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Industry Interviews

Mary Mann speaks with Pein Lee
(formerly) Arup Facade

How and when did you first become involved with stone?
My father was a stone contractor with his own factory and installation service; he used to take me to work with him. One of my earliest memories is walking through the factory; it was very loud with all of the saws were going. So I was pretty much born into it.

Did that influence your choice of career?
I tried not to let it influence my career. I wanted very much to do my own thing. I spent some time working in kitchens and in a bank; but the next thing I knew I was back in the business in some way, shape or form. The influence is long and difficult to break!

What is your current role?
I am now working at Arup, which is an international multidisciplinary engineering design firm. I am one of the senior façade specialists with a special interest in stone.

What was your first introduction to the use of stone on a professional level?
Learning how to mix the correct ratio of sand, cement and additive to put down a decent white Carrara stone floor.  I found out what happens when you don’t get it right and the material turns yellow. It was for a residential development job of about 2000 square meters, for a prince in Malaysia.

What do you think is the real appeal of using stone for construction?
I think the romantic notion of stone in extremely important. The impact a project gets for having a decent stone lobby or façade takes us back to that historical connection. For example, in China, the use of stone for construction has always been seen as more than strictly ornamental. Stone is linked with opulence and is a status symbol when used on their buildings.

What is the main factor that determines the type of stone to be used on a commercial project?
Price.  What tends to happen is the architect has a good idea of the kind of stone they want to use, but may not have the most appropriate type. People like myself will look at the colour to try and determine something that would be appropriate in terms of type. But what actually ends up on the building is determined by cost more often than not. What we need to do is educate people in what is most appropriate. I think you get what you pay for and you really need to consider life cycle costs, not just up front costs.

You have worked on projects all over the world that have used stone; is there a project that made you stop and say WOW!
Recently there have been two. The first is Plantation Place, in the U.K. There were about 1500 solid stone fins; the exact same type of stone was cut the other way to replicate a natural stone face quarry floor within the building itself.  We used Jura Limestone, solid stone treads about 170mm thick. The ‘wow’ factor was huge; combined with everything else on the job, it was just big!
The second was the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Just the sheer variety and kitsch value of it. There were so many different types of stone, such as limestone, granite and decorative marbles. It was not so much the beauty of the project but the scale that made it stand out to me.

How do you think the use of stone in Australia compares with the rest of the world? 
In Australia the market is still quite limited and is controlled by a very select few, who’ve been around for a very long time. This is good in that the individuals are all very knowledgeable and intimate with the market. However, it is also not so good in that the way the stone is used is not as diverse or as widely accepted in the architectural community, and the general public; say, in Europe or even South East Asia to an extent. But that could be a purely geographical/cultural issue

Can stone be considered as a “high tech” material?
By itself it would be difficult to make that claim, however there are trends emerging now, like slicing stone down and combining it with composite materials; light weight stone panels; and laminate in glass. These are all very exciting things and are pushing stone into the high tech realm. It’s how we use the stone that would drive it forward and show that there is a future for the industry. So by a secondary route, stone could be considered as a high tech material.

Is there a future for stone? Do you think it can continue to compete successfully with the many alternative engineered materials now available?
There is a new drive towards sustainability and green buildings but the processing of stone doesn’t always get the thumbs up straight away. However in terms of renewal and permanence, if people start looking at stone as a structural as well as an ornamental material, we could well find that with improved practices of extraction and processing, stone can be a viable building material.

By: Mary Mann
Media Liaison Officer
Stone Initiatives (c)