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High commission Research under way in a former airship hangar in Bedfordshire is set to revolutionise the way buildings are designed. Dave Parker takes a closer look at the Cardington project.

Some 70 years ago the two massive Grade II listed hangars south east of Bedford housed the biggest airships ever built in Britain. That era came to a fiery end when the R101 crashed and burned on its maiden voyage in 1930, killing the then Secretary of State for Air and 47 others.

Much later there were several attempts to relaunch Cardington as an airship centre, and, even as recently as the early 1990s, small airships could still be seen flitting around there.

These days the hangar is used for more mundane activities, from film- making to storage. The only real relic of Cardington's lighter than air past is one lonely barrage balloon bobbing sadly in one corner of the next door hangar, and a low-key airship gondola-building exercise in another.

Far from being abandoned, however, the balloon is still earning its keep as a low altitude platform for the experiments being carried out by the Ministry of Defence's Meteorological Research Unit. And while the giant airships are long gone, the second hangar is a hive of activity again, albeit with a more terrestrial bent.

'It all began in the early 1970s, when the Fire Research Station was looking for somewhere to carry out investigations into high bay warehouse fires,' says Building Research Establishment managing director Martin Wyatt. 'There's a clear height of 55m inside the hangar, so it was ideal for the purpose.'

Clear floor area measures 247m by 83m, so the long term potential was enormous. For the next 20 years or so an increasing range of fire and explosion tests were carried out at Cardington. In 1989 ownership of the facility was formally transferred from the MoD to BRE's then master the Department of the Environment.

Millions of pounds had to be spent refurbishing the building. Cladding and glazing improvements alone cost more than £2M. BRE's next investment was particularly bold, given the depth of the recession raging at the time. Some 3,000m3 of high strength concrete was poured in one operation to create a massive 'strong floor' in the hangar, giving the capacity to support buildings of up to 10 storeys.

Wyatt explains: 'We were increasingly aware that buildings actually behaved holistically, and that testing individual beams and columns didn't give a real indication of how structures really behaved.

'But industry was quite slow to catch on to the importance of full scale testing, and the first building in the hangar really came about as a result of the BRE's initiative.'

This was an eight storey steel framed structure completed in 1993. Wyatt remembers the optical illusion that confronted visitors, when the sheer scale of the hangar made the full size building look much smaller than reality. But, as the structural steel industry began to realise the potential of the new facility, interest grew, and some crucial experiments were carried out.

Perhaps the most high profile were British Steel's series of fire tests, which last year climaxed with a dramatic blaze in a fully fitted corner office area. As a result, the structure now exhibits some spectacular distortions, and may in fact be the subject of research into demolition techniques in the not too distant future. In the meantime, attention has shifted to other projects in the hangar.

'Inter-sectorial rivalry has been very useful,' Wyatt comments straight- faced, referring to the appearance of two new buildings this year. A six storey timber-framed block of flats - claimed to be the largest of its type in the world - is nearing completion, and, between it and the steel- framed building, the insitu concrete frame of a seven storey office block is taking shape (NCE last week).

The European Concrete Building Project should eventually include no less than four separate buildings, each a test bed for specific forms of concrete construction.

British Cement Association marketing director Martin Clarke is a Cardington enthusiast. 'Cardington has brought the concrete industry together in a way that's never happened before.

'I've wanted an exclusively concrete building ever since the steel frame building was announced, but it's taken six years to get the project off the ground. Now the challenge is to keep the interest high over the next three or four years or so.'

Wyatt believes there might still be room to squeeze in one more building. And he points to growing international interest in Cardington's potential.

'There's nothing comparable elsewhere in the world,' he insists. 'No- one anywhere is testing whole buildings'.

This unique facility gained a significant accolade recently. The European Commission allocated ECU500,000 (£325,000) over two years to fund research at Cardington by scientists from mainland Europe - a form of support normally reserved for large telescopes and giant cyclotrons.

Dozens of research programmes are in progress; many more are planned. The first design codes incorporating the lessons learned here are due before the turn of the century.

What the longer term implications might be can only be guessed at - lighter, safer structures, definitely; cheaper, more durable structures almost certainly.

Structural design is still stuck in the 'airship age' in some respects. Research at Cardington will take building design into the space age.

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