Collaboration is at the heart of Cullinan Studio’s National Automotive Innovation Centre, finds Stafford Critchlow

Buildings.

Words
Stafford Critchlow

Photos
Hufton & Crow

A timber roof doesn’t immediately grab you as being synonymous with innovative cars of the future, but in architectural terms the structure that jetties out from Warwick University’s new National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC) is a positioning statement about project partners Jaguar Land Rover, Tata Motors and the Warwick Manufacturing Group. Designed by Cullinan Studio, the building sets out the clients’ stall as a business with ‘heart and soul’ products, in contrast to more formal rivals Mercedes and BMW.

The oversailing glulam timber roof is an umbrella – a unifier that brings together different companies and research groups with a common purpose. It’s also a bit quirky – “like the walnut dash of an old Jaguar”, as Roddy Langmuir from Cullinan Studio explains – and brings a human touch to the architecture of automotive tech that is all about the interface of the car with the individual. The client bought into the idea from the first sketch, and a similar roof has been used by Bennetts Associates for the JLR Advanced Product Creation Centre close by.

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Cullinan Studio of course has form with large-span timber roofs and can lay claim to being pioneers of the type. The woven Downland Gridshell in Sussex (2002), designed with engineer Ted Happold, is at the crafty end of the spectrum, while the John Hope Gateway (2009) at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh is flat in form like the roof of the NAIC, but more exotically mannered with its raking, tapering beams and decorative bolt arrangements.

At the NAIC, undulating glulam beams combine as a simple diagrid structure, originally designed as a lamella reciprocal structure of small components to be constructed on the ground and lifted into place in 15 by 15-metre cassettes. The design & build contractor, however, preferred to build it as simple interlocking beams supported on a grid of columns.

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Where a larger column-free span is required, a steel bowstring truss has been added to the underside. Internally the depth of the beams is masked by the acoustic ceiling inserts recessed within each grid which gives it a pleasing lightness, especially when combined with ETFE rooflights over the atrium spaces.

Outside, the diagrid floats over a continuous glazed clerestory, and without infill panels to the underside, the full depth of the structure is revealed. This creates quite a thick edge – the fascia being clad in a dark aluminium panel – which loses some of the illusion of the lightness apparent internally. The roof extends over the entrance to create a large external canopy, the addition of rooflights giving relief here to a structure that could otherwise seem unnecessarily heavy.

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The corner of the canopy is supported on a pair of raking crossed columns. These were a point of some discussion with Jaguar Land Rover design directors Ian Callum and Gerry McGovern, who scrutinised design options with the close attention of automotive designers, eventually discarding a simple V in favour of the disconnected members because they liked the dynamic movement created by the changing perspective; as one approaches and moves past, the crossed swords appear momentarily as a V and then drift apart again.

The cladding for the facades demonstrates a leanness and efficiency of design and construction that one would hope for in a building that is all about innovation. Designed in conjunction with Arup and subcontractor B&K Structures, 12-metre cross-laminated timber (CLT) insulated mega-panels were fixed directly to the primary structure, with a fire-proof board post-fixed to the inside and a pre-fixed light grey waterproof membrane neatly lapped and joined on the external face. Spaced off this is a silver aluminium mesh with a sinusoidal wave profile that also extends across some of the glazed area as sun-shading; sunlight tracking across the rippling mesh during the day creates a feeling of movement along the facade – another reference to automotive design.

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The plan arrangement for a building accommodating multiple users has been cleverly worked through by the architects, segregating public access from spaces that need to be secure for commercially-sensitive prototypes. Along the front of the building at ground floor and visible from outside are collaboration areas, a university-run cafe, and space for exhibitions and student projects. To the right of reception there is also a view through a full-height glass screen into the engineering hall – the architects persuaded the client group to go with this proposal and resist the lure of a roller shutter door to alleviate concerns about industrial espionage.

For top secret projects, large curtains can be drawn around the end bays of the hall giving a sense of surgical procedures underway – the Evoque on the operating table. Even if many visitors to the building can’t see all that is going on, the buzz of innovative engineering at its heart is plainly evident.

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Upstairs, ‘new ways of working’ are fostered by research studios with loose arrangements of shared tables supported by what the architects call “tinkering workshops” close by. These are acoustically-treated booths open on one side within the office space where researchers can experiment with ideas quickly. Tata Motors’ James Billingham is fulsome in his praise for the way that Cullinan Studio guided client thinking, and cites a visit to the Co-op’s 3DReid-designed Manchester headquarters as being significant in persuading disparate groups coming together for the first time to give up ideas of individual offices and move to open plan, supported by meeting rooms and break-out eating or coffee areas on each floor, which encourage water-cooler moments among those who may not otherwise meet.

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On the top floor, under the timber roof, are lecture rooms and – in the middle – a presentation suite with stage lighting for new product launches. This opens onto a roof terrace so that new cars can also be viewed in natural daylight conditions. The route up to this suite from the entrance, threading up open staircases in top-lit atria and seeing the collaborative activities going on all around, is intended as a piece of promenade theatre, culminating in a new product reveal.

The technical achievements of the project are significant: upper floors are made of bubble-deck concrete slabs with near zero deflection over a 15-metre span that supports raised floors and cars. Ground-floor workshops include blast-proof testing rigs and high heat soak areas – all of which were scenario tested by Buro Happold’s fire engineers using computational fluid dynamics.

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That these technical requirements have been incorporated without losing the bigger picture of creating a sense of drama and excitement around technology and innovation may be down to the trust and longstanding working relationship between the parties who came together to create the NAIC. (It was initially the vision of engineer, professor and chair of WMG Kumar Bhatt