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The 150-Million-Year-Old Stone that is Firmly Back in Fashion

The 150-Million-Year-Old Stone that is Firmly Back in Fashion
21 August 2023

Used since Roman times, Portland Stone is a type of limestone building material that has been used extensively in some of Britain’s most notable structures and continues to be used in homes today, particularly for fireplaces, staircases, and flooring. We take a look at its resurgence in popularity.

A popular stone for architecture, it has been used in the construction of many important buildings in the London area, such as The Bank of England, St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Audit Office, the BBC’s Broadcasting House, and even the redevelopment of Regent Street.


A Global Heritage Stone Resource


Portland stone comes from the Island of Portland, Dorset, and has been quarried there for approximately 1,000 years. It is a type of limestone formed slowly over the last 150 million years from the slow compaction of calcium carbonate and organic seafloor matter.

In 2013, its close association with a sense of British national identity led geologists from the Heritage Stone Task Group (a sub-commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences) to designate it the world’s first “Global Heritage Stone Resource”. This designation came after efforts from Professor Barry Cooper and the English Stone Forum to recognise “natural stone material that has achieved both widespread use and recognition in human culture”.


Standing the Test of Time


It’s strong, durable, and weather resistant nature means that Portland stone is particularly useful for outdoor building work and for monuments which are intended to be long-lasting.

The stone has impressive green credentials too, which has seen a surge of its use in commercial buildings recently.

A recent example is Panorama St Paul’s, the ambitious redevelopment in the City of London set to become the new home of HSBC, where 1,500 tonnes of Portland Stone and granite are being used to keep its carbon footprint to a minimum.

“It may be old as the hills but is still a viable option for eco-conscious builds and can still play a significant role in an increasingly high-tech industry, says Dan from Beam Development, who has been working on premium residential projects for more than 15 years,

“The mining of stone for building material is a relatively green process because there is no trapped carbon released during extraction. Unlike with some building materials, greenhouse gas emission is limited to the equipment used and does not produce any waste.

“Stone is a natural building material, free from pollutants that can cause various symptoms among workers in some modern buildings. It doesn't need chemical treatment to make it waterproof, and with the appropriate fixing material, is an environmentally friendly option.”


Classic but Contemporary


Owing to its ability to be easily worked and carved, Portland Stone is a fashionable option in building projects for columns, plinths, flooring, paving, mouldings, sculptures, fireplaces and so on.

One example is a restoration project in London’s Mayfair where Dan from Beam Development is working on a stone hearth. Inspired by the aesthetics of designer Axel Vervoordt, whose work combines contemporary and old materials, Dan personally sourced 2.4m³ block of Portland stone from Dorset.

“This beautiful, ornamental stone is classic but contemporary and its neutral colour allows it to work with a variety of colours and furnishings, and is at home whether in a minimalist apartment or a Georgian town house,” said Dan.

“We chose Portland stone for this project, because of its soft grey tones which create a natural, pared back but aesthetic look that fits with the feel of the house, and that can be cut easily and shaped into various sizes and designs.”

When it came to choosing the right stone, Dan, along with architect Reginald Verspreeùwen from RV Architecture, visited Albion Stone on the Isle of Portland to identify the bed and cut they were looking for and then set about finding a block of a suitable size.

“We spent two or three amazing hours – like kids in a sweet shop – looking at all the different stones, before hitting upon a 1.2 tonne piece of premium quality, fine grain basebed stone that ticked all the boxes.”

The Portland stone hearth which will be the centrepiece of a two-storey atrium with a biofuel heater and chimney stack above, is set to be marked and cut and then transported to Mayfair where it will be lowered into place.

Dan Grimshaw is a design and construction specialist based in Bath and London. He is a mentor to the British Library’s prestigious Innovating for Growth programme and is a jury member for the BLT Built Design Awards. 

Picture: a photograph of a person from the back, wearing a hi-vis jacket and pointing out into a quarry. Image Credit: Beam Development

Article written by Daisy Miceli | Published 21 August 2023


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