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Creative Business Units by Heatherwick Studios, Aberystwyth, UK

Heatherwick Studios use crumpled ultra-thin steel to clad eight business cabins for Aberystwyth University.Photography by Edmund Sumner

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big, shiny surprise. Embedded in the sylvan landscape of Aberystwyth University’s campus is a cluster of space-age cabins, each wrapped in a scintillating carapace of crushed and crumpled stainless steel. The project was commissioned by Aberystwyth Arts Centre to provide a new community of studio spaces for artists and creative industry types.

Each cabin is conceived as a simple, pitched-roof shed split down the central ridge line and pulled apart slightly to create two tall studio spaces, which are still conjoined, like Siamese twins. These can be let either separately or together. The interstitial slot is roofed with translucent polycarbonate panels (cheaper than glass), which let in light and air. Although the sheds are utterly basic, the cladding transforms them into glittering jewel boxes. ‘In a way, we’re like architectural tailors,’ says designer Thomas Heatherwick, ‘fashioning simple forms with an extraordinary skin.’

The original competition brief stressed issues of cost and modular construction. So, despite its high performance, stainless steel was not an obvious cladding material. ‘The trick,’ says Heatherwick, ‘is to use ultra-thin sheets. Our steel, from a supplier in Finland, is only 0.1mm thick, about the thickness of a drinks can.

But the problem with such wafer-thin sheets is that they tend to dink and dent very easily. So why not exploit this quality by deliberately crumpling the steel?’

To see how it might work, Heatherwick’s studio devised a bespoke crumpling device, like a heavy Victorian mangle, its roller kinkily studded with rubber nodules. Experiments with different nodule configurations and pressure settings finally achieved a suitably pleasing crinkle quotient. All the cladding was hand-crumpled on site by the studio (which acted as contractor for project), in a temporary marquee. During crumpling, the steel shrinks from 1m wide to around 700mm, so this becomes the modular unit of measurement, effectively determining the dimensions of the walls and roof.

Because the site slopes steeply, each cabin sits on raft and column foundations up to 2m high. Columns were cast in situ on strip footings to minimise their impact on the densely wooded site. A simple, prefabricated timber frame provides an armature for the steel cladding, which is fixed to the timber structure on battens at 600mm centres. Overlapped like conventional tiling, but with a fatter profile, almost as if they were inflated, the crumpled strips run lengthways along the walls and roof.

On the short ends, the effect of folding the strips diagonally across the walls gives each shed a kind of Art Deco flourish. Once fixed in place, the inner surface of the steel was sprayed with polyurethane foam to a thickness of 100mm. The foam, which adds rigidity, strength, insulation and a further layer of waterproofing, is more usually used to line pig pens (yet more technology transfer). ‘It sets rock solid so the pigs can’t chew it,’ says Heatherwick.

The cladding reflects and distorts the surrounding foliage like a broken mirror.

More trees are due to be planted as protection from wind and rain on the hillside site. So, over time, the units will merge more intimately with their environment. And, while all this sparkling steel might look a bit bling, the cost was actually disarmingly low: £20,000 out of a total budget of £1.1 million.

All the units are now let except one, conceived as a ‘graduate incubator’, which will be offered on a year-long residency to students or staff at Aberystwyth University. The hope is that the civilised setting and companionable contact with others will help great things to hatch. Painter Mary Lloyd Jones, one of Wales’ best-known artists, sums it up: ‘One of the reasons for applying for a residency was because of the light in the studio - so beautiful’.

Architect Heatherwick Studio, London
Prefabricated structure Lowfield Timber Frames
Groundworks E L Hughes & Son

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