The Decline of the Building

The Concrete Structure

Reinforced concrete is not as durable as it looks. If left unprotected, it is prone to various forms of contamination which in turn give rise to corrosion in the steel bars embedded within it. These steel bars give reinforced concrete its strength. Rust expands along them forming cracks deep inside the concrete. Eventually these cracks reach the surface, allowing water and air to penetrate more easily and form more rust. A rust-stained hairline crack is the first visible symptom. If left unchecked for long enough serious structural damage can result.

Steel windows can have similar effects. If not properly protected against the environment the corroding steel frames will expand forming cracks in their concrete settings and in glass windows themselves.

Photographs of Embassy Court prior to the restoration show classic examples of both of these types of decay. Along the frontages on Kings Road and Western Street the concrete was protected by a coat of render. Here the main damage was caused by rusting steel windows. Rust damaged the settings allowing water to penetrate between the render and the concrete substrate. Windows fell out on two occasions in the early 1990s forcing the erection of scaffolding around the lower floors to protect passers-by. Gaps in the render around the windows can clearly be seen where pieces of it had either disintegrated or been hacked off to avoid danger to the public.

Serious window damage was common in many parts of the building. But at the rear, rusting reinforcing bars gave created the classic symptoms of cracked and rust-stained concrete. Small pieces of concrete regularly fell from the side of the building. In some places the concrete looked as if it had been attacked by machine gunners. Perhaps this was the reason for the building’s sardonic nom de guerre; “Beirut” first coined in 1993. The name stuck until the restoration of 2004.

All reinforced concrete buildings are vulnerable to some or all of these problems. But today modern polymer paints and electrolytic techniques provide easier protections and remedies. All that is required is sufficient care and attention. At Embassy Court a preventative regime is in place and problems can be detected early enough for inexpensive repairs to be possible where required.

The Interiors

The plain masses of the modernist interiors were achieved by concealing a large part of the plumbing and hot water systems within the concrete frame itself. More or less all this pipe-work was made from un-galvanised iron and a survey in 1994 concluded that most of it had deteriorated to the point where replacement was the only option.

The symptoms were painfully obvious throughout the following decade. Leaks, damp, drips and stains seemed to appear almost at random throughout the building. Leaks were a major source of dilapidations to interiors. Ceilings acquired holes, plasterwork, carpets and decorations were ruined.

Leaks in embedded pipe work were both difficult to trace and hard to fix. They frequently required much hacking out of concrete before the source of the problem could be determined. However, successive managing agents before the renovation did their best in circumstances that were all but impossible. Pipes were patched up and refurbishments made. Despite everything the vast majority of the flats remained habitable.

Nothing will ever fully prevent leaks. However the restorations of 2004-5 provided permanent solutions to important parts of the problem. The water tanks on the roof were decommissioned and all the main components of the common water services were decommissioned. New services were routed via three of the six lift shafts and connected to the flats via the lift lobbies. The new system is infinitely easier to maintain and any faults that may arise in the future are very much less likely to cause damage to residential areas of the building.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *