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Birmingham New Street falls short says scheme's architect

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The architect behind much of the newly-opened Birmingham New Street station has said the scheme ‘could have been much better’ and that lessons must be learned

Alejandro Zaera-Polo landed the £750 million job following an international competition seven years ago while jointly heading up Foreign Office Architects and retained the project when he set up his new practice, AZPML.

However the Madrid-born designer walked away from the centrepiece atrium project at the heart of the redevelopment of the 1960s station after refusing to value-engineer its designs. Haskoll took over that part of the scheme early last year (AJ 20.02.14) with Atkins acting as project architect.

Zaera-Polo told the AJ (see full comment below): ‘While we are proud of our involvement in this project, which has recycled an old infrastructure instead of building a new one … we believe that it could have been much better.

‘There are lessons to be learned from the process, particularly in the light of the HS2 projects that have to be delivered now.’

The practice stepped back from working on the atrium element when contractor Mace and project-backer Network Rail decided to replace the smooth, continuous white plaster curves of the competition-winning concept design with tensioned fabric.

Zaera-Polo said: ‘On the whole, the atrium as built now follows strictly our geometry and design, and we are pleasantly surprised that it is relatively close to our original intent. [However] we believe it could have been detailed and built without the joints and with a single material in time and possibly cheaper.’

He added: ‘The fundamental problem in this project arose from the fact that, after the bids had been awarded to subcontractors, the construction manager was formally appointed as design leader of the project. So, rather than concentrating on delivering what had been already agreed, bid for and awarded to the subcontractors, they attempted to down-spec different packages.

‘That was, in my view, a serious strategic mistake that produced several problems.’

Network Rail were contacted for comment.

Project data

Concept & Architects: AZPML
Location: Birmingham
Type Of Project: Refurbishment
Structural engineer for atrium and external skin: AKTII
Engineers: Atkins M&E Engineers Atkins
Project Architect: Atkins
Design Team: Retail design team Haskoll and Hoare Lea
Client: Network Rail
Funding: Birmingham City Council, Network Rail, Department for Transport, Centro, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, European Regional Development Fund
Tender date: 2008 & 2009
Start on site date: 2009
Contract duration: 2009-2015 – Mace appointed principal contractor 2010. Platform works continue to 2016.
Gross internal floor area: Lower mezzanine - 3,000m²; platforms - 8,000m²; concourse - 20,000m²; upper mezzanine - 4,500m²; grand central - 17,000m²; JLP - 24,000m²; upper retail - 15,000m²; total - 91,500m²
Form of contract and/or procurement: Construction Management
Total cost: £750 million        
M&e consultant: Atkins
Quantity surveyor: Faithful & Gould
Lighting consultant: Atkins and Hoare Lea
Principal contractor: Mace
Selected subcontractors and suppliers: NG Bailey, Coleman & Company, Elliott Thomas, Martifer UK, Fireclad, MPB, SAS, Vector Foiltech, Glazzard.

Birmingham New Street station

Source: Paul Painter

Full comment from Alejandro Zaera-Polo

‘AZPML is still working on certain parts of the station to this very day. Our involvement in this project dates back to 2008, when we won an international competition to design the central atrium and the public path through the station, and the external cladding, including Navigation Street footbridge and the treatment of the surrounding public realm. The concept was based on the over-cladding of the old station with a stainless steel reflective membrane which would be able to show, reflected on the new skin, the now-invisible trains arriving to the station, the commuters flocking inside of the building and the new Birmingham sky, which is bright and sunny because of climate change and clean industry.

‘The atrium was based on the idea that the new etfe roof was going to grow out of the columns of the old station, like a grand station vault. This project was very much in debt to the work of Clive Dutton, sadly deceased earlier this year, who I would like to pay tribute for his work in Birmingham.

‘We all have to thank him for all the crucial developments the city celebrates today. It is crucial to have champions like Clive in public projects like this in order to ensure that quality is delivered. 

‘Our remit was later extended to the basic massing and cladding of the John Lewis building on the south side of the complex. Both were completed up to GRIP5, an equivalent to stage C in the RIBA Scale.

‘We were then commissioned to deliver the atrium structure and the stainless metal cladding, which were the core of our proposal, and we are still involved in the delivery of the external cladding, which we are very excited about. Is great that after seven years of work we can finally see how the reflections play with the city around the building, the people, the trains.

‘The public disagreement happened over the instruction to modify the details of the cladding of the girders. We got an instruction first to remove the cladding of the girders, and we refused to deliver that because it was against the concept of the project, which is what we were there to protect.

‘After some discussions Network Rail agreed to keep the original design, but requested to replace the cladding on the girders with fabric, which we did not think was a good solution either. It produces a material discontinuity which goes against the continuity between the columns of the old structure and the new roof, which we designed as if it had grown organically from the old structure.

‘We didn’t think it was appropriate for us to implement a solution that was against the design concept and declined the instruction, and Network Rail had to source the CDs and construction supervision from another company. On the whole, the atrium as built now follows strictly our geometry and design, and we are pleasantly surprised that it is relatively close to our original intent, although we believe it could have been detailed and built without the joints and with a single material in time and possibly cheaper.

‘We’re pleasantly surprised it is close to our original intent’

We had done already preliminary studies and discussed them with appropriate contractors able to deliver. So the outcome is pretty good but it could have been much better and certainly it would be much worse if we did not confront with Network Rail regarding the cladding of the girders.

‘We hope it will stay like this, as the different performance over time between the plasterboard and the fabric may increase the fragmentation of the arches in the future. The same situation has happened with Navigation Street footbridge, which we envisioned to be re-clad with stainless steel, as an integral part of the project, and we understand that Network Rail is developing in grey aluminium, which obviously will turn it into a different element which is not integral part of the station, as originally conceived.

‘The bridge does not have the scale to have an independent entity, but there is nothing we can do if Network Rail decides to change the concept. 

‘The fundamental problem in this project arose from the fact that after the bids had been awarded to subcontractors, the construction manager was formally appointed as design leader of the project. So rather than concentrating on delivering what had been already agreed, bid for and awarded to the subcontractors, they attempted to downspec different packages, among them Navigation Street footbridge and the atrium finishes.

‘That was in my view a serious strategic mistake that produced several problems - and not only in the packages we were managing - as they started to remove tasks from the packages already agreed, which delayed the process and ended up becoming more expensive when they eventually had to be delivered. Handing over the design leadership to the construction manager is something that someone like Clive Dutton would have never agreed with. We need more people like him, or like Fred Manson in Southwark and Peter Rees in the City, to ensure that infrastructural projects follow adequate procurement routes that deliver high quality design.  

‘While we are proud of our involvement in this project, which has recycled an old infrastructure instead of building a new one in a less ideal location - with substantial ecological and economical impact - we believe that it could have been much better.

‘There are lessons to be learned from the process, particularly in the light of the HS2 projects that have to be delivered now.’

Other Comments

Architect Philip Singleton, former assistant director for City Centre Development at Birmingham Council and now chief executive officer at Millennium Point:
‘I travelled into New Street Station on its first operational day on Sunday (20 September). It is not often one uses the word transformed – but in this case it really does apply. The sheer scale of the experience is at last a justification of the station’s status.

‘The masterstroke is actually the urban response to the station renewal – there is now a really clear and open route down to the southern edge of the station which I know will economically enliven that part of the city – in the past the rents here were much lower than the CBD to the north.  Added to this a new square positions the station to link to the Bullring and an adjacent green-walled route makes further sense of the walking route to Moor Street station.

The masterstroke is the urban response

‘The architecture continues Birmingham’s recent obsession with the skin, I cite Selfridges and the Library of Birmingham.  The stainless steel polish, if it retains its shine, will create its own cloud-like connection to the clouds.

‘The people responsible for the snagging are going to be busy, but that is not to underestimate the sheer herculean task of creating spaces and places hovering above an incredibly busy operating railway.

‘To top it all, literally, is a huge new John Lewis store which will keep the shoppers entertained for more of their spending hours in Birmingham.’

Steve Toon, director of AKTII:
‘This is a fine example of design-led solutions that can release a massive potential. We are very proud to ahve been involved from competition to construction in collaboration with Mace and WS Atkins.

‘We used some interesting digital technologies beyond BIM to make it work.’

 

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