Coal Drops Yard

All photos © Anthony Denzer

All photos © Anthony Denzer

Coal Drops Yard is a fascinating new structure set to be completed any day now. The project is part of the King’s Cross redevelopment in central London. The architects are Heatherwick Studio and the Structural Engineers are Ove Arup & Partners.

The project was a highlight of our Study Abroad trip with Wyoming architectural engineering students. (We spent the month of June in London, Brussels, Paris, and Barcelona; some photos here). My colleague Jon Gardzelewski arranged for Coal Drops Yard’s design team to meet with us, both on-site and later in Heatherwick’s office.

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Pictured above:
Left: Alfonso Monedero, BIM Manager, Heatherwick
Center: Ed Clark, Director and Structural Engineer, Arup
Right: Stuart Chambers, Senior Structural Engineer, Arup 
Pictured below:
Pablo Zamorano, Head of Geometry and Computational Design, Heatherwick

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What an amazing experience for our students! As the team explained, the existing brick structures—Grade II listed—date from the 1850s and 1870s, but had been empty and neglected for several decades. (The site represents “ambitious Victorian infrastructure”; more about its history here.)

As seen in the model below, Heatherwick’s design concept took the two inward-facing roof planes and treated them like billowing ribbons, which span across the open space and touch lightly at the center of the site. It’s a striking and memorable form, expressive of advanced parametric working methods, certain to become a London landmark.

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As Ed Clark and Stuart Chambers explained to our students, the form required a great deal of creative structural engineering. Each of the roof planes is supported by a ‘ribbon truss’, and the structure is tied across at the center by a ‘giraffe girder’—apparently Arup’s invention—which includes a large tension rod in the plane of the floor. The floor structure is suspended from the ribbon trusses. The glass, arranged in a saw-tooth pattern, is frameless and self-supporting. The Arup engineers used the sketch below to explain the design.

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Normally I am critical of projects where an unusual form is given to structural engineers who must figure out how it can be built. However, as Ed Clark explained to us, the Heatherwick architects asked the Arup structural engineers to have a seat at the table during the form-making process so that the structure would be as rational and economic as possible. I wouldn’t quite call it Integrated Design, but it certainly resulted in a design of creative integrity in my opinion.

Coal Drops Yard includes some inventive and tactile elevator buttons designed by Heatherwick (see below). And you can have fun in Heatherwick’s Spun Chair, as our students did. (It’s surprisingly comfortable, and it’s stable if you sit still.)

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In June the project was nearly complete; the shops and restaurants occupying the brick wings were all open for business. The ‘featured’ space above was still being finished; it will be the flagship store for Samsung (an answer to the architecture/branding success of the Apple Stores). I hope the Samsung signage won’t be too intrusive.

In all, I find the project to be a successful case of rehabilitation, an intervention which uses contemporary architecture to accommodate new activities, while preserving heritage. I believe there is a bit of ‘false history’ in the construction of some new brick archways.

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The surrounding King’s Cross development is said to be “one of the biggest urban regeneration projects in Europe.” Nearby the Google headquarters building, by Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels Group, is under construction (see below; renderings here). It will be as long as The Shard is tall.

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