August 06, 2007
Open Book
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

Open Book

by Susan Smith

(This article first appeared in ArchitectureWeek, February 7, 2007 and is reprinted with permission here.)

The new home of the Bridge Academy, a secondary school in a low-income area of Hackney, London, will be a complex seven-story, terraced building, fitted into a relatively small site. With a focus on mathematics and music, the school is one of many specialist academies being built by the British government. It is sponsored by UBS, a global financial services firm.

Site constraints meant the firm
Building Design Partnership (BDP) had to coordinate especially carefully among the disciplines. To pull off the difficult design process, the entire design team worked simultaneously on the same building information model (BIM), using software from

BDP has had extensive experience building vertically on small sites for the Department of Education and Skills, with the goal of using as much of the site as possible. In this case, says Keith Papa, architect director for BDP, the key was to use the roof and terraces for the needed outdoor spaces. "To let that happen and still deal with the canal at the front, we had to come up with an intricate structure that the central section of the school is suspended from."

In the middle of the school is an outdoor playground hung from a big steel hoop that circles around and above it. "As soon as we got to that point, we realized the best people to lead the modeling were the structural engineers and not the architects, because that type of complex geometry is much more their sort of thing than ours," says Papa.

BDP is a full-service firm that practices architecture, landscape architecture, lighting design, and structural, mechanical, and electrical/environmental engineering. So all the primary design disciplines were working under one roof, making it easier for them to work on the same software model.

"Although we worked on it together," Papa explains, "[the structural engineers] tended to lead on the model making. [The hoop] was such an important part of the overall architectural design we wanted to make sure we were getting the structure that would most benefit the building of the school, while the structural engineers had the opportunity to shape it and form it the way that made sense structurally for them."

Driven by the goals of the school visionaries, BDP wanted to create a structure that would inspire the schoolchildren to think about the harmonious relationship between mathematics and music. They plan to share the mathematical basis of the structure as a topic for classroom learning.

Papa explains: "When they're actually doing their math at school, they have a real-life example in front of them to explore. So having the hoop out in the open [will become] a useful part of the curriculum, rather than just being something you hang the building on."

BIM-Integrated Processes

BDP is a long-time Bentley
MicroStation user, and on this project they used MicroStation versions 7 and 8,
TriForma, and
Bentley Structural with third-party structural analysis software.

Bentley Structural, a 3D structural package, was used to generate and develop the form of the building. The resulting 3D model can be "sliced" horizontally to create plans and vertically to create sections for issue and review in MicroStation.

Bentley Structural was instrumental in enabling all disciplines within BDP to understand and work with the complex geometrical form within the constrained site. Along the way, the firm received a Bentley Innovation Award for their use of the package to coordinate structure and services. Bentley Structural is compatible with structural analysis software called
ROBOT Millennium from the UK company,
Robobat. It is used for simple frame analysis as well as for complex Finite element method (FEM) or nonlinear analysis.

In the past, engineers have had to rely on many software programs to manage these tasks, but ROBOT Millennium uses a single common model throughout design, from simple linear analysis to complex dynamic calculations. The BDP team was able to pass the structural frame and geometry between the two packages as the design developed.

With the entire multidisciplinary team in house, all the architects and engineers used the same software and worked on different elements of the design but on a single building information model. Papa explains: "We don't send it out to anyone, get it back, and check it, because it's the only model."

To minimize the overall height of the building, the design team arranged the structural, mechanical, and electrical systems together, so, for instance, most of the wiring and plumbing runs through the hollow structural members.

To make sure this would all fit together, the mechanical and electrical engineers worked on the structural view of the model. The structural engineers carried the BIM into their structural analysis software to determine the forces, size of elements, connections, and so on. The architects used the model as much for coordination as design.

Shaped around the Heart

Such coordination was especially important in this compact building, where many elements play multiple roles. It is so compact, in fact, that the architects were able to fit the 110,000-square-foot (10,250-square-meter) building on a 64,500-square-foot (6,000-square-meter) site and still have 59,000 square-feet (5,500 square meters) of outdoor space.

Most parts of the building, except the classrooms, are visible from most other parts. In the middle of the structure is a transparent, inflatable ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) canopy. The "pillows" of its three layers of plastic are kept inflated with a small pump.

There are no corridors, and there are views to the inside and outside from the classrooms over an interior gallery. The central space — the "heart" — is hoped to instill a sense of community. It is oriented toward the canal to the north, but the transparency of the canopy will let in ample daylight from sky.

The classrooms face north and south so direct sunlight can be controlled more easily — using fixed, wooden brises soleils on the south elevation — than if they faced east or west. "The main aim was to get the classrooms facing either way, so you've got this plan that looks like a guitar," Papa points out.

On entering the school, one first comes to the big central square, flooded with light through the ETFE facade. Above, suspended by the structure, is the library/ resource center and above that is a play space.

To the north of the central square, a few steps down, is the school's dining area overlooking the canal. Above that is another outside terrace that is directly linked via the stair back to the resource center.

There are blurred boundaries between the inside and outside of the building, and all the classrooms on the north side open out onto exterior terraces. Inside the building, teaching spaces can be quickly transformed into a concert hall by pulling out seats and moving walls.

So when the students are using their structure for music, they can also be contemplating it for mathematics. It is a school building that will aptly reflect the lives of those who come here. The
Bridge Academy will open to students in September 2007.


Bridge Academy, a secondary school in Hackney, London, by Building Design Partnership, designed and coordinated with a building information model.

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