© Marks Barfield Architects

Free-form structure for the new mosque in Cambridge

Interview with Gemma Collins and Jephtha Schaffner

Ornamental tradition interpreted in wood

The interior of the Cambridge Mosque is reminiscent of a garden of paradise – featuring trees whose branches spread out into a supporting and shielding vault. The rising girders of a total of 30 columns are interwoven into patterns that take up traditional forms of mosque construction. But here, these patterns are expressed through a modern construction entirely made of wood.

A. General questions to the ARCHITECT AND FABRICATOR
B. General questions to the ARCHITECT
C. General questions to the FABRICATOR
D. Project-specific questions to the ARCHITECT AND FABRICATOR

A. General questions to the ARCHITECT AND FABRICATOR

A1. Your cooperation (architect, engineer, fabricator) has brought about a fascinating new building which is the result of a strong collaboration between architects and fabricator/manufacturer. What makes your collaboration special?


Gemma Collins: We always strive to call in the best specialists at an early stage of the project. This will ensure that our designs can be implemented in the manner we envisage it. This is what we did in this project, Blumer-Lehmann had thus already been involved in the design phase. Jointly we developed the design in great detail. This is an exhilarating aspect of the global construction industry in which we operate. Here, world-leading design and construction specialists work together to deliver solutions that none of them would be able to achieve on their own. This is a real collaboration between architect, structural engineer and fabricator.

Jephtha Schaffner: The close cooperation, which lasted for more than six years, is the basis of this building. As early as 2011, the architects contacted us for the first time and we were asked to advise them during the design phase. In the execution phase before the start of production, the design process between the general contractor, architects and ourselves took around nine months, during which all details were streamlined, and part of the structure was sampled using a 1:1 mock-up.

A2. Had you worked together on a previous project? And how did your collaboration come about for this project?

Gemma Collins: So far, we had not worked with Blumer-Lehmann, but over the years we have maintained similar close and cooperative relationships with other specialized subcontractors in other projects. For the London Eye and British Airways i360 projects, for example, we worked closely with the French subcontractor POMA and the Dutch partner Hollandia, who have been around for over twenty years. In a way, this corresponds to the old building tradition of the Middle Ages, when builders and stonemasons travelled through various European cities to build cathedrals.

Jephtha Schaffner: This is the first project we worked on with these architects. Our reference projects had caught Mark Barfield’s attention. Then they took us on board as freeform experts along with their partners SJB Kemper Fitze (timber construction engineer) and Design-to-Production (digital planning).

A3. Please tell us a short anecdote about your cooperation.

Gemma Collins: It is a pleasure to work with a family business committed to quality and innovation. We became aware of this during our visit to Switzerland. The fact that the company is situated in the middle of the country and is self-sufficient in energy use is impressive and reflects our ethos in terms of sustainability.

Jephtha Schaffner: From time to time we printed some free-form parts on the 3D printer and took them to the design meetings to discuss and finalize details. The models were so popular with the architects that they were literally snatched from us. After each of these meetings, our partner Design-to-Production had to print new ones.

B. General questions to the architect

B1. Which concepts of a design idea or a detail do you have in mind when approaching the fabricator?

Gemma Collins: We tried to develop the idea of an English mosque in the 21st century, inspired by Islamic and English religious architectural traditions. The connection between local and Islamic characteristics finds its expression in the natural world.

“The design of the new structure draws inspiration from the natural world. The inner sanctuary is clad in wood and forms a forest of sixteen timber columns, each of which opens to support the roof, which unfolds in geometric structures inspired by Islamic architecture. The connection between horizontals and verticals, which is the symbolic message of a sacred building, is brought about by a silent celebration of the miracle of nature and the ability of faith to discover mathematical order in it”.
– Tim Winter, Chairman of Cambridge Mosque Trust

B2. Which personal qualities of a fabricator do you see as most important for your projects?

Gemma Collins: The characteristic feature of the Cambridge Mosque is its timber structure. The timber columns or “trees” reach up to the roof through a nested octagonal lattice vault reminiscent of English Gothic Fab vaults as used in Kings College Chapel Cambridge. We wanted the three-dimensional geometry of the wooden construction to be as slim and filigree as possible. Blumer-Lehmann was able to supply this thanks to ingenious production techniques with the latest machine technology.

B3. In your opinion, up to which point should the design process be unrestricted by the feasibility and the implementation of an idea, for example, due to specific products?

Gemma Collins: An important feature of our design process and approach is to remain free of prejudice. We want to be open to see opportunities and changes resulting from our analyses. In this project our designs often lead to unexpected design solutions. The fact that we chose timber for the primary construction was also an important aspect in achieving our sustainable design goals.

C. General questions to the fabricator

C1. At which stage in the planning process do you usually get involved in a project, and what would be the best-case scenario?

Jephtha Schaffner: That varies greatly. During this project we were contacted for the first time in 2011 as a consulting timber constructor, which ended in an excellent cooperation and a successful project. For special projects, but also for “regular” projects, we are ideally on board early and can thus contribute our experience. This leads to high quality and guarantees costs assurance and keeping deadlines.

C2. What are the design ideas, or the expectations with which the architects/engineers usually approach you? How often does this include ideas which require (at first) special solutions?

Jephtha Schaffner: Architects come to us with ideas and questions for which they need a timber construction expert. Since we have a very broad know-how in timber construction and work with various forms of timber construction, i.e. in classic timber frame construction, which is used for multi-storey buildings, for example, in modular construction and in free-form timber construction, we can draw on a wealth of experience and always offer innovative solutions to our customers.

C3. Which traits do you appreciate most in architects?

Jephtha Schaffner: I appreciate their overall view of the project: The architects identified interfaces and problems in good time and solved them together with the experts.

© Marks Barfield Architects

D. Project-specific questions to the ARCHITECT AND FABRICATOR

D1. How does the building react to the different framework conditions (building standards, energy, culture, society, etc.)?

Jephtha Schaffner: The building with its background is culturally very important, socially explosive, architecturally unique and of a modern yet traditional design. Traditional geometric patterns of mosque construction are combined with a modern sustainable construction method, which – in connection with the planned photovoltaic energy and rainwater generation – justifies its designation as the first ecological mosque in Europe.

D2. What exactly was the brief and which specific solution did you find?

Jephtha Schaffner: The design envisaged a free-form structure for the new mosque in Cambridge. This roof structure characterizes the impression of space in the about 8.50 meters high prayer hall for 1000 believers as well as in the slightly lower entrance area. It was important for us to turn this great design concept into reality with state-of-the-art timber construction planning (design-to-production), engineering (SJB Kempter Fitze) and production (Blumer-Lehmann AG).

D3. Which changes did this project undergo from the first design to the completed building?

Jephtha Schaffner: The shape of the supporting structure was decisively optimised in terms of structural analysis and production, although this change is barely perceptible to the eye. By eliminating flat spots in the vault, SJB’s structural engineers were able to keep the girder cross-sections as slim as they were intended in the original design. And because the reference surface on the supports, newly simulated by Design-to-Production, is again perfectly rotationally symmetric, we were able to assemble them from 16 identical components before the braiding branches out in different directions.

D4. Was the project influenced by current trends in energy planning, construction, or design?

Jephtha Schaffner: The timber structure was milled by the latest generation of CNC machines which would not have been possible a few years ago. But the project was also influenced by ecological aspects: We made the vault of multi-curved spruce plywood beams.

D5. Where did you have to pay particular attention, concerning the installation of materials/products on site?

Jephtha Schaffner: The timber components were all prefabricated in Switzerland, which had a great influence on the logistics, i.e. the timber components had to be matched to the load capacity of the truck. In addition, special attention had to be paid to weather protection and careful installation. A total of 80 truckloads with almost 3,800 individual components travelled from Gossau in the canton of St. Gallen to Cambridge, some 1,500 km away. Our logistics had to comply with the truck transport requirements in various European countries and on the ferry between Rotterdam and Hull. Even more important, however, was the correct allocation, labelling and sequence of all parts, because only when every component arrives at the construction site at the right time the assembly works according to plan. At a seven-day transport, a missing part cannot be reordered by calling the company.

Published on October 9, 2018
This interview was conducted by: Melanie Schlegel, freelance editor and author on behalf of world-architects.com