In 1986 the Challenger space shuttle exploded on take-off, killing all seven members of the crew. In memory of them and to encourage the study of space science, their families set up an educational trust for young people. The result is a series of Challenger Learning Centres. There are now 40 centres in the us. The first in Europe has just opened in Leicester.
Viewed from the outside, the new centre is a lightweight fabric structure, white and delicate, with a glazed wall at one end which is the main entrance. But step beyond the curved reception desk (usually as part of a school party) and you venture into the world of outer space. You may operate Mission Control or take off in a shuttle to the space station. Video, lighting and sound effects help to simulate a trip to space, with a few crises on the way. By channelling the excitement that many young people feel about space exploration, the experience aims to teach them science and technology and expose them to the realities of co-operation, problem-solving, communication and decision-making.
To boldly go ...
At present the Challenger Centre is sited in Victoria Park next to the University of Leicester campus. But this is a temporary home. In a year's time it will be moved to its permanent resting place as part of the National Space Science Centre (nssc). The nssc, a £45 million Millennium Commission- funded project, won in competition by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, is now under construction on a brownfield site in Leicester. The project includes a tower, a planetarium and an exhibition centre to promote education and research into space science, with links to the Space Research Centre of Leicester University.
The Challenger Learning Centre has opened in advance of the nssc project because it was immediately available as a ready-made package of equipment. The client had intended to assemble it an empty office block in Leicester while the nssc buildings were being completed. 'But we persuaded them otherwise,' says Steve Ritchie, nssc project architect at Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, 'we suggested that Challenger could have its own new building in Leicester - a demountable one - with a strong identity which would give a foretaste of the nssc - acting as an appetiser for the main course.' When the nssc was complete the centre could be moved and reinstated in a permanent home on the new site. The client agreed and the architect had another building project. It had to be fast track - a three month design project - low budget, completely demountable and transportable, yet suitable as a permanent structure.
A lightweight fabric enclosure for the centre had been the concept from the outset; demountable, transportable and allowing fast-track erection. And the technological elegance of the structure reflected the scientific nature of the interior. The centre had to be housed in a highly insulated, sound-and light-proofed enclosure; the architect decided to provide this with a series of linked prefabricated building units. They could be quickly installed on site and provide a waterproof enclosure for the fitting out of the centre while the fabric superstructure was being erected. When the time came for removal, the fabric structure could be unbolted and the prefabricated units could be loaded on the back of a truck and moved to their new home.
Aura Fabric Engineering of Hamble won the contract for the fabric skin and structure. The firm commissioned ftl Happold of New York to produce detail design and specification. The white pvc-coated polyester fabric panels are stressed between a series of 13 demountable trusses to form a 14m clear span over the modular units. Galvanised cables and exposed bolted connectors give the building an industrial feel. A scalloped slit runs down the centre of the fabric roof to allow cooling plant to be mounted on the roof of the modular units. The fabric attachment system was designed for easy detachment to maintain and service the interior. The skin and structure were erected in 20 days.
Twelve 12 x 3m prefabricated building units manufactured by the Wernick Group are linked together to form a 12 x 36m enclosure. The units have insulated timber stud walls, lined on the inside with plasterboard and on the outside with a textured plywood substrate. Basic interior and exterior decoration, doors and frames, wc cubicles and fittings were installed in the factory at Wickford. Suspended ceilings, lights and air-conditioning were fixed on site to ensure clean junctions. The units have a high sound reduction specification. 'Mission Control and the Space Shuttle are in adjacent units, yet they are supposed to be thousands of miles apart,' explains Tony Sparks of the Wernick Group. 'We had to reduce sound transmission by providing acoustically separate double walls and lining them with double layers of plasterboard and insulation which extends above the ceiling void.
Observant readers will have spotted a potential built-in redundancy in Grimshaw's building. At first glance it appears that the fabric skin provides a waterproof covering, but it splits above the roof to accommodate air- conditioning plant. So if the prefabricated units are waterproof, is the fabric enclosure redundant? Matt Eastwood, the project architect explains; 'We tried different versions of an integrated enclosure, but demountability was the key issue. This method was the cheapest and the fastest to erect.' The fabric enclosure can be defined as a rainscreen, a carapace which, like the original yurt, had above all to be portable.