The Sorting Office, 21-31 New Oxford Street, is a stand-alone part eight / part nine storey post-war building formerly used by the Post Office for sorting mail. It was built by the old Ministry of Works between 1961 and 1969 in a brutalist style. It ceased operations as a sorting office in the early 1990s.
The site is currently being redeveloped for mixed-use contributing to the provision of a significant number of new homes, community facilities and jobs within the area.
The building was colour-coded inside with different areas and the different functions of the sorting process treated in specific colours. So much did colour play a part in the operating of the Sorting Office that it was felt that a record should be made of them for possible reuse. In that way a link with the past might be created as the building moves into new use.
Having pioneered the colour-measurement of architectural surfaces over twenty years ago we have considerable experience of recording colours from surfaces as diverse as Adam ceilings to the range of natural stone colours seen on the facades of Bath’s eighteenth century houses.
Measurements were taken with a Konica Minolta CM-700d Spectrophotometer and the readings compared against a database that we have built up containing several hundred thousand colour profiles. The aim was to identify the closest colours in three of the most widely used colour systems – NCS,1 RAL2 and BS3. The reasoning being that the colours should be available in many different types of paint from any competent manufacturer / supplier.
It was believed that when the Sorting Office was built most of the colours would have been selected from the British Standard paint ranges that were current at the time – BS 381C: 1931 revised in 1964 and BS 2660: 1955. In 1972 the current British Standard range – BS 4800: 1972 was introduced and evidence of its use had been observed as certain elements had been repainted.
In theory, colours like these should be readily identified, however this sort of exercise is far more complicated than it might appear as there are a number of variables. There are several reasons for this:
- Manufacturers often have a loose interpretation of the colour ‘standard’;
- Each industry will produce a different version of the colour ‘standard’;
- Paint that is made in batches will vary batch-to-batch;
- Paint ages and departs from the ‘standard’ over time (oil-based paints more so than water-based).
And then one had the problem of finding that the best match to a colour came from a more recent and much larger range of paint colours than would originally have been used. Should one specify the closest colour, as it appeared now, or the colour that was likely to have been part of the original concept? We addressed this by giving both.
We welcome this type of project because, although it will be a variant of a previous one there are always new factors and challenges to consider.
1The NCS, or Natural Colour System, is a system of colour notation developed by the Scandinavian Colour Institute. The system had been licensed to ICI (Dulux) for the UK market and the colours can be seen in the (obsolete) Dulux Colour Dimensions Colour Atlas. [Dulux is a trademark of ICI.] It is a system that is widely used in the UK and Europe and is useful for its large number of colours. In recent years the NCS colour system has been revised and colours adjusted slightly.
2The RAL colour system is a range of colours standardised by the German Reichsausschuss fur Lieferbedingungen (RAL) [National Board of Supply Conditions]. This organisation was founded in Berlin, in 1925, to regulate and set the standards for quality in industry. In recent years colours from this range have seen increasing use throughout Europe. The range is larger than the British Standard range and seems to be slowly replacing it in the building trade.
3Following moves made in the paint industry in the early years of the 20th century the first range of standardised paint colours was published in 1930. A British Standard, BS 381, which (with additions in 1931) became BS 381C: 1931 Colours for Ready Mixed Paints formed the greater part of the limited palette of paint colours available from most paint manufacturers throughout the next twenty years. Some later editions are as follows:
BS 381C: 1948 & 1964 Colours for Specific Purposes.
BS 2660: 1955 Colours for Building and Decorative Paints.
BS 4800: 1981 Paint Colours for Building Purposes.
The last one is still current although almost obsolete. It has far fewer colours than either the RAL or NCS systems.