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The AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate prize: how Curtins supports innovation

FaulknerBrowns' Number One Riverside
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As the deadine for entering the contest is extended to 7 October, Ella Braidwood talks to engineer Curtins about three of the firm’s most ground-breaking projects

For the second year running, engineering practice Curtins is partnering with the AJ to offer the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize – a competition inspired by the ethos of the company’s late founder Bill Curtin.

With a £1,000 bursary and profile in the AJ up for grabs, the contest celebrates an outstanding Part 2 or Part 3 graduate who has really helped take an architectural practice forward or demonstrated good business sense on an independent project.

As the final deadline for entering approaches, the AJ spoke to Jon Moister, executive director at Curtins’ Manchester office, about three of the firm’s most innovative projects (see below).

How to enter the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize

  • Shortlisted candidates will be invited to present their projects on 24 November in Manchester
  • The overall winner will be announced on 25 November at the AJ100 Members Lunch in Manchester (all shortlisted candidates need to attend both days)
  • The deadline for entries has been extended to Friday 7 October
  • To enter click here

Number One Riverside, Rochdale, by Faulkner Browns

1 riverside  ¬hufton+crow 020

Number One Riverside

Source: Curtins

Cited as a catalyst for the wider regeneration of Rochdale, this 17,000m² building overlooking the opened-up River Roch houses council office space, a public library and a ‘customer-facing’ service centre.

Completed in 2012, the £42.5 million project brought together the council’s 1,700 employees – previously scattered across 33 buildings – under one roof. Design features of the five-story facility include a transparent facade and open-sided atrium flanked by two sinuous, Allen key-shaped blocks. And in 2014, the scheme won the BCO ’Best Workplace in the Country’ award.

It is the interweaving floor plates that best characterise the building. AJ news editor Richard Waite previously described these as ‘Zaha Hadid-lite’.

Moister says of the complex design: ‘We broke each floor plate down into near identical bays, meaning the sweeping curves and overhangs are a series of repeated elements.’

He adds that the structural frame of the building was an innovative solution to provide ‘ultimate flexibility, as well as cutting edge sustainability performance’. This was achieved using a grid arrangement, with perimeter columns spaced at six-metre intervals along the floor plates and the result is a large central space on each level.

Curtins also deployed an innovative slab construction system called Cool Slab – where an exposed precast concrete soffit is provided, avoiding the need for a suspended ceiling – making One Riverside one of the first commercial buildings in the UK to use this technique.

A network of pipes was also inserted into the precast soffit units, allowing water to be pumped through the pipes to enhance the cooling potential of the exposed concrete. According to Moister, the move was an example of the company ‘taking it to the next level’.

New Engineering Building, Lancaster University, by John McAslan & Partners

Lancaster engineering building

New Engineering Building

Source: Curtins

Curtins was commissioned to work on this new engineering building at Lancaster University in 2012. Opened in 2014, the 4,750m² facility – drawn-up by John McAslan & Partners – has been praised for its design quality. Indeed it won an RIBA North West regional award in 2015. The building is also rated as ‘BREEAM Outstanding’, which Moister says is partly due to the exposed concrete frame contributing to passive cooling.

Because all the concrete elements were made in-situ – the building took ‘Curtins’ experience of site cast concrete to a new level’, Moister says. Concrete formed such an integral part of the design that John McAslan & Partners employed a specialist sub-consultant to produce a ‘concrete finish specification’.

The building is described by Moister as ‘value for money’. He says: ‘The design had to be efficient, and we drove economy into every element from foundation up.’ One example of this, he explains, is through the choice of foundations. While a piled strategy seemed most logical and cost-effective on paper, Curtins’ prior knowledge of the local ground – likely to feature a number of large boulders – pointed to a shallow spread foundation instead.

In particular, Moister is most proud of the eight metre staircase dominating the central atrium. Although it has a landing half-way up, the case has no intermediate support – giving the impression that it is floating. ‘It is a good illustration of when it is appropriate for engineering to be discretely working behind the scenes to create something magical,’ says Moister, ‘and where engineering can be out on show to be the magic itself.’

Circle Square, Manchester, by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, 5Plus and Planit IE

Circle square

Circle Square

Source: Curtins

Dubbed as a new ‘city centre neighbourhood’, this major mixed use scheme on the site of the BBC’s former 1970s Broadcasting House in Manchester will ultimately provide the city with more than 1,200 apartments, a 1,000 space multi-storey car park, two hotels, 9,290m² of commercial space, 113,342m² of office space and public and green spaces.

Backed by Bruntwood and Select Property Group, Curtins was appointed to work on the scheme in 2015. The practice is involved in the detailed design – working with 5Plus and Feilden Clegg Bradley – and delivery of nine of out of the 10 buildings which form phase one of the project. It also developed the plot levels with the project’s masterplanner, Planit.

The project has not been without its challenges. Following the demolition of the BBC building in 2012, the site was left with major level changes and open to flooding from the River Medlock on the eastern boundary of the site. In addition, the area had been damaged during the Blitz in the Second World War and has buried fuel tanks.

As Moister explains, the company has worked effectively to resolve such problems. Solutions included setting plot levels for each building. He says: ‘[This] not only balanced the earthworks on site, but also allowed any ground obstructions to be removed or logged.’ Moister adds that a site-wide flood strategy was also developed, including ‘a defined volume of compensatory storage to allow development in zones of higher flood risk.’

The buildings on site also range in height, with the tallest being 34 storeys, and Moister explains that a strategy was devised to ensure there was a fall-back option for the large concrete framed buildings. As a result, in-situ concrete columns and slabs are interchangeable with a steel frame option.

With a completion date in 2023, buildings will be constructed around a large green space – ‘The Green’ – providing a new public realm for the city. 

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