Engineering the Serpentine Pavilion

Augmented reality helped unzip the designs for this year’s challenging build

As one of the most visited architectural and design exhibitions in the world, the Serpentine Pavilion is always an exciting project to work on. But with tight programme constraints, it is also very challenging, and this year’s project was no different. Not least because, for the first time, the Serpentine Galleries expanded its annual architecture programme to include four Summer Houses in addition to the Pavilion.

For the fourth year running, Aecom, in collaboration with David Glover, delivered technical advisory services for the Pavilion, including structural engineering of the substructure, fire engineering, electrical engineering and lighting design, as well as full technical and engineering design services for the Summer Houses. This year, AKT II joined the technical team to provide structural engineering services for the Pavilion’s superstructure. With five structures across multiple sites, two engineering firms and five architecture practices, the logistical challenges of delivering this year’s project required a truly collaborative approach.

All four Summer Houses were constructed in just three weeks, so it was essential that buildability was an intrinsic part of the design. The design engineers worked with the contractor, Stage One, to develop mock-ups, trial-builds and fully-modelled digital prototypes so that each piece could be built quickly and easily, while still achieving the highest visual quality and attention to detail. 

A combination of steel, sandstone, timber and aluminium was used to create the Summer Houses, requiring careful planning to minimise disruption to the park during the build. Every section was manufactured off-site and installed manually. Light-weight, transportable and easily adjustable sections with a simple build sequence were therefore essential.

Each Summer House is like a small building in terms of the technical services required and in the complexity of their design and delivery. They also require a team dynamic that blurs the line between engineering specialists, architects and artists. The engineering interpretation of each piece relied much more on experience and knowledge of materials, manufacturing and fabrication methods than traditional analysis and calculation.

All four Summer Houses were constructed in just three weeks, so it was essential that buildability was an intrinsic part of the design.

The designs for the Summer Houses varied widely and were submitted in different ways. We had just a few intensive weeks to turn the architects’ sketches or small scale physical models into the digital models that would aid design and production. Reviews of the design and fabrication models were aided by new augmented reality systems, believed to be the first time mixed reality technology has been applied to a complex structure in this way.

The augmented reality headsets made navigation and scaling of the models much simpler, which delivered huge benefits in terms of time and accuracy before the models were released for manufacture. Barkow Leibinger’s Summer House, for example, is a tightly curved steel and timber structure so intricate that it would have been extremely time-consuming to methodically check the model without this technology.

The unique programme for the Serpentine Pavilion and Summer Houses necessitates that the role of engineer is central to the creative process. Knowledge of materials and fabrication methods, as well as the planning and Building Control approval processes, are required to transform the designs into functional and buildable spaces without losing sight of the original architectural or artistic vision. This year’s programme has been the Serpentine Galleries’ most ambitious yet, and with five remarkable structures, the hard work has really paid off. I look forward to seeing the spaces enjoyed and admired by visitors this summer.

Jon Leach, director and technical practice group leader at Aecom

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