Bounce taken out of Barking’s Sikh temple

In a little over a year from now it will stand resplendent and iridescent on a once contaminated brownfield site in Barking. Yet while the borough’s new £7m marble-clad Gurdwara Sikh Temple promises to dazzle in every sense, its design posed a potentially dizzying challenge for structural engineering consultancy Symmetrys.

The London-based firm was approached earlier this year by Agenda 21, which has itself designed a number of large temples, having previously impressed the architect with its problem-solving approach to a number of residential projects. While the Barking Gurdwara Sikh temple is on a different scale, Agenda 21 knew its interior dimensions would hold sway over structural options and turned to Symmetrys for expert advice.

The 33,960 sq ft, four-storey building will not only be a place of worship but serve a broader purpose as a place that brings together the local Sikh community when it opens by early 2018. Along with three worship spaces or ‘dirwans’, in keeping with the religious tradition, the proposals also include a vast dining hall known as a ‘langar’. To ease the flow of the community, each of these large rooms must be a clear space without columns or any other intrusions.

“We’re talking about 23m wide rooms,” says Russell Thomas of Symmetrys. “That’s quite a distance without any columns. It’s not a common challenge in itself and it’s not every day we’re asked to look at it in the context of a Sikh temple.”

Symmetrys explored a number of possible options to achieve these clear span worship and dining spaces. The standard approach of either concrete or steel frames was ruled out because the depth of the beams would be unacceptably limiting in terms of headroom. Instead, Symmetrys recommended storey-high trusses, which would effectively see visitors walking through them to enter the rooms.

“It’s an approach I’ve used successfully before but it does require another level of coordination,” Thomas adds. “The desired clear spaces could have been achieved by other means but this offered the best economy. We liaised extensively with the design team to optimise door positions and services routes through the structure.”

The project started onsite in October 2016, with a main sewer beneath the site being diverted as one of the first works. Its main steel frame is due to be erected in summer 2017 once the reinforced concrete basement car park is complete. The 23m long trusses will be over 4m high and will weigh more than six tonnes, so the method of their erection will need coordinating with the fabricators.

The storey-high trusses will support all the internal floor slabs across the large halls on two floors. However, the column-free spans presented another pressing challenge. Foot traffic can have a profound effect on a structure and with large, clear spans there is a tendency for it to bounce if the beams become ‘excited’. It was therefore vital for Symmetrys to accurately calculate the natural frequency of the floors.

“Imagine a pendulum; if you nudge it every now and then it will stutter or stop but nudge it repeatedly at a particular time and it will continue to swing – and swing more,” Thomas explains. “The beams are like the pendulum; if they move in the same rhythm as the movement of people within the space, what’s known ‘resonance’ will occur and they will begin to move a lot more. So we had to adjust the frequency of the structure by stiffening it in the right places, so that it’s far less likely to be affected in this way.”

Symmetrys even sought unequivocal assurance that there will not be any dancing permitted in the large, clear-span rooms as rhythmic synchronised movement would require a whole new level of stiffer structure. One thing the structure did however need to allow was daylight, with a series of ornate openings designed to bring natural light down, into and throughout the building in keeping with Sikh tradition. This meant extra care was needed to support the heavy roof around these openings.

In keeping with traditional Sikh architecture, the facades will be clad entirely in intricately carved white marble, featuring elaborate cornices and balustrades created by specialist Indian craftsmen, imported from the Punjab region in India and fixed by local stonemasons who are being flown over to the UK especially. The ‘sachkandar’ – a landmark tower housing the holy book of the Sikh religion, the Guru Granth Sahib, and forming the centre of the elevation – will have a dome weighting more than 40 tonnes.

“There’s no question the building will be a thing of real beauty to look at,” Thomas says. “But all the cladding and the 40-tonne dome is incredibly heavy, so we’ve had to consider the impact that will have on the surrounding and supporting structure, and the stability of the building too.”

The Barking Gurdwara Sikh temple will adjoin the listed 19th century Quaker Friends House which was converted into East London’s first Sikh temple in 1973. It will comprise three storeys above ground and a basement car park. Along with the dirwans and langar it will house educational and day-care facilities, with other rooms used as congregation halls, classrooms and residential areas for visiting priests and musicians. Many of the items for the fit out are being donated by members of Barking’s local Sikh community.