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Atrium closed again at children’s hospital

‘Wrong type of glass’ forces closure of Hopkins’ Evelina hospital for the third time in four years

The atrium of Hopkins Architects’ Stirling Prize-shortlisted Evelina Children’s Hospital in Southwark, south-east London, will be closed off again this summer to allow critical maintenance to the controversial glass roof.

AJ can reveal that every pane of glass is to be replaced in the atrium as part of a two-month programme to fix a specification error, which resulted in the wrong type of glass being installed throughout the building. It will be the third time the atrium has been shut to the public since the award-winning building opened four years ago.

Safety fears caused the hospital to close the atrium in October 2008, when a steel bolt fell from the second tier of the ‘conservatory’ structure (AJ 30.10.08), and then again when a pane of glass in the roof shattered because of an ‘imperfection in the manufacturing process’.

According to Alastair Gourlay, head of estates strategy projects at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust, a communication breakdown between the supplier, subcontractor and consultant resulted in the wrong type of glass being fitted with defective rubber seals.

Despite the problem being recognised in May 2007, Gourlay claimed there was no inherent safety risk, hence a delay of almost two years between identifying the problem and solving it.

‘The supplier thought it was supplying a superior type of glass but [that information] wasn’t passed down the line,’ said Gourlay. ‘Not to the subcontractor, the contractor or the architect. These things shouldn’t happen, but every building has its issues.’

The insurance company working for the contractor, MJ Gleeson, is underwriting the cost of the work, although it is looking to secure money from the subcontractors as well. Gourlay was unable to provide a value for the work.

Gourlay also denied that St Thomas’ had been ‘too ambitious’ in its brief for the first children’s hospital to be built in London in 100 years. ‘It complied with all NHS departmental cost allowances criteria,’ he said.

But Gourlay conceded that, done again, he would ensure more collaboration between the architect and contractor from the beginning, instead of going to the contractor directly with the design. ‘In hindsight it was probably a big risk. I am not sure how we would do it differently, but we would probably learn from PFI and other procurement routes that are maturing,’ he said.

Due to ongoing problems in the atrium, and with a view to eliminate any further setbacks, the Trust has agreed to bring in an annual maintenance check that will be carried out by Buro Happold. ‘Clearly you cannot just assume everything is okay, just because it is only two to three years old,’ said Gourlay.

The Evelina hospital has also suffered for its ambitious naturally ventilated, sustainable design. In particular, the decision to not install air conditioning units throughout the building backfired in the summer of 2006, when temperatures in London were hitting 35°C.

As a result, temperatures in the hospital reached uncomfortably high levels.

Gleeson and Hopkins worked with the client on an alternative temporary solution. The Trust said it had yet to decide how best to move forward without compromising its sustainable agenda.

‘The easy answer would be to install air conditioning, and we have a temporary solution at the moment. But I want to find a better way of solving it,’ said Gourlay.

A spokesperson for Hopkins declined to comment on the ongoing discussions between the hospital and contractor.

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