The Presidential Library, Astana

Ramboll UK's engineers worked side-by-side in Copenhagen with the architects on the development of the design of BIG's extraordinary, competition-winning scheme for the new Presidential Library in Astana, Kazakhstan, though the project has not proceeded. The steel and glass building was designed to house three million books, the National Archive, a museum, exhibition space, visitor amenities and an office for the country's President.

A key challenge was to bring buildability to the complex structure, making an outwardly highly complicated form in an extreme climate achievable using simple rational forms and conventional building services systems. The design merges several architectural archetypes — the circle, the rotunda, the arch and the yurt (a felt-covered structure used by nomadic peoples) — into one building. Its envelope is based on a Möbius strip — a continuous ring with a twist — making walls, floor and roof one fluid structure. Inside this and supporting it is a ring-form three-storey steel frame building surrounding a courtyard.

The envelope structure flows from a nine-storey 'tower' to four-storey horizontality, leaning at 45 degrees along the way. It is supported by the ground at just four points, with the main load taken by the central building, which acts as a torsion ring, suspending and cantilevering the rest. The facade acts as a thermal buffer for the mechanically ventilated interior, and a high degree of latent heat recovery is incorporated into the services design to minimise humidification loads. The building is designed to join the local district heating network.

Before our involvement, 6,000 concrete piles were driven on site, some of which had failed. The design of the basement by our geotechnical experts had to take this into account, along with the high level of security needed for the National Archive, planned to be housed there. A metre-thick concrete cellular raft forms the main foundation, with a 750mm thick concrete slab above for the ground floor level.

building services

Our building services engineers faced a considerable co-ordination challenge in realising the design of the Presidential Library in Astana, Kazakhstan. While our structural engineers, working in Copenhagen with the architects, worked to simplify the complex structure to rational buildable forms, our services engineers developed solutions using efficient, effective services systems, tightly integrating them into the structure design. To date, the project has not proceeded, however.

The extraordinary steel and glass building, designed to house three million books, the National Archive, a museum, exhibition space, visitor amenities and an office for the country's President, is located in an extreme climate. The temperature can drop as low as minus 50 degrees C and rise as high as 35 degrees C. The library's complex, twisting facade, which rises from four storeys to nine storeys and moves from verticality to horizontality as it sweeps around in the form of a Möbius strip, acts as a thermal buffer.

The main book repository is located in the 'inner' three storey ring-form building, which has a steel frame and exposed steelwork. By contrast, the National Archive is housed in a heavily constructed concrete single-storey basement.

The interior spaces are mechanically conditioned to provide a stable environment for the books. The winter climate means high levels of humidification and to reduce this and heating loads, a high degree of sensible and latent heat recovery has been incorporated. The building would be connected to the local district heating network, and for cooling, local river water has been considered, using magnetic compressor water-cooled chiller technology.

digital design

Ramboll’s computational design expertise is in evidence in this early concept scheme for the new Presidential Library in Astana.

BIG architects had envisaged a highly complex building form, whose façade was a triangulated diagrid of steel members set out in the form of a Mobius strip. If a traditional rectilinear grid pattern were to be adopted for the setting out of the cladding panels then every panel and member length would be different, making the façade package extremely expensive. Our challenge was to refine this complex and expansive steel façade structure to make it simpler and less costly to construct.

By applying an optimisation routine based on the theory of electrical repulsion we were able to refine the design so more panels were the same area and more supporting members were the same length. We created our own algorithmic software script that ascribed to each nodal point in the façade a simulated electrical charge. Following the principle of electric repulsion, the nodes ‘repelled’ each other until they were evenly distributed, thus creating steel members of a standardised length.

A second algorithm was then used to push nodes towards areas of high stress, thus tuning the structure to the forces flowing within it, making it more structurally efficient.

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