One Colemanstreet, London

arch. David Walker Architects, London

Type of treatment: polished


The taste of architectural precast concrete

Not only has Decomo made a name for itself in the world of architectural precast concrete in Belgium, but also in the neighbouring countries. The “ink blot strategy” that was set up in the nineties has born fruit. Decomo was able to win the hearts and minds of sceptics, one customer after another and one country after another, because it also lived up to its promises as regards to
quality. Its references are both impressive and lengthy and are the result of a sustained investment policy at the head office in Mouscron. This office block Decomo built in the city of London was an eye-opener for many architects and builders and highlighted the company’s expertise. We talked to top manager Paul Desmet and with Naji Chmayssani, the Lebanese engineer and head of Decomo’s consultancy office. “If you can make a name for yourself in London then you can do the same all over the world.”

It’s especially since the nineties that Decomo has made massive leaps forward. Would it be true to say that this is the fruit of a well-founded strategy?

Paul Desmet: “At present there are 175 people working at our head office in Mouscron. Following successful commercial actions in Holland, France and Germany, we turned our attention to England
and even looked at Russia. This meant going back to basics. We began from scratch and took our time to patiently browse through data bases, looking for live projects and making contacts ourselves. However, this in itself was not enough. In the end, whatever the case, three arguments became the decisive factor: the quality of our product, our competitive prices and the know-how that we have in-house. We can literally take on anything and one of the ways is via a 3D programme that always gives the client a clear view of his future project. Last but not least, living up to your promises is paramount in a business like ours. We only want to deliver quality and that has its consequences. We prefer to pass on a project when we feel that we can’t live up to the customer’s expectations as he sees them.”

Decomo produces and supplies everything from Mouscron. It’s a well-known fact that Belgian wages are among the highest in Europe. Isn’t that a handicap?

Paul Desmet: “Wages for a large part determine our cost price. However, we’re able to keep prices down due to the fact that we have continued to invest in our production facility. This allows us to keep the number of working hours to a strict minimum while remaining competitive. The most important added value of Decomo is the product itself; it’s the best on the market, where quality remains the keyword where no concessions are ever given.”

Decomo is not only active but also successful in various neighbouring European countries. You decided to set up Decomo UK in England as a totally independent branch. What made you take this step?

Paul Desmet: “You have to look at it in its historical context. At the end of the eighties and early nineties our company mainly focused on the Brussels’ officeblock market. However, when the recession came, we decided to make a radical u-turn, and looked to the export market. Now, some fifteen years later, we can look back at those times and say that we made the right decision. Even in a protectionist market like that of France we took in orders, among others for the European Parliament. To break into the French market you have to be competitive in your pricing. We’ve never shirked from making solid investments in innovation and have always remained very competitive. After France and Germany, we turned our attention to England. England is a fairly conservative market with its own regulations, the sort that you don’t have here on the continent. Then there’s the mound of paperwork to battle your way through. The only way to break into that market is literally to be actively on site. We now have an office staffed by four people, all British, who are highly efficient in the way they handle business, something which apparently often amazes customers. Something that we consider quite normal. We started out with a minor contract with the British construction company, Warings. I think that at the time our references (with projects in Berlin and Strasburg to name just a couple) appealed to them.
However, with each new project you have to prove yourself. Which we did. We landed contracts in London, Edinburgh, Southampton, Leicester, Bristol, Glasgow, and so on... In ten years we must have handled some forty projects in England.”


A question of trust

The most spectacular contract you ever landed was undoubtedly in the City, in Coleman Street to be exact. Where did the challenge lie and how were you able to win over the renowned architect, David Walker?

Paul Desmet: “Not only did we have to convince the architect but also the contractor and the
client-investor (Stanhope Bovis Lend Lease). Everyone was asking themselves at the outset
how it was going to be possible to construct the building, since a highly unusual design of a diamond-shaped building with a lot of irregular shapes was on the drawing board. In the end they sent out tenders to three precast manufacturers (one Irish and two Belgian), we being one of them. The client and the architect visited all three companies to be able to make a sound judgement on each one’s expertise.”

Naji Chmayssani: “It didn’t take long before the client was convinced that we had the know-how they needed. Not only that, via a 3D programme, we were able to give them a visual mock-up down to the last centimetre of how we would go about it.”

Paul Desmet: “As always, it boils down to finding the right solution at all levels, economic and architectural, as regards price and execution. When push comes to shove, only one thing counts: is the client happy on all fronts? It’s all a question of mutual trust and growing towards one another. With regards to the Coleman Street project, we first signed a “service agreement” with the client. In it we gave the client the surety that we would do everything in our power to be of service to him. In a second stage, we communicated with the client according to an open book system. Transparency is still the best method. Finally, there were the finishing touches that needed to be done on site. In fact, we began earlier than anticipated on site and finished the job quicker than was provided for in the terms and conditions. They even congratulated us on our work which has had a satisfying knock-on effect and has since opened other doors for us.”

Naji Chmayssani: “Our magic formula is very simple: at each stage of the contract you have to sit down with the client, brainstorm with them, explain everything clearly and answer all their questions. We know we have the best technology available. If you can couple that with a sound client relationship, everyone wins. It’s as simple as that.”

Has precast architectural concrete foundits rightful place in architecture?

Naji Chmayssani: “There was a time — in the sixties and seventies — when concrete had a bad name. In some ways not totally unjustified. The technology was not what it is today. Now the opposite is true: the technology has reached perfection and everyone is rediscovering precast architectural concrete. The Coleman Street project has led to the City of London discovering the appeal and the quality of precast architectural concrete. Now it seems everyone’s interested in having this great product.”


A daring exploit, signed Decomo

The completion of “Austral House” in the City of London has well and truly put Decomo’s name on the architectural map and shown to the world that even the ‘impossible’ is possible. The commission and the challenge were not to be sneezed at: at a location whose surface area was limited — the corner of Coleman Street and London Wall — an office block was to be erected with maximum dimensions and radiating the appropriate City character. The British firm of architects, Swancke Hayden Connell International started working on the plans in 2001 together with David Walker Architects. In developing the initial plan they opted for a fir-cone design. Once the bold façade had been drawn, Decomo came along with state-of-the-art solutions in precast architectural concrete. Today, you cannot miss the dazzling concrete façade in the City. The prefabricated façade elements (columns and spandrels) were installed separately and form a
unique geometric composition that follows the bends in the road. The main support comprises two “rising cores” made from prefabricated concrete with a steel column-floor construction between them. Decomo’s know-how and expertise meant that all elements were delivered ultra-fast and completed well on time. The various elements, 425 in all, were erected in record time. The window profiles were so detailed that the glass surfaces fitted perfectly into their frames. The clients were able to make their estimates beforehand thanks to digital 3D-projections. Ever since the brand new Austral House was completed, people stop every day and stare in amazement at the building in Coleman Street, a building that has already come to be known as a daring exploit in the heart of the City. A daring exploit signed by Decomo.