In the early 20th century, architects and designers adopted a common principle that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. However, as architects and designers continue to create increasingly complex structural and aesthetic creations, is the concept that ‘form follows function’ no longer relevant?
Although a building’s function must always remain the primary consideration for the client and architect, form plays an increasingly important role as designers look to create a modern, showpiece structure. When an architect pushes the boundaries of design to the limit, it’s often the main contractor and the numerous specialist subcontractors that must ensure the finished building is fit for purpose — without impacting on architectural intent.
To successfully deliver the architect’s artistic vision, there must be a clear collaborative approach between the architects, engineers, designers and contractors. On occasion, a traditional and more adaptable approach can be the most suitable solution for the ever-more complex architectural designs of today.
At the recently opened Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow, mechanical and electrical contractor Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES) demonstrated how a simple and efficient building-services installation can help to deliver a landmark architectural creation of the very highest standard.
A feat of engineering
Designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid, 2-time winner of the Stirling Prize and the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in its 26 year history, the £74 million Riverside Museum in Glasgow is one of Scotland’s most prestigious construction projects and has already been dubbed ‘Glasgow’s Guggenheim’.
Located adjacent to Glasgow Harbour where the river Clyde meets the river Kelvin, the stunning purpose-built facility replaces the old Glasgow Transport Museum and provides a permanent home for more than 3000 exhibits that document the city’s rich and varied transport heritage — including cars, trains, bicycles and period streets.
The building also represents a landmark development for Glasgow, linking the city’s rich and diverse cultural history with a progressive and ambitious future. Its sinusoidal steel and zinc roof features five peaks that from above look like tightly lapping waves, whilst internally helping to complement the interior’s tunnel-like configuration. This provides an openness and fluidity that is symbolic of the city’s connection with the River Clyde, whilst allowing visitors to gently meander through the exhibits.
Aesthetically stunning, the roof features a series of continuous ridges and valleys, each of which varies in height and width so that no two lines are geometrically the same. Although an integral part of the architect’s design, this also contributed to the challenge set for the M&E contractor BBES and a number of other construction professionals on site.
Complex problem, simple solution
At the 7500 m2 structure, the architects worked with structural engineering consultancy Buro Happold and main contractor BAM Construct UK to combine the building’s complex geometric shapes with architectural innovation and material authenticity. To achieve the architect’s vision, an interior free of columns and building services incorporated into the unobtrusive structural frame, an integrated and architectural engineering solution was developed.
For the column-free interior, the project’s design team created a structural steelwork that is within the building shell, exactly 37 cm away from the external surface and hidden from visitors. By utilising the plane geometry of the roof, the side walls retain support from the facades and hold up the building and its stunning roof, whilst also incorporating a number of mechanical and electrical services.
Although the building’s stunning wave-like roof and pleated walls will undoubtedly take many of the plaudits and adulation from both architectural enthusiasts and visitors alike, it is in fact many of the building’s hidden elements that represent an outstanding achievement for its designers, engineers and service installers. However, despite such a complex forward-thinking structural design, the integration of building services required a ‘back-to-basics’ approach.
Bespoke mechanical systems
The museum is awe-inspiring and does not have any of the angles or corners that a conventional building has. With an amazing challenge, BBES started with a blank piece of paper to create a bespoke mechanical and electrical system that could be tailored for each twist and turn of the building.
Without a straight line throughout the building to work with, BBES had to complete an extensive range of on-site measurements — even utilising an old-fashioned bending machine to shape the installation to fit the building. The company demonstrated its level of skills and expertise to envisage all routes for the installation, including a multitude of complex twists and turns that had originally proved problematic in the 3D and 2D design stages.
Using the more traditional method of bespoke alterations to ensure the service installation fitted the building, BBES overcame numerous challenges to deliver a successful solution to what was an extremely complicated process.
Ironically, the BBES mechanical team also had to fight for space on site despite the vast interior of the 7500 m2 building. With no room for modularisation, the company had to shoehorn a number of mechanical and electrical services into some incredibly tight spaces. Due to the building’s elaborate roof design, this meant that air-handling units, chillers and ducts could not be contained within or on the roof. Despite this, the roof actually played an even more important role than expected in many of the mechanical installations.
Through the roof
The only way to get the 14.5 m long, 2 m wide chiller into the building was to lower it into place via the roof. At the time, these were the largest chiller units in the whole of Scotland, and with only 25 mm tolerance on each side presented an extreme crane handling challenge.
To keep the building services from infringing upon its stunning aesthetic, substantial trenches measuring some 1.2 km long were created beneath the floor to encapsulate the main routes of ductwork, cabling and pipework. All the lighting, heating and ventilation, camera and speaker systems were connected to a service rail that runs the length of the building at a height of 6.5 m.
Three gas-fired humidifiers, each with a 20 m3/s air-handling unit, were installed to provide heated or cooled air that then emanates from the grilles located within the service rail. These ensure the temperature remains at a constant 21°C for 24 hours a day, as well as at 50% relative humidity to preserve the museum’s artefacts and provide a comfortable environment.
This represents an incredible feat of engineering because the exhibition space has no vertical columns, and the roof relies on the perimeter walls to support itself. There are two vast entrances at each end of the tubular building served by fan-coil units providing heating and cooling and various types of heat emitter — including radiators, radiant panels, unit heaters and trench heaters to prevent condensation on the glass surfaces by the entrance.
In modern mechanical and electrical installations, BBES makes every effort to incorporate modularisation into the design, supply and installation of its services. Cost-effective, sustainable and with additional health and safety benefits — modularisation is widely regarded as the future for building services. However, when the project demands an alternative approach, BBES has demonstrated that its bespoke mechanical and electrical installations can be truly fit for purpose to meet the challenging demands of the client and the architect.
Playing a crucial part in the £1.2 billion regeneration of the Clyde corridor on Glasgow Harbour, this development is one of the largest waterfront regeneration projects in the UK. Expected to take about 10 years to complete, the new-look harbour with the stunning Riverside Museum as its focal point will demonstrate engineering at its very best for many years to come.
Derek Sanders is regional director and Gordon Ferguson is project manager with Balfour Beatty Engineering Services.