Cosmic libeskind

The architect shoots for the stars in Durham

Durham University’s striking new cosmology centre uses a complex and irregular structural concrete frame. Will Mann explains

Arranged in a twisting series of stacked and intersecting blocks, Studio Daniel Libeskind’s Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics is certainly a visually arresting addition to the Durham University campus.

Opened in March 2017, the 2,500m2 facility contains 80 offices and research areas for cosmology and particle physics academics. These are set out in a ring over three floors around a central, wedge-shaped atrium. The unusual geometry has been realised using a reinforced concrete slab, and large areas of concrete have been left exposed internally – for both aesthetic and environmental reasons – contrasting with the extensive glazing and timber finishes, including larch cladding.

It may not be rocket science, but the structural design was far from straightforward, according to Arup project director Andrew Wilkinson. “We examined numerous options with the architect,” he explains. “The floors spiral up through the building, so finding appropriate column locations was extremely challenging. Eventually we found that by introducing four sloping columns we could reduce both the cantilevers and internal spans, to the point where no downstand beams were required.”

The result is that most edge cantilevers are below 3m, with perimeter column spacing no larger than 9m. There is no structural grid as such, with internal spans varying between 6m and 9m. Most columns are continuous from base slab to roof.

Given Studio Libeskind’s interior design concept, the concrete mix was selected specifically with an exposed finish in mind. The client was taken to a project recently completed by frame contractor Cidon at Glasgow School of Art, and the Ogden Centre uses the same Class B and C finishes. Samples of varying mixes were cast to achieve the right consistency of finish and colour.

All concrete in the building was cast in situ, with angled kicker shutters used for the inclined columns, and bespoke angled brackets to create the desired sloping effect on the slab edges.

“The overlapping floor plates meant that some double-height propping was required where there was no immediate floor below to prop off, which necessitated additional temporary works at ground floor level,” says Wilkinson.

Apart from its aesthetic qualities, the exposed internal concrete also helped the building to achieve a BREEAM Excellent and EPC A rating. The passive thermal mass attenuates heat gain build-up and assists in moderating internal temperatures. But Wilkinson stresses that this is part of a “whole-environment strategy”, incorporating natural ventilation, night purging and solar shading. “These interlinked measures mean the building does not need mechanical cooling or ventilation systems anywhere other than ‘landlocked’ rooms,” he says. “That’s a significant capital saving for the client.”


Design architect Studio Daniel Libeskind
Architect of record Garbers & James
Engineer Arup
Contractor Interserve
Concrete frame contractor Cidon

Photos: Hufton + Crow