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Restoration rejuvenation rejubilation

Research trip to Futuro House 001 at WeeGee, Espoo, Finland

Before anything happened we needed to work out the best approach. As part of that in August 2013 I took a trip to Finland. The purpose was to research various aspects relating to the restoration of my Futuro House.

Finding a space

Through some good folk locally in Herefordshire a barn was found where we planned to carry out all of the restoration, or as much of it as we could ourselves

Cleaning the surface

The work begun with focusing on the exterior shell. The fibreglass gelcoat was so damaged in some areas it had worn away entirely.

As any painter will tell you, there’s no point in painting until you’ve got your surface just right. Which is why largely the initial three months of restoration were concentrated on making good the exterior surface of the upper sections - the ones most worn by the sun.

As outlined in Tim Bechtold’s 2007 paper Houston - we have a problem: When flying Saucers Become Brittle, published in Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past (V&A, 2008), GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic) gelcoat surfaces exposed to the elements degrade in three ways: damage from UV exposure, ie sunlight; the materials porosity which allows dirt and chemicals to become trapped in the surface, which in turn accentuates UV damage; and also Osmosis, which can cause a chicken pox like effect on the surface.

Having been exposed to more than 40 years of blazing sun on South Africa’s ‘Sunshine Coast’ it is no wonder that upon investigation the gelcoat on the upper sections of Futuro 22 were suffering from all of these conditions, to the point where in places there simply wasn’t any gelcoat left. A further danger posed by this degradation would be if water had penetrated into the inner shell which housed the insulation foam - causing the foam to perish into dust over time.

However before we could truly establish the condition of the surface, it needed a jolly good clean of dirt and lichen. Not being able to use water the surface had be scoured clean. Each piece took about a day to clean by hand.

What colour?

It was just before Christmas that a decision had to be made as to what colour the restored Futuro 22 would be. Having initially been excited by the possibility of the potential to finish the house in an alternative colour, it was after a conversation Sami Supply (the conservator of Futuro 001 and also involved in the 000 prototype) that it became clear the colour of number 22 should remain the same as it would have originally been for historical accuracy. And so, using a British Standard fibreglass gelcoat colour chart, we matched a colour to the underside of the chimney cowl, an ‘exterior’ part that had never actually seen direct sunlight and therefore was as close to the original colour as could be ascertained.

Picking this colour would allow a small batch of the specially formulated gelcoat material to be mixed for us. This product has not been used in this application before and therefore we needed to test it on a small inconspicuous area as it always says on the packet! Returning to Herefordshire in cold dark January, it was a pleasure to see the sample carefully applied to the untreated cowl exterior. It certainly was a lot brighter!

Let the sanding… commence!

Whilst it was easy to get excited by this development, the real labour in restoration was just beginning. Each panel had to have the very top layer of degraded gelcoat removed using an orbital sander. Each one taking over a day to do to a basic level, It became clear that to take off enough of the spoiled material we were going to have to spend a lot more time doing it.

However, the ‘cleaner’ the surface got, the more apparent areas became that needed attention. Deep black spots indicated microbial contamination of the undersurface, which simply wouldn’t do if we wanted this Futuro to go another 40 or so years without serious maintenance.

So we had to remove sections where the surface had been damaged by water and microbacterial growth. This involved a good week with an angle grinder cutting out the damaged sections.

After one round of removing the worst affected areas, then filling the cavities with two part filler, then sanding the filled area back, other damaged areas become apparent that also need to removed. Doing it in several rounds is actually quite helpful as it allows you to keep the overall surface level as true as possible, whereas in some areas if you removed all of the damaged sections in one go, you would have no surface level left to work to.

So, after four months the upper panels were at a point to apply a coat of hardening solution on it to fix any old chalky gelcoat, then a primer base coat which will enable us to visually see what areas need building back up or sanding back to achieve a near mould perfect finish again.

A deadline

It was around this time that George Clarkes Amazing Spaces started documenting the restoration. Ostensibilly we had a deadline now as a result of their involvement, even though we had no location to put the Futuro when restored as yet.

Oh dear. We made a mistake.

Once we’d finished filling the fibreglass and sanding it back it was time to begin spraying a primer coat. Scarily, we saw quite evidently where we’d repaired. Too evidently as we’d oversanded and the filler being softer than the original surface meant we’d sanded away all our hard work. So we had to prime again, and sand back overall to get a flat surface. A lesson learned. Not the first, and by far from the last.

Down ones up and up ones down

With a carpenter booked in to assist replacing the rotten joists in the lower sections, the top sections were flipped up onto their edges in whatever state of finishedness they found themselves, and the lower sections laid out on their backs. There was just enough room for them all. Only just, and it was quite an operation to get them all in place.

Initially this work was a relief, as it was a change, but it soon became clear that removing wooden panel that had had fibreglass formed around it was going to be very difficult and time consuming. Special chiselling tools were made to try and get the remnants of wood out of a channel 200mm deep and 18mm deep. This mucky job took weeks for a number of people. At one point there were eight of us on a super hot summers day starting at 6am and working through until 6pm just trying to break the back of it.

Fixing the 'egg-cup'

Outside of of the barn, the steel frame needed attention. The Futuro architect Matti Suuronen described the steel ring onto which the fibreglass structure of the Futuro House sat as the egg-cup to the Futuro’s egg.

So in a break from restoring the fibreglass structure, the steel frame was taken to the shot blasters to strip away the paint and debris of 40 years.

What it revealed was a set of steels that were in remarkable condition given their age. They had pitted slightly on the topside of the ring, but nothing structurally worrying. Where the feet had been embedded into a decorative screed of concrete however was another story, and these will need rebuilding or in extreme cases, replacing.

One other anomaly examining these pieces did throw up was the presence of only one door hinge affixed to the steel ring. If I had noticed this during deconstruction, I had since forgotten it.

There isn’t any immediate evidence of there being fixing points for another hinge, but looking back through my archive of photos taken before and during deconstruction it is clear it wasn’t there from the outset.

A place to put it

In spring 2014 I had a conversation with Robin Klassnik at Matt’s Gallery, London about many things. Cactai, the Karoo, leaving South Africa, and the Futuro.

A few weeks later he called me in to have a chat about bringing the project to Matt’s as part of the exhibition he was organizing with Michael Newman. Initially he wanted to put the Futuro in Mile End Park opposite the gallery.

But instead I looked at the Matt’s building and thought “what about the roof?”. And so much I said. He loved the idea. The only thing was, he had no funding to do it. So I had to apply for Arts Council funding to assist with this project that fitted into my wider practice as artist with a love of things in remote places.

One application later, and a eight week wait, we had our funding to go ahead with putting the Futuro on Matt’s! Little did I know the amounts I would apply for would pale into insignificance once things got really started,

I need a door / I have an arm rest

Back to the restoration.If only the tenants who were living in Futuro 22 hadn’t taken the door to the local dump when it fell off a few years ago! So I needed a Futuro door. But what I did have was a Futuro arm rest.

Nick McQuoid owns three Futuro houses in New Zealand. He has been in contact with me regarding making a mould from my seating arm unit. The original factory spec Futuro had six of these seating/bed units in them, whereas this Futuro from South Africa had two, plus long banquette seats filling the remainder of the living space.

So I carefully hand sanding away the layers of paint that have been applied to the armrest first, which is a day’s work in itself. After filling and fairing a few holes, it will get a fine sand and polish.

Then it went to the fibreglass shop to have a mould made of it so Nick can make his own armrests and populate his Futuro’s with authentic seating! In exchange, he was making a mould of one of his doors so I could complete my Futuro. Let’s just hope they are the same shape.

Planning Permission

With basic funds in place from the Arts Council to do things that were beyond the budget of what I or Matt’s Gallery could afford we needed to approach the local council to see if we needed permission to put the Futuro on the roof. Even though it was temporary and an art project, they still said we needed permission, so very kindly, Edge Design Workshop, a practice based in Cheltenham offered to help make the application which involved an awful lot of drawing!

Finishing the shell

Finances and practicalness dictated I had to finish the Futuro with car body spray paint rather than gelcoat. It might scratch more easily, but it would wear more hardily, and every cost was spiralling out of control, so I had to make some practical decisions to stand any chance of getting it finished in time, in fact at all!

Deciding that also mean’t we had someone to tell us to what level all the pieces needed to be finished. It took months and months of more spraying, more sanding, more sanding still and still it wasn’t quite right once we took the first two pieces to be sprayed. We got it right in the end I hope and our upper arms were certainly stronger for it.

New windows

I had decided to replace all of the windows rather than some especially as the Futuro had originally has alternating domed windows and louvre windows, which I didn’t want to recreate. Talking to Dillon Muir at Hereford Glass Fibre he recommended DMS Plastics in Ludlow to blow mould the replacements. Robin and the guys there were amazing at reverse engineering the examples I left them and although it cost more, having clear windows all round will really pull the space together.

I sourced new window rubbers from the company in Finland who restored WeeGee’s Futuro.

A test build

The time wasn’t right, but we had to do it. We had to try and build the Futuro in the barn. Having spent hundreds of pounds on bolts and washers in anticipation, the day came. We dug out the floor to allow the steelwork to sit into the floor, giving hopefully enough height to build it in, and set forth with a team of 10 enthusiastic helpers. It was a great day, but we shouldn’t have rushed it in hindsight, as we spent about two weeks trying to right all the wrongs with it together and discovered the phenomenon we now call the “terry’s chocolate orange effect”. A 30cm overall gap in the lower sections took a lot of effort with ratchet straps to make right. In the end we had to take the roof off anyway to take to the spray shop, so we never properly built the Futuro in the barn.

No time, take it to pieces

After 8 months, and with pieces disappearing to the spray shop at an alarming rate we had to try and understand how the internal structure worked and make any carpentry we might need when we put it together properly. So whilst the upper sections were at the spray shop we worked out how the interior fitted together & cut floor and wall panels, made a quick kitchen, raised a bathroom floor. The start of domesticity.

Sourcing fittings

Briefly we allowed ourselves to be distracted by what fittings we would add into the Futuro. As it was, very little made it into the Futuro at Matt’s, but it helped focus attention on what colour to paint the interior, what colour and fabric to make the upholstery in and things like that. Although trying to be as true to the original Futuro as possible with the restoration, I just couldn’t initially bring myself to paint the interior purple! So I settled on a possible end colour of deep blue with mustard upholstery, but would start by painting it white inside to at least unify the panels and obliterate the previous coffee colour.

Making seat / beds from photos

Having no plans, or actual pieces to refer from (and wishing I had taken measurements whilst in Finland) we had to reverse engineer the seat sizes and frames from the photos we could find. We went through a couple of prototypes of each before getting to something we were happy with, and even that doesn’t work perfectly in reality. The reality is that the Futuro was originally designed with such specific dimensions and no tolerance at all!

Structural engineers

Although a light structure, to put the Futuro on the roof of Matt’s Gallery the load needed to be spread directly to where steel beams travelled vertically through the building. Well, this is what the structural surveyors Momentum Engineering said we needed to do. So they designed some I-beam steels to do this, I just had to get them made!

It was around this stage that I realized if we were going to crane up the Futuro in pieces I needed something to lift them in. I encountered the amazing folk at HMS Engineering who worked out how to make stillage for a Futuro, and went ahead and cut up 3 tonnes of steel to precision make it. Without them, and their stillage, we would never have got it on the roof and it was a real pleasure to work with Hadrian and his team of people on it. Oh, and they also made the steel I-Beam structure and worked out how to fit it inside the stillage as an added bonus.

Shiny shiny

With all the exterior pieces sprayed, and the lift and build day scheduled for the Monday, we arranged for the stillage, a Hiab, and some bodies to be present at the spray shop to load everything on the Thursday before. It was a hectic day, and one where we had to learn how to use a big tool for the first time, but we got there. To add to the eventual jubilation we even got planning permission confirmed finally at 530pm, a mere 1 working day before we were due to lift the Futuro onto the roof!

A big day

With a full road closure in place, a 100 ton crane hired, and about 20 volunteers ready to help all in hi vis jackets the day came when we were going to put the Futuro on the roof. It didn’t exactly go according to plan, but the important thing was that all the pieces got delivered up onto the roof, which at 5pm wasn’t looking likely, with half being on the ground and half being on the roof.

Whilst this was going on, the interior was all being sprayed at the spray shop, rather late in the day, hopefully in time to collect to London and fit later in the week.

Built in six days

In the end, it took six days to build the restored Futuro rather than the five it had taken to deconstruct the decrepit Futuro, and even then it was only to a basic level, with a lot of effort. But it was watertight, and looked great. These were the important things. There were, still are, many many things to fix, or make better, but in 10 months it had gone from nowhere to being open to the public as an example of unique 1960’s architecture. As an actual space it was clearer to see what needed to be done next.

Matt’s Gallery rooftop

Being open to the public five days a week mean’t it was difficult to carry out much significant work in the initial month it was at Matt’s. However, there was a week the gallery was closed between the first and second months. This meant that we could take the floor up, seats out, fit the lights in the armrests, and refit everything again in a more solid fashion. We also rehung the front door, so it could actually be shut and locked when the gallery was closed!

Do I know anyone who abseils?

Another task was to mount the chimney’s to the roof. Where they should have been was simply covered with duct tape the first month to stop any rain or animals getting in. However some seagulls had decided they quite liked the taste of it, so picked it away. The simplest way to get the chimneys mounted was to pop the top cowl off the house, and have someone abseil down the side to attach the chimneys. Fortunately, one of the guys who had helped build the house turned out to be an abseiller with a keen sense of adventure, so one rainy Sunday morning (always Sundays!) we got them mounted before the gallery opened.

The calm of January 2015

After 18 months of madness, all of a sudden there was relative calm - the Futuro wasn’t open to the public and didn’t have to go anywhere until March. Exhausted and made penniless by it all, I could do was try and work out what to do with it next after it came down from the roof. People always have ideas as to where it should go next, some of them practical, some not so. Lots of conversations had to be whittled down to what was most likely to happen, and best for the long term evolution of the project.

Landing #3 plans

It boiled down to two main options. I had been approached by the Milan Design Trienniale about including the Futuro in Kitchens & Invaders, curated by Germano Celant. An incredibly prestigious event, especially given that it was also Expo 2015 in Milan at the time, and one that after 18 months of constantly feeding money to the Futuro, I would be able to earn a little of it back.

However, I was still broken by the experience of getting it built first time around, and despite the support of the team at the Design Museum in Milan, the idea of being in a different country trying to build it daunted me. Plus, it would have been part of a historical display of objects, which ran against my idea of making the Futuro be alive with activity.

Back to School

Instead, a late alternative arose in my former place of study, Central Saint Martins. Word got to the head of the college Jeremy Till about a Futuro that needed a new home. He realised it could be used by staff and students in a similar way as we had at Matt’s Gallery, for events and other activity - a catalyst for ideas, dreaming and futurological scheming.

The downside was that there was only enough cash available to get the Futuro up on the third floor roof terrace it was to go, and back down again. Despite this, it felt like a more natural progression of the project and in keeping with the spirit of it so I went with my heart, and made some enemies in Milan sadly.

All we can do is just sit back and wait

Plans to move it virtually straight from Matt’s to Central Saint Martin’s didn’t really run as quickly as hoped for. Many hoops had to be jumped through to ensure everyone, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, Camden Council, Kings Cross Estates, were all on board with the plan. All the while this was going on, the house was sat in it’s flat pack form on the back of an articulated lorry bed in a giant warehouse.

No rest for the interior

Some parts were further restored in this down-time. Internal walls that missed out first time around were resprayed white. The seats either side of the doorway had their cutouts filled in and were repainted. The doorway from the hallway to the main area was infilled with a new elliptical door, and the bathroom door copied to fill the new doorway.

Finally, its happening to me

So April became August, and here we were with an early Sunday morning start, a full road closure, and a crane so big it made me shiver with fear. There were many touch and go moments, but we got it all on the roof terrace in one day, and then set about building the shell of the house over the following week.

Better this time

With the hindsight of the build at Matt’s, we were able to put the house together more solid fashion second time around. No TV set wobble this time if you jumped up and down inside it. We now knew the importance of ensuring all the bolts are not just tightened, but tightened in the correct order and then retightened. It’s a bit like tieing shoelaces tightly - no matter how hard you pull from the top, there is always a little slack lower down you can pull through.

All mod cons!

Knowing the house was going to be in situ for a year mean’t we had to learn how to fit the double glazing. Single glazing alone had been a nightmare first time around, so nobody was looking forwards to this. The specialist tools we had been supplied were just so difficult to use, fitting one window was exhausting, let alone 36! It was only right near the end, that someone noticed a small metal burr on the fitting tool. It took a second to file off, but that alone had made a difficult job nigh impossible! But we had the double glazing.

Home improvements

Other things that stepped up were hidden things like the electrics - a full fuse board, switching for the lighting, and even heating! Many other little things were snagged this time around that fell by the wayside first time out. The result of this is that it’s clearer to see what must come next, perhaps during it’s stay at Central Saint Martins, or before wherever it travels to next in 2017!


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