Musings on the Spheres

Musings on the Spheres

“Spheres or orbs are traditionally difficult things to build,” explains architect Mark Raggatt of the Melbourne practice ARM. “This is multiple sphere with different radii intersecting each other. Composites seemed a natural solution.”

ARM is an architectural firm that is composites-savvy. They have built several projects with composite façade elements, they know what the materials can do, and they aren’t afraid to use them. Moreover, they have learned how to work with a composites fabricator for a smooth construction process.

The Orbis Apartments in Melbourne, an eight-story, new construction project, “is really a pretty standard owner-occupier building in a nice area,” says Raggatt, “a kind of affluent area, on a reasonably humdrum kind of street about five miles from the central business district, south of the river.

“It is a fairly conventional model as far as apartments go. But the developer was looking to create a kind of unique niche in the market, a particular brand. We [ARM] don’t do that many apartment buildings – we’re doing more these days, but at that time, we hadn’t done any. We tend to take the attitude that all buildings, whether private or publicly owned, have a public role to play in the street, in the city, and the culture of the place to which they belong.  In this case, the public life is kind of extravagant.”

The façade appears as though the flat “lattice” formed by an exterior wall perforated with windows had been had been re-moulded into sections of spheres of various sizes.  Those deformed sections are colored bright yellow. The orb theme is picked up at street level by an imaginative portal surround for the main entry.

“In Orbis, we looked at carving it back rather than sticking stuff onto it,” explains Raggatt, one of three design architects on the project, along with Jesse Judd and Ian McDougall. “We used the spheres to get the setbacks the council requires, but also to get its own expression for the building.”

The façade panels were fabricated by Mouldcam, Brisbane. The biggest piece is about 10’ x 10’. They are hollow, and finished on both back and front. The panels are attached to the building with plates at fixing points that mate with plates cast into the concrete of the building structure. The panels were dropped in place by crane and bolted in. Access to the plates is through small pop-out doors in the panel, so the fixing points are completely concealed.

Except for one spot, the panels are not, technically, the building façade, but rather balustrades fronting the balconies. The exception is one apartment where the fiberglass panels actually form part of the building wall and penetrate into the apartment. (That was the first apartment sold. A prospective tenant visited while it was still under construction, saw the apartment with the composite panel sticking into it, and reportedly said, “I want that one.”)

“Composite was really our choice from the beginning,” recalls Raggatt, but they had to explore other options as a matter of due diligence. “It went through a number of iterations, like shingles. Another one was to make the whole thing out of plate steel, essentially made by a boiler-maker and beaten into shape, and then treated with gold leaf that has been fired to make it externally-rated. But really, composites proved to be the most efficient, cost effective, the simplest result, and warranteed as well. And really important, it reduced the risk for the builder. The builder was hesitant to take on making something that was very complex, but with Mouldcam, it was like a walk in the park.”

Raggatt gives a great deal of credit to Mouldcam, who fabricated two other architectural facades for ARM projects. “We’ve also worked with them on projects where we used their material to create formwork for a concrete structure. They develop the material as well as doing engineering of the material, they fix up our models, manufacture the material and engineer the material for each application. They’re a sort of all around package, which works out very well for us.”

Images courtesy of ARM Architecture