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Tunnel Cement Reinforced Concrete Laboratory, site
West Thurrock, Essex
associated engineer
Sir Owen Williams
date  1932 - 1933
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ585788
A single-storey testing laboratory — one of engineer/architect Owen Williams' first chances to design a small-scale builidng using reinforced concrete. He also designed the interiors. The laboratory was located on the site now occupied by Lakeside retail park.
As a result of his experience in reinforced concrete design and construction, Williams would have had extensive dealings with the Tunnel Portland Cement Company, who was his client here. He may have shared his experience and technical information with them.
It is apt, then, that Tunnel Cement would commission him to design a testing facility using reinforced concrete — exactly the material the laboratory was intended to develop. This allowed Williams to experiment with building system and product design. He was working for a client who could engage in design and manufacture for their mutual benefit.
The project started just as Williams' better-known project, the Boots Packed Wet Goods Factory (1930-1932), was finishing. Whereas the Boots builidng relied on American influences for its large-scale industrialised reinforced concrete construction, the Tunnel Cement laboratory, partly due to scale and intended use, represented more of an 'in house' concept.
Here, Williams also designed the interiors. The Modern Movement in Europe had only led to small scale projects in the UK — often houses or pavilions — but attention was paid to their interiors, including the furniture design.
The laboratory was constructed using a combination of prefinished precast and in situ reinforced concrete. A series of 100mm-square precast columns, 3.85m high, was located around the perimeter and along the internal corridors. Channels ran up the full height of the columns for the insertion of glazing and brackets for interior fittings.
The factory production of batches of identical components that were used in the buidling in accordance with grid positions, suggests that this was a system building. However, other parts were cast in situ, making the design something of a hybrid — this was a system building in concept but extensive site labour was needed for its execution.
Williams used a number of precast components, including the columns, window sills and a range of internal fixtures, such as bookcases, shelves, fume cupboards, worktops and balance tables, which featured cork and rubber dampening membranes. He also designed a free standing desk in concrete. In situ work included foundations, the roof slab and infills between columns in the corridors and below the sills (up to a height of 1.14m) around the perimeter.
The building was a simple rectangle in form — a single storey block with a central corridor running full length. Reinforced concrete roof beams at 914mm centres were supported at the perimeter by the glazing mullion columns and at their mid span by the corridor walls. The glazing was pure Modern Movement — wide uninterrupted panels of glass on stacked transoms. This afforded good daylighting, a consistant feature of Williamsí buildings, and looked impressively industrious at night.
The Tunnel Portland Cement Company ceased operations in West Thurrock in the 1970s and with the closure of the associated chalk pit, the site was redeveloped. In 1984, it made way for the Lakeside retail park development adjacent to the M25 motorway.
Architect: Sir Owen Williams
Research: ND
reference sources   OWWOW

Tunnel Cement Reinforced Concrete Laboratory, site