© AKT II / Jan Friedlein
© AKT II / Jan Friedlein
© AKT II / Jan Friedlein
© AKT II / Jan Friedlein

East Beach Café

We first collaborated with Thomas Heatherwick’s dynamic studio on this RIBA Award-winning single-storey structure in Littlehampton, West Sussex. The first architectural project completed by the London-born designer, whose works bridge the realms of art, fashion and construction, the narrow structure was an average of just 5 m wide and 40 m long.

Heatherwick had approached us with the idea of producing a building that would blend in with the beach in terms of colour and form, evoking ideas of the waves of the sea, the shape of washed up shells, or the irregular mass of seaweed and jetsam. The budget was low and the materials needed to be light to enable the structure to be borne off sandy ground via simple concrete strips. We showed that the best way to build this complex form was to treat the external envelope as structural, forming it into an integral folded steel plate.

The method of building the monocoque structure resembled that used in a plane or a racing car; the steel plate that forms the structure was modelled using finite element analysis, with each fold and edge examined until the structure looked proportional. In its finished form, the shell flattens out in certain areas; our model was used to analyse where the form lost structural integrity, and in these locations we inserted steel ribs to increase strength.

Mild steel plate of 8 mm, chosen over Corten for aesthetic reasons, was cut in a nearby factory in four large pieces which were then assembled on site; this was 2 mm thicker than was needed structurally to ensure a thick, rounded edge to each layer. Once weathered, an oil-based varnish was applied to prevent further rusting.  Glazing ran along the length of the beach-front elevation; protective roller shutters were made into an architectural feature, constructed from a similar material and merging with the structure.

An irregularly-shaped café building with weathered steel plate cladding

Littlehampton, UK
Brownfield Catering
Heatherwick Studio
£ 1 million
232 m²
  • 2008 Structural Steel Design Awards –
    Certificate of Merit
  • 2008 RIBA Award
  • 2008 RIBA National Award
  • 2008 BCI Small Project Award
  • 2008 IStructE Award – Shortlisted
  • 2008 ICE South East Construction Award
  • 2007 Civic Trust Award
  • 2007 Emerging Architecture Awards –
    Highly Commended