1st August 2019

What does it take to make Maggie’s Yorkshire?

Tom Roberts, Project Manager and David Thompson, Commercial Manager, discuss what it takes to construct a building like no other for Maggie’s Yorkshire.

Currently under construction at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds, the inventive architecture of Maggie’s Yorkshire makes this a project like no other. Here, we join Tom Roberts, Project Manager and David Thompson, Commercial Manager who highlight what it takes to construct a building like Maggie’s Yorkshire.

Maggie’s is a charity that was set up to provide free practical, emotional and social support to people with cancer and their family and friends, following the ideas about cancer care originally laid out by Maggie Keswick Jencks.

Built in the grounds of NHS cancer hospitals, Maggie’s Centres are places with professional staff on hand to offer the support people need.

Designed by Heatherwick Studio, a practice responsible for some of the most talked about buildings in the world today, Maggie’s Yorkshire is a truly extraordinary building, as complex in its construction as it is ingenious in conceit. Set in what was the only green space left amongst a cluster of medical buildings, the centre is expressed as a grouping of three stepped planters, which act to raise up the gardens while providing a series of shared and private spaces below. The building’s interior is no less striking, rows of giant splayed glulam fins rising up around you and seamlessly branching out overhead into an elegant and fluid canopy of a roof.

Design challenge

Precise in every detail, for a relatively small structure of some 460m², this building has encountered more challenges per square inch than most. From the curving millimetre-perfect internal lime render to the exposed aggregate concrete, the timber and micro cement flooring, and the heavily planted roof top gardens, delivering the architect’s vision and the quality demanded must have been no mean feat.

It’s an assumption quickly confirmed by Tom Roberts and David Thompson for whom the one-off nature of the build has offered a series of almost daily challenges. “The architect is really passionate about delivering their design intent right down to the finest detail,” says Tom. “The real challenge is in achieving that without compromising the integrity of the building in terms of safety, structure, compliance and of course cost.”

As well as managing the complex sequencing and interfaces between trades, Tom and Dave, along with fellow core team members; Chris Kulczynski, Works Manager and John Greenoff, Engineer have gone above and beyond in terms of coordinating the various parties involved in delivering that design.

Quality Driven

Whether it’s the challenge of achieving the seamless interfaces between the walls and the soffits, or the complex roof build-up required for the gardens, the project requires a special level of engagement with our contractors.

The team take the time to get the right people on board, inviting them to visit site to understand what is trying to be achieved, and then working closely with them to navigate the various constraints and deliver to the right standard. “Sometimes it’s three months talking something through and then a couple of days installing it,” says Dave. Tom agrees: “Here the product has to be the absolute focus and it’s getting people to buy into the quality.” The complexity also brings with it learning opportunities for everyone involved. “There are a lot of times where the contractors are doing things that they wouldn’t normally do in terms of the intricacy and detail, and in terms of working with this kind of geometry and structure,” says Tom, singling out the amount of planting and the metres and metres of soil required on the timber spanning roof as an example.

“Expertise only goes so far. No-one is an expert on this kind of roof because no-one’s built one before so you can only be an expert to a degree. You’ve got all these different specialists each with a little piece of the puzzle and each brilliant at what they do, and our role is pulling all those bits together.” For Tom and Dave it’s the kind of challenge we are good at taking on as a company. “We like a challenge. We’re willing to do a bit extra, go a bit further and not shy away from the challenges. And we like to get involved in the engineering side of it. We have internal experts in timber, the ground and concrete and a lot of other contractors don’t have that and wouldn’t know internally how to do things differently.” says Tom.

For Dave, the absolute focus on the end product and being given the time to achieve it has really delivered results, citing the team’s recent air test result of 1.7m³/m²/h @ 50Pa. as an example. “If you’re really aiming for top end quality, really, really going for it, it’s amazing the results you can achieve when everyone delivers to this level of detail,” he says.

“The people it’s going to serve and benefit; how it’s going to look; and the fact our involvement has been integral to getting it here. We’ll never build another one like this. It’s definitely one to be proud of” says Tom.

  • Manufacturing challenge

    The building’s curved bullnoses, which help define its various levels, also proved extremely challenging. While the straight sections were sourced relatively easily, the corner sections, which curve both in section and on the horizontal plane, were more complex to manufacture. The team eventually sourced an artisan manufacturer who applied traditional techniques to bend and stretch the steel as required.

  • Glass and a half

    Given the complex geometry of the building, ensuring all joints and corners were perfectly aligned when positioning the centre’s large, bespoke glazed panels was hugely challenging. Especially when this involved lifting some of the 0.75 tonne panels over the building and manoeuvring them into position on a slant and with only millimetres of clearance either side.

  • Complex in the ground

    With the centre built on a steeply sloping site falling in two directions and bounded by roads and a multi-storey car park, formation of the reinforced concrete substructure was one of the first complexities faced by the team.

    The operation required meticulous planning and extensive collaboration. Every stage of the process had to be carefully considered as the team retained the road running along the top of the site while a three metre by three metre permanent retaining wall was constructed. The raft slab is stepped to facilitate the change in ground level across the site.

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