Open House 2014

I took part in Open House this weekend, the annual architecture event where hundreds of buildings open their doors to visitors, for free.

It was a bit of a whim. I didn’t plan it that much. I downloaded the app on the Saturday morning and then set out, initially to explore the places closest to me.

First stop was St Mary’s Church on Upper Street. I’ve walked past here loads of times (and waited at the bus stop outside), but I’d not noticed it much. Inside, helpful volunteers handed me a leaflet and gave me a brief intro to the building’s history. The main hall isn’t very old, having been rebuilt after being destroyed during the Blitz, but the tower survived the war and dates back to the 18th Century. I joined a tour to climb up the steps inside it, and was surprised by just how high it is, emerging just beneath the spire well above tree height with a great view across London.

A skyline of skyscrapers and cranes in the distance, above a tree’s canopy

I walked on to the offices of Pollard Thomas Edwards on Regent’s Canal. A firm of architects, I was familiar with their work from having seen a retrospective exhibition about them at the New London Architecture centre. Their building beside the canal is tastefully restored, and includes a courtyard filled with interesting sculptures.

Next up I visited the Bunhill Energy Centre. This is a project from Islington Council which combines a gas-powered electric generator in a shipping container with a thermal battery to provide both heat and power (CHP). The power is sold to the grid, whilst the heat is piped around the neighbourhood and used by several housing estates as well as two nearby swimming pools. The guide from the council gave a very detailed technical explanation of how it all works, both from an engineering perspective and also financially (the Council have to aim to be generating electricity at the times of day when the wholesale price is highest).

I ended the day with a trip out to Closed Loop Recycling in Dagenham. This is a big industrial plant which takes in waste plastic bottles and turns them into pellets for making new bottles (the Marketing manager called it a recycling facility, the Site Manager called it a manufacturing facility – I guess it depends on your perspective).

Hearing the presentation and walking around the plant (hard-hatted and hi-vised), I was astounded by just how much engineering effort had gone into solving the problems of separating different types of plastic, separating different colours of plastic, making sure it’s food-safe again, and putting it into a form that easy to work with (the pellets). Each step in the process needs a different specialised machine. Some problems are relatively easy: PET plastic sinks in water whilst HDPE floats, so tanks of water with paddles are used to separate these. One of the trickiest is colour-separation. This can’t just be done at the bottle stage as most clear bottles have coloured lids and rings. So after shredding, the flakes of plastic have to be analysed at high speed by cameras and computer vision software, with air jets blowing any coloured flakes into a separate hopper. It sounded imprecise and improbable, but seeing it in action was impressive. There’s a trade-off between speed and precision, so several passes of decreasing speed are used to gradually weed out nearly all the coloured plastic.

A warehouse of green conveyor belts and machinery

I couldn’t help but think that some of the problems ought to be solved ‘upstream’ at source – for instance by mandating that all bottles use clear plastic. We might have to get used to relying on the labels rather than the caps to tell the different types of milk apart, but it’d hardly be a major problem. At the very least, companies ought to stop producing nearly-clear bottles: the site manager at Closed Loop told us that Sprite Zero and certain cider brands use bottle colours that are particular difficult for their cameras to detect.

Sunday afternoon I was back out, and started with a visit of the City of London Marketing Suite. As the name suggests, this contains lots of promotional displays about how great the City is, but the main attraction is large 1-to-500 model of the square mile. This contains hundreds of detailed architectural maquette models of buildings both completed and in planning. Most striking is The Pinnacle, which gives the appearance of being almost as tall as the Shard (but which a guide explained would actually be around 20 metres shorter, however it sits on higher ground). Whether this design will actually get built now seems doubtful though.

After this I visited Guildhall, the historical town hall of the City of London which is now largely used for ceremonial occasions. There’s lots of impressive stained window work, a couple of huge wooden statues of gog and magog and a vault down below beneath stone arches. Bits of the building date back to the 1400s, but it’s been patched up and altered so many times it’s hard to tell what’s what. I was a bit put-off by the overall sense of pageantry though, not helped by some fairly awful paintings of dignitaries at lavish banquets.

My final visit of the weekend was to the Moorgate construction site for Crossrail. This is a huge shaft which will be one end of the combined Liverpool Street-Moorgate station. After an introductory video, one of the civil engineering managers talked us through the site from a viewing platform above it. The construction process was complicated, having to operate between existing tube tunnels, a road, two listed buildings and the abandoned (but protected) Post Office Railway. As well as this there’s a temporary gantry built above the shaft to house a crane used to lift spoil out and new material in. It’s a big project, and yet is one small part of the overall Crossrail scheme.

A concrete lined hole in the ground with a crane suspended above on steel scaffolding

I really enjoyed the Open House experience. Not just for the opportunity to see inside a variety of sites and buildings, but also for the generosity of many guides and volunteers who were happy to share their expertise and answer my questions. And I didn’t have to queue once!