(Above: image credit Victoria and Albert Museum)

Member Timothy Salmon has been a structural engineer since 2008. Here he discusses his work on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Europe 1600-1815 Galleries”, which tested a wide range of engineering – heavy structures picking up massive walls to delicate design of supports for the exhibits. The project included creating new gallery spaces by removing a large section of loadbearing brickwork from the lowest level of the building - without interrupting operation of the three floors above. The project has been shortlisted in the Structural Heritage category.

If I am honest, I didn't really understand what an engineer did until I started work. At school I told my physics teacher that I liked the mechanical and practical parts of physics and maths, and he suggested I try engineering. I then read JE Gordon's 'Strong Materials' and 'Structures' which are brilliant books. But the thing that really drew me to structural engineering (rather than other areas) was the chance to contribute to the built environment.

Throughout my career my favourite moments have been seeing a design become reality on site - I find it really satisfying when something on paper becomes solid and tangible. For me that is what the whole thing is about. Perhaps the highlight of my career so far was winning the Institution’s Young Structural Engineer of the Year Award 2010 – which recognised my work on the Village Green Festival Stage. 

The V&A was a fantastic building to work on, given its history, scale and pre-eminent standing as a top global museum. There were a number of original drawings available, which included architectural/structural views, foundation layouts, and stonework and window framing details, and then around 3,500 blueprint drawings which showed the various structural modifications that had been made over the years. The sheer size and complexity of the building – with hidden back-of-house services areas and mid-level floors, historic servicing routes, rooftop extensions and underground tunnels – made simply understanding the parameters of the new design a challenge. 

The project had a number of design fronts; opening up back-of-house areas, integrating new services into the existing fabric and bespoke exhibition fit-out design. Each required significant structural engineering input and were developed in parallel, with a large number of client team members inputting into different areas, particularly for the exhibition fitout and object support. This was challenging, but it was also hugely enjoyable to work at different engineering scales and with such a wide range of interesting people.

Perhaps the primary challenge was carrying out the work while keeping the spaces above open - and their fragile exhibits in place. Controlling vibrations was a big part of our structural approach. 
To open up the back of house spaces we had to install large steel frames while holding up the walls above. Two main methods were used: the ‘Stool’ method – where a series of pockets are cut in the wall, installing a steel I-section in each. The sections support the wall above but provide a space for the new steel frame. When completed, the load from the wall is ‘jacked’ into the frame (the jacks expand under hydraulic pressure so that the steel frame is forced down by the weight of the wall above). The new frame is then supporting the wall above and the wall below can be demolished. The advantage of this method is that the original load paths straight down the wall are maintained both through the temporary phase into the new permanent design. 

(Demolition of brickwork wall)

Elsewhere, a ‘Needle’ method was used, which is very common for residential refurbishments but not so common at this scale. Steel ‘needles’ are installed through the wall, supported on steel propping either side. When a full line of needles and props are installed, the wall below can be demolished. The new frame is then installed and the load jacked into the frame before the needles and props are removed (in this case, flame-cut off, with part of the needles left in the wall above the frame, leaving future engineers who come to remodel the building in another 150 years’ time a clue as to how the frames were installed!).

(Top of steel frame)

All of this work had to be undertaken with careful control of the movements and vibrations of the structure above, both to protect the structure and the priceless exhibits still on display.

It was a very enjoyable to work on the smaller scale aspects of the design as well. We spent a great deal of time with the architect, reviewing examples of supports for exhibits across the galleries, which meant a lot of walking around the museum looking behind the exhibits instead of at them! At Eckersley O’Callaghan we are design orientated so this was an interesting new challenge for us. 

The new galleries received excellent reviews from the public and press when it opened. Our work has touched almost every corner of these galleries and enhanced visitors’ experience – what the Daily Telegraph called “a work in its own right.” We’re delighted to see our work shortlisted for The Structural Awards.


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