News Release

Rethinking the concrete jungle

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Leeds

Think concrete; think drab 1960s tower blocks? Think again.

University of Leeds engineers are working with the artist Victoria Ferrand Scott to exploit the untapped potential of architecture's 'ugly duckling' as a versatile and even sensuous sculptural material.

The year-long project will allow the 'Artist in Residence' to spend two days a week working with researchers, technicians and project students at the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure (iRI) at the University of Leeds. The partnership is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Together, project members will investigate alternative 'mixes' of concrete that can be used for artistic sculptures. Concrete is essentially any material that uses cement to bind together crushed stone, rock and sand, so the starting 'recipe' can vary considerably. A mixture that is perfect for making long, supporting concrete beams for a residential building may be quite different to the recipe that is mixed together in a bucket in an artist's studio.

The project will also explore how high-tech processing methods might be used creatively to make extremely large sculptures. One solution may be to add strips of cloth to the starting 'mix' of concrete that is then poured into flexible moulds. This could reduce the weight of the finished solid, forms without reducing their strength or making them more likely to crack.

The results of the work will be shared through the website of NACNet – a network of scientists, engineers, social scientists, industrialists and artists exploring novel uses for cement, from musical instruments to wind turbine blades.

"This is all about knowledge transfer between both parties," said materials engineer Dr Phil Purnell, Director of the iRI. "As engineers, we have considerable expertise in the material properties of concrete that should help artists, like Victoria, extend the scale and complexity of their sculptures."

"At the same time, we hope to learn more about our favourite material by hearing the artists' perception and approach to concrete. For example, artists strive to create detailed and quite intricate surface finishes and these are not always fully exploited by engineers and architects when designing concrete buildings," he said.

"This is a truly valuable opportunity and I plan to use the time to push the accepted boundaries of process," Ferrand Scott said. "Working with concrete is similar to working with plaster in that you are pouring fluid into bound moulds. The difference is that you have more time to manipulate the forms that are being created, greater potential strength, and more scope to increase the scale of sculptures."

"Forms made using fluid materials, such as concrete, can be quite organic, even visceral in nature. Yet concrete has for so long had a reputation as being an ugly, brutal material. I am hopeful that this collaboration will bring about a reappraisal of the creative possibilities of concrete and reveal its inherent sensuous qualities."


For further information: Paula Gould, University of Leeds press office: Tel 0113 343 8059, email

Notes for editors

1. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Leeds is ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of its research (2008 Research Assessment Exercise); an impressive 75% of the Faculty's research activity rated as internationally excellent or world leading. It includes the Schools of Computing, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering.

The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

2. Victoria Ferrand Scott is an Associate Member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. She originally studied History of Art at Manchester University (1978) before achieving a first in Sculpture at Bretton College (2002) and an MA in Fine Art at the University of Leeds (2004). She has been involved in other residencies and art/science collaborations including working in quarries and has exhibited concrete sculpture at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2008). For further information visit

3. The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund see

4. NACNet is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. To take part please visit

5. Cement was first developed as a building material by the Romans. Modern cement is made by heating mainly limestone with some clay to over 1450 degrees Celsius to form a hard 'clinker' which is then ground and mixed with various materials, such as gypsum, powdered limestone or even wastes from iron manufacture and power stations. When water is added to cement, a chemical reaction occurs as it hydrates, allowing it to harden. In the early 1800s a Leeds man, Joseph Aspdin, added clay to limestone before superheating it. The resulting mix set anywhere, even under water. He patented it as Portland cement in 1824 and the same basic process is still in use today.

Concrete is the world's most abundant manmade material, accounting for 60% of all man-made products by mass; 20 billion tonnes of concrete are made around the world each year. Concrete also has the lowest embodied energy and carbon dioxide of any major building material; the production of concrete accounts for just 5% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

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