Renault Distribution Center is the main distribution unit in the UK for the car manufacturer, Renault. It is located in Swindon, England, and was completed in 1983. It sits on a sloping, irregular-shaped 6.5-acre site near the railway station. It houses a warehouse, a training school, a showroom, a staff restaurant, workshops, and an office. The warehouse stands apart from the typical industrial shed and the immediate context with its unique undulating marquee-like silhouette with projecting masts. Designed by Foster+Partners and Ove Arup and Partners, it is one of the most notable examples of High-tech architecture.
High-tech architecture emerged in the 1960s as a response to the steel and glass monotony of modernism. It breaks away from the universal nature of modernism and emphasizes the individual identity of each structure using similar materials. It is characterized by a fresh approach to the industrial aesthetic that integrates the technical operations of a building with its structure. The structural elements are the most prominent features of this style and are brightly colored with metallic finishes. The advancement in computation and manufacturing technology fuelled structural innovation in building construction that continued this style through the 70s and 80s. Norman Foster is one of the most notable architects associated with this style alongside Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, etc.
Planning and form
The modular approach to planning was derived from a detailed study of the operations of the facility conducted by Foster+Partners. The layout had to be efficient for storage where the shelving layout would be modified every few weeks. There was a need for a flexible plan across a single storey. Hence, a modular layout with removable partition walls was planned. The working of the distribution center and the showroom determined the size of the modules: 24m by 24 m and 8m in height. The program was accommodated in 42 such modules where the entrance, showroom, and office spaces were planned into the six modules closest to the main entry. The single block rectangular plan was angled to suit the angled profile of the site.
Structure, Materials, and Construction
The structure is based on the Foster+Partners’ experience of designing the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Headquarters and Reliance Controls in Swindon. Each module is covered by a ‘steel umbrella’ with a central steel mast with beams radiating from the top. This structure was developed as an alternative to a conventional one that would require large column and beam sections, a braced roof, and braced internal partitions, making the floor plan rigid. Each of these steel umbrellas was developed as portal frames on the rectangular and diagonal axes. Stretched across these portal frames is a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) membrane roof spread on decking sheets and supported by purlins. This forms the primary structure that takes wind and dead loads. The cladding and glazing span horizontally on the walls and are supported by a secondary structure of vertical mullions that is structurally independent of the primary structure.
The portal frames were made using continuous columns onto which angled, continuous beams were fixed and stiffened by tension members radiating from the top. These tension members were pre-stressed to ensure the stability of the column and for a thorough connection between the beams and the column. The vertical ties on the perimeter ensure the overall stability of the structure by replacing the angled beams and transferring the load directly to the ground. The inverted catenary arch form of the beams resists uplift forces due to wind. The angled beams vary in depth with respect to the forces that cause them to bend.
The PVC membrane that forms the roof has skylights and vents for air circulation. The surface run-off from the roof leads into the inverted frustum area of the roof and is drained out of the building through downpipes that run within the columns. The uniqueness of the joinery details necessitated custom manufacturing and testing at every stage. The entire structure was prefabricated and pre-stressed off-site. The column, its ties, and the beams were installed on-site as a single unit on site. The ties at the top of the column and the vertical perimeter ties were assembled on site.
The external walls are made of customized cladding panels that are colored white to contrast and highlight the bright yellow masts that incorporate the brand identity of Renault into the structure. These panels are 4 m in height with foam-filled core and metal skins on both sides. They are screwed onto vertical mullions and sealed with aircraft-grade neoprene to free the roof structure from the walls. The cladding system encloses open-planned spaces with a light and airy ambiance. The majority of these spaces are utilized by a highly optimized shelving layout for storing and packing. The office and showroom spaces have a unique industrial aesthetic and were designed by Foster+Partners.
The showroom was a single volume of 8m with glazed walls. In addition to the cars that were displayed in bays across the floor, empty car shells were suspended from the ceiling and became a part of the interior decor. Adjacent to the showroom was the office area which was distributed across two levels connected by a metal staircase. It also had an open plan defined by the unique furniture designed by Foster+Partners. The furniture followed the design language established by the building. The writing desks consisted of glass or opaque tops that rested on platinum finished iron legs. The top was supported by horizontal elements that resembled the beams in the primary building structure. The designs of the furniture used in this project progressed into the Nomos range, brought to life by the Italian furniture manufacturer, Tecno.
The Renault Distribution Center encompasses structural innovation and flexible planning, the ideas that were gaining widespread appreciation as the changes that were initiated in the construction industry during the industrial revolution began to include computer-based thinking and manufacturing. It also stands out as an example of how branding and the corporate identity of the client can play a vital role in the aesthetics of a building. In the present day, the striking structure has been repurposed into a kids’ play area and also houses a DVD manufacturer and a car seat supplier. Sir Norman Foster expressed enthusiasm about the design being flexible enough to accommodate the new functions.
Manning, M. (1983). Renault part distribution center, Swindon: The civil and Structural engineering, The Arup Journal, September 1983, pp. 2-5.