled how he had been working at Arup for five years at the time RMC was completed. He was not involved in the project but saw it as an eye-opener: suddenly you didn’t need air-conditioning. He has was able to draw from those ideas in subsequent projects - Hopkins’ Nottingham Inland Revenue which was to be entirely passively cooled, Portcullis House and BedZED.
Ian Craig, engineer on RMC, thought of RMC as 100 projects in one, describing every detail as great fun and totally original.
Former RIBA President, Sunand Prasad of Penoyre & Prasad, was struck at how the engineers in the room had spoken up. If there is a third industrial revolution based on natural systems, the RMC is an early essay in how we can solve the problems of the future. It has inspired.
The discussion progressed to other possible uses for the building, which included a boutique hotel and an academic workplace, but it is widely seen as a great place to go on working in.