Reflections on Concrete Elegance - V&A Dundee

26 Sep 2018

On the 15th September the V&A Dundee opened its doors for the first time to the public. Reportedly around 10,000 people visited the building in the first three days. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them, but I was privileged to be able to help organise and host an evening lecture about the building as part of our Concrete Elegance lecture series here in London. The event proved to be similarly popular, booking out within 24 hours of the details being posted on line. On the night, despite strong winds building from Storm Ali, we had a capacity audience of over 200 architects, engineers and other construction professionals keen to hear first-hand about the design and construction of this extraordinary concrete building.

The speakers were Maurizio Mucciola, project architect and team leader of the project from competition to completion, originally while at KKAA and then as director of PiM.Studio and Graeme Moncur, structural engineer and associate at Arup, based in Edinburgh. Arup provided numerous engineering services for the building including ground work design, structure and façade engineering. Regrettably Storm Ali did prevent Vivian Hand joining the line-up as he was stranded in Dublin with all flights cancelled. Vivian is associate director and senior structural engineer at Techrete, the specialist architectural precast supplier responsible for the design development and manufacture of the 1000’s of precast concrete cladding panels giving the building’s façade its distinctive horizontal layers.  
Concrete was clearly the theme of the evening.

We learnt how different structural solutions were explored to achieve the ‘crazy shapes’ and complex geometry of the architectural vision. Steel frame was even considered but dismissed due to difficulties of weatherproofing and detailing in preference for cast in situ concrete walls with face-fixed cladding. Graeme explained how the in-situ concrete acts essentially as a shell structure, with a folded geometry helping to provide strength and keep its thickness down to around 300mm. Durability was a major consideration in the selection of material as low maintenance was required and resilience to the harsh marine environment and weather.

Maurizio explained that the horizontal layers of the façade, inspired by Scottish cliffs, were originally conceived in stone, but developed as precast concrete once it was established that the local stone was either not appropriate for use or not available in sufficient quantity. Instead a bespoke mix, particular to the project, was developed with Techrete. Following trials of different mixes and textures it was decided that ‘rough was right’, to cope with the salty environment and ‘to age beautifully’ without much maintenance. A retardant applied to the inside of the mould created the heavily textured surface of pale granite aggregate, providing a strong contrast with the dark exposed surface of the cast in situ walls behind.

We learnt how these dark walls were also created following trials to establish the best way of achieving an almost black surface. I enjoyed seeing the slide showing concrete cast into plastic cups to create different samples as a way of exploring the right amount of pigment and fly ash to use in the concrete.  This integral colour was in preference to paint which, explained Maurizio, would have required more maintenance, especially in this location. Durability was further enhanced using a permeable form-liner, creating a robust dense surface, free from blowholes and even darker in tone. The reduction in blow holes encouraged the contractor to use the liner to form the internal concrete surfaces, particularly beneficial for inclined walls.

Numerous references were made during the lecture to the full-scale mock ups created and the value of the opportunity to test and trial the construction was evident. The use of digital technology was also clearly essential. The 3D digital model created by the architect was used by engineers, precast and in-situ concrete contractors and formwork suppliers to develop their calculations and details. I was interested to see the 3D printed model used by the contractor for site discussions and tool box talks. Formwork was coordinated to ensure joints were hidden behind the precast elements and nearly 10,000 fixing channels were cast at 2mm tolerances with only a couple misaligned. That is quite an achievement and one worth celebrating, as is the scale of ambition and technical challenges tackled to create this extraordinary, already iconic building.

By Elaine Toogood - Senior Architect, The Concrete Centre

The Concrete Elegance is a series of lectures that celebrates recent, exemplary, concrete architecture, chaired by Elaine Toogood and produced by The Building Centre and The Concrete Centre.

A film of the lecture will be made available for those not able to make it into the event on the night. V&A Dundee is also the main feature in Concrete Quarterly Autumn 2018 available online at and will be added to the CQ Archive at

The next Concrete Elegance event will be held on 20th November 2018 and will welcome Bennetts Associate and Waterman Group to present their new headquarters for the Royal College of Pathologists, a gorgeous new building in central London with exposed, coffered, concrete soffits and board-marked concrete walls, carefully detailed and executed on site.

Visit to book you spot as places fill up quickly.

Photo credits: (c) Hufton + Crow.