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Mechanical and Structural of Bilbao

By Brian Kolm

Mechanical Systems

     The mechanical systems for the Guggenheim-Bilbao presented many engineering challenges. For example, the exterior of the building is comprised of many sculptured objects thus the visual appeal of the external mechanical systems and exterior could not co-exist. Also, in being a museum, many areas of the building would have different occupancy levels while at the same time holding many different types of artwork, so requiring a system to do this was important. A central mechanical plant that produces chilled and heated water throughout the building accomplishes heating and cooling for the museum. In the basement, the plant also houses pumps, a heat exchanger and fire protection equipment. Cooling towers are located remote to the plant and are fully screened with architectural walls and grills.


     Both careful environmental control and aesthetics determined the HVAC system designs for this museumís galleries. An individual, fully screened air handling room serves each gallery. Ventilation systems within each gallery provide even, quiet, low velocity air distribution with minimal impact to interior architecture. Outlets for supply and return air are carefully concealed within the architecture of each space. Supply air us distributed through ducts and continuous architectural supply air slots in the floor and is circulated through the wall cavities to allow for the control of temperature and humidity levels on interior wall surfaces where artwork is displayed. Special equipment for ventilation and hazardous chemical storage is provided for workshops and photography and conservation labs. Internal air purification is achieved through the use of chemical filtration, which eliminates toxic and detrimental gases from the atmosphere.





     The Guggenheim-Bilbao, is hailed as one of the most significant architectural designs of the 20th century. The twisting, tumbling, forms of the building, clad in titanium, is unprecedented in geometry and scale. Challenged to design a structural framework for the museum, SOMís (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP) engineers created a modular lattice steel grid system which could be applied to all of the geometric surfaces, regardless of shapes.  The architectural team initially favored reinforced concrete for the complex surfaces, as with other designs of lesser scale. SOM proposed an innovative structural system in steel, which was extremely economical and could be controlled to tight tolerances in the field.

     Formed by closely spaced horizontal and vertical steel members interconnected by diagonals, this system could be erected almost entirely without scaffolding or stability bracing. Three-meter-high trusses were simply stacked at the site to form the complete framework.  Although no two pieces of steel in the museum are alike, all joints and assemblies are detailed with the same system. Limiting the number of steel sizes simplified detailing and coordination with the exterior form. With a unit steel piece similar to that of a standard steel-framed building, the museum was constructed on time and within budget.