Friday18 August 2017

Behind the scenes at the V&A Dundee

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Realising Kengo Kuma’s extraordinarily complex design for the V&A’s outpost in Dundee would not have been possible without sophisticated modelling tools and precision construction techniques.


Given the recent frenzy of construction activity emanating from some of our major cultural institutions, it’s hard to believe public funding for the arts is under any pressure. At £260m, the Herzog & de Meuron designed Switch House for the Tate Modern was one of the more extravagant and high-profile buildings to be built after the 2007 financial crash. Never one to be outdone, Tate St Ives now has a construction team busily burrowing deep into a granite hillside to create the Jamie Fobert Architects designed new extension. And now the mighty V&A has jumped onto the same totemic bandwagon as Tate and engaged the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to design what is his first major building in the UK – a distinctive new gallery for the citizens of Dundee.

In a classic case of arts-led regeneration, the V&A Dundee sits on the banks of the river Tay, the city’s former industrial zone. The building has a solid, somewhat austere, gritty appearance with the structure formed from black concrete walls cantilevering out from the base like the hull of a ship. Part of the building juts into the river Tay, emphasising the building’s maritime connection. Some areas of wall are clad in stone planks giving the building a striated appearance similar to exposed layers of sedimentary rock in a cliff face.


The concrete walls curve in plan and twist in section making construction a challenge

Challenging geometry

This structure is extraordinarily complex and is best appreciated close up. The footprint of the upper, second floor galleries is much larger than the base with the floor supported by structural concrete walls cantilevering outwards from the base of the building. The structural piece de resistance is that these cantilevered walls also curve in plan and twist in section. “The wall looks like a wave, the sort of thing you see surfers riding on in Hawaii,” says Malcolm Boyd, the construction manager for contractor BAM. “The angle of the walls range from 23 to 87 degrees and they curve at the same time.” In places areas of wall curve in section in one direction and switch to the opposite direction in the space of a few metres. And the enormous second floor of galleries has just two columns to help support the roof.

BAM had to be absolutely confident of getting this complex job right as it has taken the job on a single stage traditional contract for £70m. Boyd is the man responsible for delivering this project on time and budget and says the secret of success is lots of careful planning and co-ordination months in advance of the work taking place. “We do a lot of risk management and try and manage the process upfront,” he says. There is also a strict regime of constant checking and double checking complex parts of the job to make sure nothing falls out of line.

The wall looks like a wave, the sort of thing you see surfers riding on in Hawaii

Malcolm Boyd, BAM


The forces generated by the outward leaning walls are tied back to the core using huge trusses at roof level. This enabled the creation of a largely column-free, second-floor gallery


To understand how the walls were built it helps to appreciate the overall structural solution. The building consists of two connected volumes. Part of building A extends into the river while B sits entirely on dry land. The two volumes are separated by a triangular arch at ground and first floor level but are joined at second floor level to create a large, uninterrupted gallery space for exhibitions.

The building features two cores – one for A and one for B. Spine walls radiate from the cores to pick up the tension loads imposed by the lower part of the external walls leaning outwards. The external walls are also restrained by steel beams connected back to the core at first floor level. Huge, 2m deep steel trusses up to 28m long are employed at roof level as these have to restrain the walls without intermediate columns. “The central core could be you with your arms stretched out holding your shopping bags,” explains Graeme Moncur, the associate at Arup who is responsible for the structural engineering. “The beams are like your arms – these stop the walls from falling out.” He adds the overall effect is that the building acts as a single, efficient 3D structure.

 In practice this meant the walls wouldn’t stand up unsupported until the intermediate floors and roof were on. This meant extensive propping and substantial foundations to support the weight of the walls and temporary works.

Early aerial view of shuttering

The walls were constructed using bespoke shuttering, which was supported by Peri’s standard falsework system

Constructing the walls

Creating the complex, curved walls required some very special formwork. This job was undertaken by specialist Peri. “Every single shutter was bespoke and single use only,” says Boyd. It took 20 designers and 80 joiners to create the shuttering needed for this job.

The beams are like your arms – these stop the walls from falling out

Graeme Moncur, Arup

The bespoke shutters were supported by Peri’s standard falsework system, a combination used to support the building after the concrete had been cast. Each shutter consists of a flat sheet of plywood sitting against the falsework. A lattice work of plywood similar to that in a wine box was used to create the complex curvature of the wall – the ends of this latticework was cut to shape using CNC cutters. Thin sheets of ply were folded over this latticework to form the surface of the shutter ready for the concrete.

The complex geometry meant concrete couldn’t be poured into the shuttering a floor at time because of the risks of voids in the concrete. Instead each floor was cast in three lifts with the pouring sequence determined by the specific geometry of each section.

With the walls completed the huge 2m deep roof level trusses could go on followed by secondary beams and the roof covering. Only then could the forest of temporary works surrounding the building be taken down. This started in January this year and took nearly two months. As the large dark sculptural hulk of the building was unwrapped, the citizens of Dundee got their first sense of what this unusual building would look like.


The concrete walls, floors and roof structure needed to be finished before the temporary works supporting the building could be removed

Stone plank cladding

With the walls completed, work could start on fixing the stone plank cladding. These are actually precast concrete planks with a rough, exposed aggregate to give the appearance of stone.

The planks weigh up to 2.5 tonnes each and feature a neat hooking system enabling these to be quickly attached to the wall fixings.

The precast plank installation on the river side of the building is almost complete. The team will switch to the city side of the job so work can start on the landscaping next to the river. The landscaping includes ponds to give the impression that the building is emerging from the river. Visitors will approach the building along the new marine wall with the river on one side and the ponds on the other to give the impression they are crossing water over a bridge.

Internal fit-out is scheduled to complete by January 2018 ready for building handover to the V&A. The V&A will bring in its furniture and equipment ready for a late summer opening. Given the powerful architectural qualities of this building and the technical challenges involved in delivering it, the V&A could be said to have got itself a reasonable deal.


The concrete planks weigh up to 2.5 tonnes each. The planks feature cast in hooks enabling these to be quickly hooked onto fixings attached to the concrete walls

3D modelling the V&A

The V&A Dundee would have been almost impossible to realise without 3D computer modelling and analysis tools. Kengo Kuma designed the complex external walls and precast concrete cladding planks using the 3D modelling tool Rhino. Arup’s Graeme Moncur says the firm had to take this complex geometrical shape and find a way of making it stand up. The first challenge was to transfer the architectural geometry into Arup’s inhouse finite element analysis tool GSA. The Rhino model was broken into layers to separate out different parts of the structure. Parametric modelling package Grasshopper was used to generate an analysis mesh for the external walls, which was imported into GSA where the structure could be fully analysed. Arup worked with Kengo Kuma to tweak the design to reduce areas of high stress. This involved reducing the angles of some of the exterior walls. The model was also used to create a 3D immersive VR environment to help designers and clients understand the complex design.

Cross section through building A and B diagram

3D model of structure. The outward leaning walls (pink) are tied back to the core (green) with steel beams (blue) at intermediate and roof level

Project team

Client Dundee council
Concept/Lead architect Kengo Kuma & Associates
Executive architect James F Stephens
Structural and MEP engineer Arup
Project manager Turner & Townsend
Contractor Bam
Concrete specialist Careys
Engineer to Careys Alan White Design
Bespoke formwork Peri

A troubled start


Visualisation showing building from the River Tay

The idea of a V&A in Dundee came from initial discussions between the University of Dundee and the V&A as far back as 2007. Other organisations including Dundee council, Scottish Enterprise and Abertay University became interested and formed the Design Dundee Company to realise the project. A benchmarking exercise established a budget of £27m based on the per square metre cost of £4,500/m2 for a 6,000m2building. Benchmarked buildings included the Zaha Hadid-designed Glasgow Transport Museum, which was completed in 2011 at a cost of £6,700 per m2 and the Museum of Scotland, which was completed in 1998 at a cost of £6,200 per m2.

A competition was launched in 2010 with a budget of £27m and was won by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Kuma was appointed in 2011 and worked up the design for a building wholly constructed in the River Tay.

In 2011, Dundee council agreed a budget of £45m for the project. Costs continued to escalate and in 2012 the idea of constructing the entire building in the river was dropped to save money. The building was redesigned to sit on the riverbank.

The project was tendered in 2013 and in 2014 only two tenders were submitted – by Sir Robert McAlpine and Bam. Both tenders exceeded the budget and were close to each other. In 2015, a new budget of £80.1m was approved by the council.

An independent report by businessman John McClelland into the cost increases concluded there was a mismatch between the aspirations for the project and what was affordable, saying there was little prospect the building could ever be realised for the original budget. The original cost benchmark was for a standard building but the selected design was for an “elite” building constructed over water.

It also found there was insufficient external professional support for the project, especially during the early stages, and it was “unlikely” construction inflation had been fully factored into the budget.


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