Blog

Three Recessions, One Roman Villa and a Tiny House for Ants

Date

28 May 2024

By

Simon McAuliffe

Man drawing an architectural sketch

 

Charlie Sharman on innovating history at Cantifix

 

It’s always exciting to share projects from around the world which push the envelope of architectural innovation and demonstrate the premium quality for which our bespoke service is known. 

 

Whereas the databases of other structural glazing companies might stretch back a handful of years – certainly a commendable feat when you consider that 60% of businesses don’t last more than three – ours spans decades and contains many thousands of projects.

 

Despite always looking ahead to the future, keeping one eye on emerging technologies and the other on things that inspire us, we believe it is always a useful exercise to look back at what challenges we’ve overcome and what we can learn from historical projects to build into future innovation.

 

We chatted to Charlie Sharman, one of three fraternal founders of Cantifix (now ‘semi-retired’ from the business).

 

 

‘Will it hold?’ The birth of Cantifix

In 1991, two of the three Sharman brothers – Charlie and William – were running a successful conservatory-building company when Czech architect Eva Jiřičná phoned the boys up and asked whether they could create an outdoor glazing room made entirely from glass.

Nothing like this had ever been done before (and lasted to tell the tale), so it was entirely uncharted territory, likely requiring hours of careful calculations and meticulous planning. But in Charlie’s words: “it seemed like it could be a lot of fun, so we said yes!” 

This was an era of experimentation, illustrated by their next project in 1992 – the Metro Photo Studio at Clerkenwell. In the spirit of world’s firsts, Cantifix created the first structural glazed roof which crowned the lobby of this modern hub of art. While most onlookers were impressed, Charlie was worried. “Was it actually strong enough to bear any weight?”

The question barely had time to cross his mind before a scaffolder unwittingly stepped off the boards and onto the untested panes of glass. 

The scaffolder took one step, then another, and Charlie held his breath.

The importance of doing your homework

But nothing happened – no dramatic shattering or monumental shifting. It was, of course, structurally sound. In fact, both this and Eva Jiřičná’s outdoor glazing room  are still standing entirely unchanged today – a fact that gives Charlie a smile whenever he thinks about the approach in those days: 

Probably because, for all his humble humour, Charlie knows that he and his fellow founders had done their homework and knew that their solutions could be possible and – most importantly – safe. “But it was a strategy that simply wouldn’t be possible today – architects wouldn’t be keen to take a gamble like that, and the modern health and safety legislation wouldn’t allow for it.”

Cantifix – as a structural glazing company – was born, but its origin story relied on brave clients in a world that was, in Charlie’s words, “a different place back then. It was a lot of fun, and it was a lot more money than conservatories!”

Making a shatterproof vision – and other challenges

The prospect of innovating freely and incorporating new, cutting-edge technologies is an exciting one, but when asked to name the biggest challenge Cantifix faces on a day-to-day basis, Charlie barely misses a beat before grimacing and saying “meeting a client’s and architect’s vision to the letter.”

That’s not because the team at Cantifix is inflexible, it’s because the glass is. While we all know from science class that glass is an amorphous solid that has liquid properties, we also know that it shatters instead of bends and can’t be reshaped to accommodate something like an unexpected drain cover that might need to be worked around when a structure is being built in the middle of busy London. For example.

Summed up, Cantifix is undertaking precise work in an imprecise industry.

A tonne of glass with a little finger

 

But that challenge – of capturing a vision and executing it in our real world – is what Charlie loves. He highlights the Portsoken Pavillion in Aldgate as one such challenge. This futuristic café is accessed through a glass door easily weighing a tonne, but patrons would be able to open it with their little finger.

“Things are often far more complicated than Cantifix make them look.”

The same statement is true of the Roman villa, built in 2022 within the grounds of the Newt in Somerset. A glass walkway would usually be supported on steel beams, which in this instance would obstruct the visitor’s view of the Roman ruins below. Cantifix solved this by creating the ‘titanium teardrop’ – very small fixings which were laminated into the glass to entirely minimise the visual impact, while still robust enough to support such a sizeable structure.

“I think they’ve since built a recreated villa in which you can stay and be served by centaurion servants.”

About that tiny house for ants…

 

The day-to-day running of Cantifix is not always about pushing innovative envelopes and overcoming complex engineering problems. Sometimes, the team have a bit of fun, and that fun leads to big things.

“Many years ago, my son George mocked up a fully glazed and habitable structure on the computer and superimposed it in a variety of imaginative places.” Those places included the top of a skyscraper, a safari park, and even as part of an ant colony.

“It was a lighthearted idea, but then we decided to make a real-life version, the ‘Photonspace’, and put it right in the centre of London Design Week 2013.”

The structure was popular, hitting a few headlines and inviting plenty of interest from passersby, but it was Oxford University who really took a shine to the glass building, asking if they could borrow it to study the benefits of prolonged natural light exposure. After all, with a kitchen, bed and bathroom, this was the first fully glazed building that someone could actually live in.

The prestigious university did indeed borrow it, taking the Photonspace to Bornholm, a Danish island in the Baltic Sea. There, scientists conducted lots of observations and confirmed that the natural light was indeed very beneficial.

“I remember the television doctor Michal Mosely filmed a documentary called ‘The Truth About… Sleep‘ about the pod and its effects on sleep and even though he is a confirmed insomniac, he found the experience very beneficial!”

Right now, the Photonspace is in Sweden, allowing researchers at Umea University to continue their study of the effects of natural light on human biology, but its construction isn’t Charlie’s only foray into scientific research:

“I was asked to speak at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and was able to give our perspective on why access to sunshine is so important.”

What started as a concept home for ants has developed into a luxury glazed structure, deployed in some of the most picturesque settings in the world, ideally suited to visitors who need a retreat from their busy lives to completely relax.

“You either live in these buildings or they fall down”

The Photonspace was special, but it was a new construction. What about buildings that were built a very long time ago? Many people might baulk at the idea of futuristic additions to heritage properties, but Charlie gives a different perspective: 

“Families need spaces in which they comfortably live in our modern world. It can be possible for additions to enhance the original features, rather than detract from them.”

That’s exactly what Cantifix did when they were asked to create a glazed foyer in Senate House, a UCL-owned building located in Bloomsbury, a stone’s throw from the British Museum. Any development was entirely restricted, meaning this space was just used to store the bins. It was going to waste until Charlie, Matthew, William and their team combined 129 panes of glass – each one different from the next – into a serpentine glazed roof, beneath which students and staff could relax on sofas, and a permanent café could serve hot drinks to power long study sessions.

Charlie lives in a converted factory, so we know he means it when he says “you either live in the buildings or they fall down.”

“Running a business for 38 years is bl**dy hard work”

 

Having executed so many interesting projects – the Old War Rooms being particularly enigmatic – it is a surprise when asked what his proudest Cantifix achievement is, Charlie replies “I get great satisfaction in looking after staff members, helping them to pay mortgages, raise children, build their own lives.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise; Charlie mentors businesspeople who want to start their own companies, and their biggest concern is the current UK recession, but in his words: “I remember the last three!”

Each one undoubtedly brought its own unique set of challenges and anxieties, but that is why Charlie is so happy to have supported so many talented people – Cantifix’s current headcount is 45. Nonetheless, he is letting off steam when he says “running a business for 38 years is bloody hard work!”

But it’s not just any business. “We built the market in which our competitors now sit.” 

That’s not an empty boast or a handy marketing strapline; in 1991, the structural glazing industry simply didn’t exist in the way it does today.

Closing our conversation, Charlie smiles as he says “If we took a walk round London, this great capital city, I could point out a lot of buildings that we’ve worked on over the years.”

What’s next? It’s hard to say, but Cantifix is still innovating, still leading the market that they built over three decades ago. One thing is for sure though – there will be lots of projects, and, as Charlie says “we’ve never failed to finish a project.”