Architecture: Once we've got it built, we can get to work wrecking it: An office block inside the hangar that was home to the R101 will suffer a similar fate - deliberately. Jonathan Glancey explains

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IT SOUNDS like something out of a child's story. A team of boffins persuades the men from the ministry to cough up a lot of cash so that it can build a secret eight-storey office block inside a former airship hangar.

When it is finished, these wilful ingrates place unbearable loads on its floors, and gleefully rock, shake and roll it. Then the scientists and their assistants set off bombs in its atrium and lift-lobby, and set fire to the spanking new building. And when it has collapsed into a pile of steel shreds, they have the nerve to ask Whitehall for another hand-out to build a second building that they can also knock to pieces.

What sounds like vandalistic fun is in fact an earnest and extremely valuable set of experiments at the former home of the ill-starred R101 airship at Cardington, Bedfordshire. Today its magnificent hangar - a pre-fabricated building so tall that Nelson's Column could stand, with room to spare, under its corrugated steel roof - is home to the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a government body under the aegis of the Department of the Environment.

Since the BRE was established in 1925, its scientists have been carrying out research into the behaviour of building materials and buildings under attack from fire, explosions and decay. It was the first body of its kind, and remains the world's leading centre for research into building structures and materials.

The BRE operates in several locations in Britain and has a budget of about pounds 40m, 90 per cent funded by central government and 10 per cent from selling its services to public organisations and private enterprise at home and abroad. Its success is recognised internationally, and as yet the Government has no plans to sell it off; the work it carries out is invaluable to government departments, quangos and other authorities.

In recent years, the BRE has created simulations of the fire that swept through a Woolworth store in 1979 and has made an exhaustive study of Ronan Point, the east London tower block that, infamously, collapsed after a gas explosion in 1968. Much of its research has been enshrined in building codes, not just in Britain but elsewhere in Europe.

Yet, despite its successes, the BRE has long been concerned that its research into building structures is limited and fragmentary. Then last week, Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, did something to allay that concern: he opened the BRE's 'large building test facility' at RAF Cardington, the eight-storey office block that BRE boffins plan to test to destruction over the next two to three years.

The idea of destroying a structure that might, in another life, have been kitted out as a perfectly respectable insurance headquarters, is not a way of burning public money to satisfy the whims of scientific curiosity. BRE scientists have longed to be able to put their instruments to work on a brand new office building to find out what happens structurally when, for example, a big fire breaks out or terrorists place a bomb in its lobby.

Until now, the researchers could make only educated guesses as to how different buildings would behave under such conditions. Their problem was twofold: it was difficult to find a redundant building, representing the current state of structural design, that could be tested to destruction; and the results of such testing of individual struts, beams and other essential building components could not be extrapolated with any certainty to show what might happen to the structure as a whole.

Earlier predictions as to how a steel-framed office block might respond to, say, a terrorist bomb have proved inaccurate. When the IRA exploded a bomb in St Mary Axe in the City of London last year, the beams of a new steel office block behaved in exactly the opposite way that testing of individual beams had suggested. If the chaps at the BRE had been able to blow up their own experimental office block, they probably have recommended that architects, engineers and contractors design such buildings another way.

The hangar at Cardington is so vast that it makes the 165ft-high, 230ft-wide and 165ft-deep test block look no more than an architect's model. Not until you stand beside it are you forced to believe that this is a full-scale office building, towering above a three-bedroomed house nearby, which has been subjected to what looks like hellfire.

As funds become available from the European building industry, sections of the test block will be fitted out as working offices. In the meantime, tests are about to begin on the strength of the structure, designed by the structural engineers Peter Brett Associates. The first experiment will involve loading the floors with weights that will eventually cause them to buckle. Can a building remain safe when several of the steel columns holding it up are twisted? Until now, the answer has been a definite no; but new research may prove otherwise.

When the tests draw to a close at the end of 1995, the BRE hopes to have built an ajacent concrete-framed office block to see how that behaves when subjected to brute force and scientific intelligence. Most new European office buildings are designed in concrete (steel is popular in Britain and the United States) and the BRE hopes to attract consultancy fees from continental builders, contractors and engineers.

Already the doomed 'large test facility' is proving its worth. During its construction, in the controlled conditions of the hangar, engineers found that they needed only two sizes of bolts to fasten the web of steel beams together; normally between nine and 15 sizes are used.

The structure has been designed in accordance with building regulations that apply throughout the EC, so British builders who hope to win contracts in EC countries will benefit immensely from the results of the BRE's research.

Soon the sound of licking flames, bombs and malevolent machines designed to rock and roll the BRE's pet office building will be resounding through the airship's old home. It is appropriate that such extreme exercises should be carried out in one of Britain's most extreme and expensive buildings. It may also be thought appropriate that, like the R101 which flew from this great hangar to its fiery end at Beauvais, Normandy, in October 1930, the BRE's 'large building test facility' is similarly doomed.

Where the destruction of the R101 put an end to Britain's airship research, however, the collapse of the BRE's 'office' will help to create safer, stronger and more intelligently designed buildings.

(Photograph omitted)