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Interviews

Tom Kember's engineering wisdom from the stunning Xiqu Center in Hong Kong


Tom Kember, associate for BuroHappold Engineering, shares some lessons learned from engineering the incredible Xiqu Cultural Center in Hong Kong.
Tom Kember's engineering wisdom from the stunning Xiqu Center in Hong Kong
Xiqu Center photo credit: Ema Peter Photography


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Tom Kember

Associate (Structural), BuroHappold Engineering
I’m an associate in building structures at BuroHappold Engineering and have been with the company since graduating from Oxford University in 2007. I started out in our London office before moving to Hong Kong in 2012 to work on a number of unique projects in the region, including the recently opened Xiqu Centre. Now based in Bath in the UK, my role is to lead the structural design of projects and coordinating our work with the numerous other disciplines that go into making a successful building.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects in the UK, Middle East, Asia and US and have developed a specialism in long span or complex steelwork structures. I enjoy the problem solving aspects of my job and working with Architects to try and develop structural solutions that enhance the quality of a building.  Outside of work I’m a big sports fan and love running, cycling and playing cricket, whilst during my time in Hong Kong I developed a passion for cooking (and eating!) Asian food of all kinds.


What was your role on the Xiqu Center team?

I led the team of structural engineers responsible for the design of the building’s superstructure. This involved working closely with the architect right from the competition to develop a structural system that enabled the building’s unusual layout, which requires the main theatre to be suspended on the fourth floor of the building, to be realized without compromising its use or the aesthetic. As with any cultural venue this also required collaboration with a host of other design consultants to ensure the varied requirements of the many performance spaces within the building were achieved.

Xiqu Center photo credit: Ema Peter Photography

How did the engineering help to enhance its mission as a cultural center in Hong Kong?

One of the unique features of the Xiqu Centre is the large open plaza created at ground floor level within the footprint of the building. This space enables the public to enter into the building and pass through it into the rest of the future West Kowloon Cultural District as well as creating a less formal performance space that can be used to promote the art form of Xiqu. The open plaza is free of columns as these would compromise its function and located directly below the Centre’s 1,073 seat grand theatre.

Achieving this required us to develop a structural system that could support the heavily loaded theatre 20m above ground floor and span it 37m across the plaza below without compromising the function of the critical lower floors of the building. Our chosen solution was to suspend the theatre from a large array of trusses hidden above its ceiling within the spaces around the fly-tower. These space are used for mostly for back of house functions and mechanical services distribution, where the coordination of these massive trusses was less critical. This kept the lower floors of the building free from large transfer structures that would inhibit their use for rehearsal, education and performance spaces and compromise the aesthetic qualities of the building.

Xiqu Center photo credit: Ema Peter Photography

Can you share something new you learned or experimented with during its development?

Suspending the theatre from above in this manner, rather than supporting it from below required a quite unusual construction sequence in which the roof of the structure had to be built 45m above the ground before it was possible to erect the lower structure supporting the theatre and its stage below.

Given this challenge we had to develop a viable strategy for how to build these roof trusses as early as the competition stage to ensure that the design could be constructed safely and efficiently. We considered a number of different options for how to construct the theatre in this manner and settled on a process called strand jacking. Whilst this method is not uncommon for large scale construction projects such as bridges or stadiums, it is not frequently required for buildings. It was certainly my first project using it and we had to learn a lot about how strand jacking works and its implications for how we needed to tailor the layout and detailing of the structure to ensure the lifting was successful.

The lifting process involved constructing the full 2000 (metric) tonne array of roof trusses at ground level and then lifting it as one 60m by 40m assembly  using high strength cables (strands) connected to hydraulic jacks located at the top of the supporting columns. A total of 12 jacks were used then to pull the cables and roof trusses up to the top of the columns 45m up, where a permanent connection between the trusses and columns was installed.

Xiqu Center photo credit: Ema Peter Photography

What is a lesson that future architects & engineers can take away from this project?

For me this project highlighted the value of integrating engineering design with the architectural design right from the competition stage, particularly for very complex projects such as the Xiqu Centre. In this instance the creation of a unique space within the heart of the building, connecting the public with the ancient art form of xiqu was made possible through early consideration of the construction methods needed to achieve it.


Has this project influenced your life or career in architecture? Leave a comment below and tell us how.

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