Arup & Tonkin Liu’s Tower of Light

After winning the project in Autumn 2017 alongside architects Tonkin Liu, Arup unveiled Manchester city centre’s new Combined Heat and Power Plant Tower of Light structure in February this year.

Inspired by the natural world and geometric shapes, the extraordinary nine-storey, forty-metre-tall tower structure prioritises design and architecture excellence while integrating energy efficient engineering. Arup and Tonkin Liu’s collective vision for the project ensured the strength the building required would not jeopardise its efficiency, material usage or beauty.

The striking and iconic tower supports and encloses chimneys for the city’s low carbon energy centre, serving heating to a district spanning two kilometres including several iconic buildings such as Manchester Town Hall and The Bridgewater Hall.

Structural design inspired by the natural world
Core to the building is its unique structural design, which is exemplified by the iconic façade. The structure is grounded in the latest advanced digital modelling, analysis and fabrication techniques and is known as a Shell Lace Structure. This method has been pioneered by Arup and Tonkin Liu together for over a decade and is inspired by geometries in the natural world. The Tower of Light is the largest built structure using this method to date.

The aim of the light and thin single surface structure is to use as little material as possible without compromising on design and improving the building’s sustainability credentials. In fact, the flat steel sheets at the bottom of the tower are between just six and eight millimetres thick, and at the top of the tower slim down to just an elegant four millimetres. The strength is provided by cut plates which are bent and welded together at the seams, meaning no additional structural support is required.

A sixty-three-metre long and four-to six-metre-high street façade structure named the Wall of Energy also stands alongside the tower, enclosing the new energy centre. It is made of a tessellated interlocking lozenge tile pattern, composed of 1,373 tiles using 31 different tile types.

This pattern was again chosen with nature in mind. It is a visual representation of the energy the earth provides, reflecting the building’s purpose, with the tiles producing undulations and evoking images of patterns left by ocean waves in the sand.

The tiles also represent the potential for synergy between the natural world and the built environment, as the tiles reflect and mirror both the busy city centre streets, and the sky.

Energy efficiency
It was essential that the building be energy efficient and provide low-carbon energy to the busy Manchester city centre two-kilometre radius it covers, contributing to the city’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2038.

This is evident in every part of its design. For example, technology which means heat from the power-generating engine is used to create hot water, distributed through insulated districted pipework across the city network, improves the building’s efficiency by as much as 45 per cent, saving Manchester 1,600 tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

The Energy Centre was also built with the ability to adapt to future change in demand; it currently contains a 3.3MWe combined heat & power engine and two 12MW gas boilers but has the capability to add future energy technologies without disruption to the supply.

And while the building must be lit at all times, due to its dual function as a source of entertainment for passers-by, providing a backdrop of light sequences and animations, this does not impact its energy efficiency. The lights are powered by the wind which causes reflectors in the tower to move and reflect sunlight into the tower’s chambers during the day, and in the evening LED lights are directed at the reflectors to have the same effect.

Urban modern building
By harnessing the combined power of state-of-the-art architectural design and innovative structural processes, the Tower of Light manages to serve multiple functions, all to the highest standards. It is not only fulfilling a practical purpose and serving Manchester’s city centre with energy, it is doing so sustainability, helping the city to hit its carbon targets. Furthermore, it is an iconic and entertaining landmark. All of this combined makes the building a positive case study for both the architecture and construction industries as an example of true urban modern building.