A look at the cladding for Birmingham Uni’s new library

Brian Newell examines the benefits of the new build’s ceramic granite cladding system

Brian Newell, founder and chief executive of ventilated cladding specialist, Shackerley, discusses the practical and aesthetic considerations for the ceramic granite cladding system used at the University of Birmingham’s new £44 million library.

With a c.£500 million investment in its estates planned over a five-year development plan, the University of Birmingham is embarking on its biggest programme of campus transformation since the first phase of its Edgbaston campus was completed more than a century ago.

Amongst the teaching facilities, residences and sports facilities planned within the five-year programme, the £44 million library is a landmark scheme that will be the centrepiece of a new ‘Green Heart’ landscaped parkland.

Creating a library building that will answer the aesthetic demands of complementing both the scheme’s natural surroundings and the architectural heritage of the Aston Webb buildings on campus was no small challenge. The building also has to accommodate 62km of books and the university’s rare collections.

The response from the design team at Associated Architects was to design a library that both references the geometric lines of its predecessor while creating a contemporary structure that combines the natural texture and patina of ceramic granite with anodised aluminium fins and extensive glazing to reflect back the landscaped surroundings, trees and skycapes.

Contrast and Texture

According to the architects, the design concept for the new library was to create a building that was ‘of its time’, ‘confident’ and ‘expressive’.  The glazing and metallic finishes have been used to deliver this contemporary confidence, providing views out onto the proposed Green Heart as well as reflecting the surrounding greenery. Indeed, the anodised aluminium fins that sit at right angles to the façades provide a space age detail that plays with the light and adds to the vertical linear patterns created by the mix of materials used to create the façade.

Like the anodised aluminium fins, ceramic granite has been used as part of the cladding specification for the library to provide visual contrast, colour and texture. The ventilated cladding system offers high levels of performance in terms of breathable protection for the building fabric and low maintenance durability. Used for the stair core areas and the rear of the tower to differentiate these sections of the building from the curtain walling that wraps around the remainder of the facade, the ceramic granite helps to break up the façade, while providing a solid contrast to the lighter areas.

To achieve this eye catching effect, the architects specified four different finishes of SureClad® ceramic granite, including black panels in both highly polished and natural (unpolished) finishes, unpolished grey panels and unpolished panels with a marbled/variegated black and grey finish. The combination of these finishes creates dark areas on the façade while providing tonal variation that adds interest and alters impressions of the building as you approach the edifice.

Ceramic granite upholds the high calibre specification of the library and use of the SureClad® system also enabled the architect to optimise use of this high end material. Although the panels are large format, 1198 x 598mm, they are much thinner and lighter in weight than traditional cladding materials such as quarried stone, minimising loadings on the substructure and the building. Associated Architects was able to arrange the panels to achieve a best fit configuration, setting out the ceramic granite in alignment with the windows and floor to floor heights to maximise impact while minimising waste.


The contribution of the ceramic granite cladding system was not only aesthetic; the SureClad® system has also been instrumental in developing the sustainability credentials of the building and its service life expectancy.

Ceramic granite contributed to the BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rated building’s BREEAM credit for materials. It also contributed to the EPC A rating that was achieved from the Part L model in a building designed to achieve a 50% reduction in energy consumption compared to its predecessor. The SureClad® system was fixed onto the concrete cores that surround the escape stairs and the facade was set 350mm off the face of the building to enable a substantial cavity to allow the building to be super-insulated. The interface of the SureClad® primary support brackets with the concrete structure were thermally broken to prevent cold bridging, further supporting the cladding system’s contribution to the building’s thermal performance.

The SureClad® system’s ventilation and impermeability performance will also help to support building performance and service life. The system allows continuous airflow between the outer façade and the internal envelope, enabling the building to breathe, thereby preventing moisture build up and the risk of interstitial condensation.

An Ideal cladding material, ceramic granite is fully vitrified, with virtually zero porosity, which means that façade panels are unaffected by climatic extremes and conform to all international standards for freeze/thaw resistance. They will not support algae growth and are resistant to acids, alkalis and airborne pollution so will not stain or discolour over time. Nor will they fade or degrade in UV light, no matter how intense. These factors all combine to provide a durable, long lasting, low-maintenance solution that will retain its good looks for decades.

Each panel was supplied fully-prefabricated from Shackerley’s ISO 9001 quality controlled factory, with the SureClad® ‘Access System’ fixings securely anchored to the rear of each panel ready for installation on site. The innovative patented design of the façade system allows individual panels to be removed and replaced without disturbing the remainder of the façade for maintenance purposes if this should be required in the future.

Traditional and Cutting

The University of Birmingham’s estate development programme will expand and update the Edgbaston campus creating an environment that combines new buildings with academic heritage to meet changing student and research requirements. The use of Shackerley’s ceramic granite mirrors this combination of the traditional and the contemporary, with an update on the inherent properties of granite for 21st century built environment functionality.

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