The Weald and Downland Gridshell

Year:2002

Duration:1 year

Cost:£1.3m (£1.9m today)

Country: Chichester, UK

Build the UK’s first timber gridshell

The Weald and Downland Gridshell is a building at the Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex – an open-air centre devoted to the history of farming and other rural industries.

A gridshell is a structure that derives its strength from its double curvature. It’s made from a grid or lattice and looks similar to garden trellis. The shell-shaped grid is strong, but relatively simple to build - usually out of wood or steel.

The structure was pioneered in 1896 by Russian engineer Vladimir Shukhov. He used the design to construct pavilions for an exhibition in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia.

The 12,000m² Weald and Downland Gridshell is used as a conservation centre and artefact store within the museum.

Although not a major project, its innovative design has attracted attention from around the world.

The roof of the structure is a multi-layer timber gridshell. Its strength means the room underneath it can be column-free – allowing the space to be used more flexibly.

The building was the first timber gridshell in Britain. It was built with ‘green’ oak – this means the trees were recently cut down and the wood had not been dried.

The building won both the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Regional Architecture Award and the British Construction Industry Award in 2002.

Difference the project has made

The gridshell provides a space to store the museum’s collection of tools and related artefacts – preserving valuable historical items for future generations.

The structure has helped raise the museum’s profile – increasing visitor numbers and boosting income.

How the work was done

Early stages of the project saw engineers laying out the gridshell lattice on the ground as a ‘flat mat’ of lengths of timber. The lattice was then pushed into shape for the shell-like curved surface.

Design engineers used a scale model of the building to show them how the wood structure would behave as it was formed.

The team chose oak for the scheme as tests demonstrated it was stronger than other woods when bent into shape.

‘Green’ oak for the project was imported from Normandy in northern France. The freshly-felled timber was more supple than oak that had been allowed to dry.

Project workers used finger joints to connect the lengths of timber. A finger joint looks like the interlocked fingers of two hands.

Project carpenters used around 10,000 finger joints to produce the strips of oak – each up to 50m long – that were needed for the structure.

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The design, engineering and carpentry of the downland gridshell is groundbreaking.

Edward Cullinan

Gridshell architect

Fascinating facts

Before building the gridshell, the project team constructed a prototype to road test the design. Team members gave up their free time and worked at weekends to build the practice structure.

Although the oak for the project came from France, other materials were sourced as locally as possible. Cedar for the building’s cladding came from within 25 miles of the site.

‘Green’ features of the structure include a system to collect rainwater.

People who made it happen

  • Architects: Edward Cullinan
  • Engineers: BuroHappold
  • Carpenters: The Green Oak Carpentry Company

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