Exterior view of the building. Credit: Ross Fraser McLean; Exterior view of the building. Credit: Ross Fraser McLean;

V & A Dundee, Dundee

How do you take an 80-million-pound museum from concept to concrete?

A unique and complex structure with twisting, folding exterior walls. V&A Dundee, the first design museum to be built in the UK outside of London, has officially opened its doors to the public.

Arup provided engineering design services to a building that combines ambitious modern architecture with a dramatic location on the banks of the River Tay. V&A Dundee engaged Japanese architects Kengo Kuma and Associates to lead the prize-winning design of this ground-breaking waterfront regeneration centerpiece for the city of Dundee.

The structure required to achieve this vision was extremely complex, consisting of a series of curved concrete walls which lock together to form a rigid structural shell. The inherent strength and stability of this approach ensured the building can sit firmly over an infilled dock site and project its prow over the river wall and into the Tay.

The structural form of the building presented challenges for the coordination of the services.  Arup developed a fully coordinated services model which was adopted by the contractor to develop and produce installation drawings.  We produced a low energy design by minimising mechanical cooling, creating efficient systems design to exploit diversification in loads and matching the systems to the ground source heat pump primary heating and cooling plant.

Lighting provides an integral part of the building’s design. Our lighting consultancy provided design for internal, facade and external areas including galleries, foyer spaces and the lighting design for the Scottish Design Galleries.

Project Summary


2,500 individual precast cladding panels

3Danalysis models

21separate wall sections

You can get only so far with intuition. It gets you to the point where you think the structure will work and then you dive into the analysis and start playing with it. Having an analysis model tells you where the forces are going. When there were areas that were overloaded, we had to think about where to strengthen it. ” Dan Clipsom Dan Clipsom Associate | Building Structures

© Ross Fraser McLean

Overcoming the first hurdle

The first challenge was the construction of an enormous cofferdam, a temporary structure built into the River Tay, filled with 12,500 tonnes of stone. A major piece of work which would allow the museum to be built over the water.


3D modelling solutions 

The new museum would not have been possible to design without the use of 3D modelling and analysis tools. The original plans devised by our engineers included walls up to 600mm thick with huge pieces of steel embedded inside. By experimenting with the shape of the building using 3D tools, the team cut the thickness of the walls by half and replaced the steel skeleton inside with much thinner reinforced bars.

The building functions in a similar way to a shell in that it is a continuous, interconnected structure. The roof, walls and flooring all work together to make the building stable. Arup’s engineers considered how the twists and folds of the walls could strengthen the building. An integrated 3D model of the entire building was created as a coordination tool, meaning the engineers and contractors involved in the construction could all study a digital version of what they were about to create.  

The finished structure remains true to the original concept. The shape is slightly steeper and less splayed than the original design. But despite the minor alterations, the largest overhang sees the roof extend an impressive 19.8 meters beyond the footprint of the museum.

Façade Solutions 

A primary structure of inclined concrete shell walls supports a reconstituted stone façade. To invoke the appearance of a cliff face, as per Kengo Kuma’s vision inspired by the coastline of north eastern Scotland, a complex algorithm was developed to translate the twisting geometry into a series of organic, irregular elements made of horizontal, straight reconstituted stone panels. Parametric modelling was used optimise the pre-cast panels, while maintaining the random appearance, making their manufacture and transportation more economical. All 2,429 elements were compiled into a schedule of cladding panel lengths and shapes.

The double curvature of the structural walls presented a specific challenge. The panels are hung off the structure and a bespoke bracket was designed to ‘prop’ each plank away from the curved wall and at the required angle. This meant that a common fixing could be used for all the variations of cladding and became an intrinsic part of the installation process we devised.  

Due to the waterfront location, certain areas of glazed curtain wall are directly exposed to strong wave loads and required an enhanced design of robust glass build-up and steel support members and necessary levels of corrosion resistance for all elements. The facade team steered the architect through materials choices, their feasibility, appropriateness and buildability.

Exterior view of the building. Credit: Ross Fraser McLean Exterior view of the building. Credit: Ross Fraser McLean

Greener energy

Energy to the building is provided by both ground and air source heat pumps. Early on in the project we undertook a low and zero carbon technologies study. This was to decide the most appropriate form of renewable energy for the building, of which geothermal energy was identified as the solution. 30, 200-feet deep bore holes were created for the heating and cooling of the building, supplemented by air source heat pumps on the roof. Together, these provide renewable energy for the museum, with 800,000 kWh/annum of heating and 500,000 kWh/annum of cooling.

© Ross Fraser McLean

V&A Dundee is the first time the V&A has created a permanent base outside of London and it is therefore wholly fitting that this museum to showcase design is itself an engineering marvel.