by David Davies
Table of Contents
- The Laboratories
- The metallurgy lab
- The Physics lab and the Workshop
- Questions about the building phases of the four laboratory buildings
- The canteen and social club
- Context 1: Structural and Mechanical Development Engineers Ltd
- Context 2: An alternative approach to laboratory buildings: BCRA
APPENDIX A: Portal frame
By the time Fulmer Research Institute (Fulmer) was officially opened in July 1947, it was in full operation and was growing fast. The Edwardian mansion, “Holly Hill”, had been converted into laboratories and a new building had been completed. This accommodated an experimental foundry and metal working lab, a heat-treatment lab with space for pilot scale experiments, and a machine-shop.
This article describes the next phase of development, which took place in the early 1950s. The purpose of the scheme was to give space for growth and to provide more suitable accommodation for some of the laboratories in the house, notably physics and mechanical testing, releasing space for a larger library and for additional physical chemistry facilities.
To the south of the main house was a large lawn and further south again was an area sloping increasingly to the south. This area was to be the site of the new development. The planned project consisted of four single-storey buildings to house three specialised laboratories and a workshop, each connected to a two-storey block for general laboratories and administration.
In the event, the two-storey building was not built although, ultimately, in 1966, a different two-storey building was built, presumably in the place originally planned.
In addition to these laboratories, a wooden pavilion-style canteen and social club was built further south (shown in blue in Figure 2). This also served as a sports pavilion with a veranda facing the cricket field further south again. It was also conveniently near a pre-existing tennis court east of the physics lab.
2 The Laboratories
The architects for the project were A. F. Hare and Partners and the general contractors were William Hartley and Sons. The structure was designed and fabricated by Structural and Mechanical Development Engineers Ltd (SMD), a sister company of Fulmer in that both were subsidiaries of Almin Ltd.
Since the work of these laboratories would be varied, requiring them to have differing internal arrangements of offices and workspaces, they were planned with no internal load-bearing walls. SMD achieved the required flexibility and adaptability by basing the structure on portal frames (see Appendix A for explanation). This resulted in buildings that, were rectangular with a constant width of 24ft[Note 1], apart from a few small sideways extensions. Each of the buildings was single-storey for most of its length but, taking advantage of the slope of the land towards the south, each was built with a cellar at its southern end.
The frames were constructed of 6in by 3in extruded hollow box-section in HE10 WP. aluminium alloy (similar to today’s 6005A specification). It is very likely that the extruded sections and other aluminium alloy components came from Southern Forge Ltd at Langley, another Almin company, and that the frames were pre-fabricated at Langley.
The portal frames were designed with pinned feet and, to ensure a neat appearance at the knee joint, the haunch plates were riveted to the upright with blind rivets. Riveting was also used to connect the rafters at the ridge, and then the rafters were site-bolted at the knee joints, after which the complete frame, weighing under 300 lb, was ready for erection.
The rafters were exposed beneath the low pitch roof, which consisted of 2in “Stramit” (compressed straw) boards, supported on aluminium alloy tee purlins, site-bolted at 2ft centres, and surfaced with bituminous built-up roofing. Roof lights of curved perspex sheets could be fitted at the ridge where required.
The cavity walls had a brick outer skin and a 3in inner leaf of light-weight insulation blocks. The windows were metal-framed and had precast concrete surrounds.
Flexibility of internal layout was achieved by placing the frames at a modular spacing of 9ft and using a standard range of partition panels and unit fittings on a 3ft module in both directions. All of these components were interchangeable.
2.1 The first building of the scheme – the staff canteen
The north section of the most westerly building (yellow in Fig 1) was the first to be completed; it was opened in March 1952. It began life as a staff canteen and social club and could also be used for the presentation of lectures. Its unusual construction attracted interest in the architecture and building press[i] [ii] [iii] [iv]. It isn’t clear whether press representatives were invited to Stoke Poges or whether they were simply sent a press release but the articles they wrote are so similar that they are clearly derived from a common source.
2.2 The engineering laboratory
Next to be built was the engineering laboratory (green in Fig 1). Most of the mechanical testing equipment which had been in the principal reception room in the house was moved to this new building and a section at its south end was partitioned off as a temperature-controlled room housing creep machines.
The building was officially opened on 2nd November 1954. Fulmer held a lunch for distinguished guests. Then, after a tour of the laboratories, the Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the engineering laboratory.
During the tour, Ron Lewin, who remembers the occasion well, witnessed a discussion in which Dr Gross explained to the Duke, with the aid of a blackboard, the chemical reactions involved in his catalytic distillation of aluminium. There was no meeting of minds; the Duke confessed with characteristic candour that he didn’t understand – and moved on.
Fig 8 shows Prince Phillip being shown the 50 ton Denison universal testing machine. It seems likely that this hydraulic machine was newly acquired and installed in the new building. It replaced the huge mechanical ten ton Avery machine which remained in the house when most of the mechanical testing equipment was transferred from the house to the new building.
3 The metallurgy lab
As the scheme developed, the first building was converted from its role as canteen to become offices and laboratories for the physical metallurgy department, thus illustrating the adaptability of the building. Brian Tranter, who worked in the building during the 1970s has produced the following diagram (Fig 8). Superimposed on the canteen plan (black) is the layout of the met lab in the 1970s (red), as Brian remembers it.
We don’t know when the conversion from canteen to met lab took place nor when the building was extended to the south. In the brochure containing Fig 5, the caption of that picture refers to the building on the right as the Metallurgical Laboratory [v]. If we take that at face value, the conversion had occurred by 1957.
More evidence as to date comes from the Ordnance Survey map of 1961.[Note 2] This shows a rectangle representing the staff canteen that later became part of the met lab. This had not yet been extended to the south. It also shows the engineering lab, opened in November 1954 as we have seen, but it doesn’t show the pavilion style canteen. If the conversion had happened before 1954, the staff would have had nowhere to eat lunch. We tentatively deduce that the conversion took place between 1954 and 1957.
Once the met lab was available, microscopy and its associated specimen preparation could be moved from the east end of the first floor of the house releasing more space.
4 The Physics lab and the Workshop
These buildings were built after 1954 and before 1957. Moving the X-ray diffraction and other physics equipment from the ground floor of the house made way for a much improved library space, Moving much of the machine-shop equipment from the south wing of the foundry building left space for clean process metallurgy equipment, notably argon-arc water-cooled-hearth furnaces for making small ingots of reactive alloys [vi].
5 Questions about the building phases of the four laboratory buildings
We have several pictures looking down on the four completed buildings from various angles. In some cases the roof line shows discontinuities which raise the possibility that the building was carried out in more than one phase. I joined Fulmer in 1960 and I don’t remember any extension of any of the four buildings taking place since then. However it is clear from the photographic evidence that the most southerly bay of the physics lab (pink in Fig 1) was built after the photo in Fig 2 was taken. We don’t know when or why this extension was made. It includes the south east exit of the building so one possibility is that it was built to a provide a fire exit.
6 The canteen and social club
When the canteen (yellow in figure 1) was taken over by the met lab, a wooden building in the style of a sports pavilion was built further to the south (blue in fig 1). The building had a veranda overlooking a cricket field to the south. To the north was a tennis court.
The canteen occupied the main area of the building with kitchen and servery at the east end. At the western end was a games area with a snooker table and a piano. In the eastern wing was a dining room for entertaining visitors and it also contained changing rooms with showers.
As explained in section 3 above, we think this building was built between 1954 and 1957. Much later, probably in the 1970s, a south west wing housing a bar was added.
This pavilion was not the beginning of Fulmer cricket. We have a picture with the caption “Taken at the official opening of the Fulmer Research Institute cricket ground on 17th May 1952”. This is not at the Fulmer site; it shows a neighbouring building which doesn’t match any that has bordered the Fulmer site. (Z343)
The remainder of this article seeks to provide some context for the 1950s Fulmer building scheme, relating it to some other buildings of the time.
7 Context 1: Structural and Mechanical Development Engineers Ltd
7.1 Aluminium bungalow
SMD had worked with A.F. Hare before they collaborated on the Fulmer project. They had finalized the design of one of the principal prefab types in the post-war housing programme, This was the Aircraft Industries Research Organization on Housing (AIROH) BL8 aluminium bungalow. 55000 of these were built in five aircraft factories between 1948 and 1950. Each one took only 15 minutes to pre-fabricate. They arrived on site by road in four pieces, complete with all fittings, including cooker, fridge and curtains, and could be assembled in as little as four hours. Rather like a portal frame, the frames between each of the four sections had to be stiffened to withstand the stresses of loading, road transport and unloading.
7.2 The Dome of Discovery
Another SMD project was the construction of “The Dome of Discovery” – the exhibition space for London’s 1951 Festival of Britain. Built of aluminium, this was at the time the largest dome of any kind in the world.
7.3 The Comet flight test hangar
While SMD were supplying 24ft wide portal frames for the Fulmer laboratories they were also supplying portal frames on a very different scale for the Flight Test Hangar at Hatfield, used for the Comet jet airliner. At the time this was the largest aluminium building in the world, the portal frames there have a span of 217 ft and a clear height of 45 ft. The building has twelve portal frames giving a total length of 330 ft.
Not including the AIROH bungalows, the frames of which were built in five factories that had previously built aircraft, SMD obtained much of their aluminium alloy extrusions and other parts from Southern Forge Ltd of Langley and they in turn obtained their alloy ingot from International Alloys of Slough. Both of these companies were also fellow members of Almin Ltd.
Brian Tranter has pointed out that Col. Devereux’s son Deane was the General Manager of SMD in 1952. (Scrap book P179)
7.4 A speculation on my part
When the new canteen building at Fulmer (yellow on Figure 1) was publicised, a feature was made of its modular construction and the standard range of interchangeable partitions and other fitments on a 3ft module. It seems to me that SMD may have been considering the Fulmer Laboratories as a pilot scheme for a range of general purpose buildings.
8 Context 2: An alternative approach to laboratory buildings: BCRA
Before joining Fulmer in 1960 I had worked for two years at the British Ceramic Research Association laboratories at Stoke on Trent. This was housed in a very different building from those at Fulmer, though the Duke of Edinburgh had opened this one as well! (in December 1951).
APPENDIX A: Portal frame
A portal frame is a structural unit supporting the roof of a building. In its simplest form It consists of two vertical columns and a horizontal beam or, in the case of a pitched roof, inclined rafters. The essence of a portal frame is that that the joints between the members are stiff and strong and that the columns are rigidly anchored to the ground. This means that the bending moment resulting from the roof loading can be transmitted to the columns and the beam or rafters can therefore be reduced in section and thus made cheaper. This is particularly important for large spans.
Although portal frames were invented in the nineteenth century their major adoption and development came during World War II when they were used to enable large unencumbered spans for aircraft hangars. They are extremely common today; they support most of the large warehouses and distribution centres which have proliferated at many motorway junctions. For more modest sized buildings they can now be bought in kit form.
Note 1 This value is estimated by scaling from known values in a plan drawing.
Note 2 Thanks to Brian Knott for pointing this out
[i] “A Research Institute Canteen Building”, The Engineer, April 1952 (F322)
[ii] “Canteen”, Light Metals, April 1952 (F325)
[iii] “Industrial Canteen”, Metal Industry, 14 March 1952 (F326)
[iv] “Canteen for the Fulmer Research Institute – Stoke Poges”, The Architect and Building News, 15 May 1952 (F327)
[v] “The Fulmer Research Institute – The First Ten Years 1947-1957”, Fulmer Research Institute, 1957 (F138)
[vi] “The Fulmer Research Institute – The First Fifteen Years 1947 – 1962”, Fulmer Research Institute, 1963 (F139)
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