The sky’s the limit

By Eamonn Ryan

Remote-controlled (RC) car, drone and planes specialist Grandprix Models recently refurbished its premises, opting for a highly engineered look using an airplane wing design to capitalise on its distinctive location.

Grandprix Models is located in the flight approach to OR Tambo International Airport so Grandprix Models owner Gary Gibson wanted to create an environment where RC racing enthusiasts, their friends and families could mingle and talk motor sport in a sports venue setting – and it had to have the right ambience. Gibson’s vision was for a curved fabricated steel structure to extend over the area, resembling a giant airplane wing.

RC racing has a fanatic following, with many Formula 1 Grand Prix drivers having more humble beginnings with RC.

“We’re passionate about Grand Prix, we’re passionate about Motor GP – so that’s what we wanted the structure for. I designed and built this building myself 15 years ago – I’m the architect, the quantity surveyor, the contractor,” says Gibson.

When it came to the latest refurbishment, he opted for a steel specialist, Fabcon Steel, because their steel design is incredibly intricate. “Nobody else wanted to take the project on because of its complexity, because of the curvature skeleton in the steel needed to create the wing image. They just wanted to put in a piece of H channel and a cross, and that’s all they wanted to do, despite the drawings I had done.

“The curved shape was selected to represent an airplane wing, as the building is in line with the flight path from OR Tambo International Airport, providing a spectacular vantage point to view airplanes landing and taking off. You can watch aircraft flying overhead every 15 minutes in the evening and see them land. We decided to leverage our distinctive location by designing a mezzanine floor with a glass structure, and a deck where you can watch planes touch down.  The structure by itself would become the building’s dominant architectural feature and aesthetic: not only a talking point for visitors, but being a striking visual feature highly visible from the main road.

“The rolling of the steel was complex – you’ve got to roll it in two directions. Fabcon was the only contractor that actually understood what I wanted.”

Grandprix model

A quick redesign resulted in some resulted in some on-site fabrication for the necessary adjustments. Photo by Grandprix Models.

The complexity also doubled the cost of the roof to R2-million. To create an industrial-type look, Gibson describes the choice of 55mm piping as ‘aggressive’. This is also because, being glass, the wind factor required a sturdier structure. Such was Gibson’s confidence in Fabcon Steel, he had no doubt that director Andrew van Gool, a steel industry veteran with 20 years’ experience, and factory manager Andre Schultz, would turn his dream into reality.

“Andrew knew what I wanted, and also that he would be able to create what I was thinking. Whereas other people would have said they would get back to me, Andrew has the passion to make anything happen,” Gibson comments.

Van Gool admits that translating Gibson’s vision was a difficult task.

In addition, it is not a commercial building like a shopping centre with a double or triple volume height. Instead, people are quite close-up to the actual structure itself, meaning that every joint, weld, and patch of painting is highly visible to inspection.

“The patrons may not be engineers or architects themselves, but they know what is straight or unpainted. Hence the attention to detail is the most important part of an undertaking of this nature,” Van Gool stresses.

Steelwork underway

A total of 25t of steel in 18 trusses and 2 200 bolts were used.Photo by Eamonn Ryan.

Design and engineering challenges

Informing Gibson that Fabcon Steel had never undertaken a curved steel structure in the shape of an airplane wing before, Van Gool was nevertheless bullish.

“My guiding philosophy is that we look past any obstacles to create solutions for our clients. We have key staff in place with the necessary experience and technical expertise to see such challenging projects through to successful completion.”

Commenting on the design and engineering challenges posed by this project, Schultz explains that, not being a ground-up structure, the load of the lower slabs was carried by pre-existing concrete columns. The engineer’s specification was that the load imposed by the new structure had to be borne by these columns, and not the existing downstand beams spanning between the columns.

The project was further complicated by the fact that one of the exterior support walls was thicker than expected, meaning an unanticipated differential in aligning the steel and concrete columns. “This is important because the engineer ultimately has to sign-off on the structure, in addition to us meeting our client’s own exacting requirements,” Van Gool notes.

A quick redesign resulted in some on-site fabrication for the necessary adjustments mid-air, as the trusses were too long. “Due to the unusual shape of the structure, comprising curved tubular trusses spanning long distances without column support, which is usually a feature in much larger structures like shopping malls, we had complex geometry to consider. Hence this was by no means a slick, bolt-on project, but a detailed engineering exercise,” Schultz highlights. The longest truss fabricated at Fabcon Steel’s Midvaal factory was 14.5m.

Logistical challenges

A total of 25t of steel in 18 trusses and 2 200 bolts were used, which Van Gool describes as “a lot” considering much of it is hollow. “For the square footage, it's higher than one would normally expect, but we wanted more trusses.

“What you see here is what you predominantly only see in shopping centres and high-volume areas where spans are vast and you need this kind of construction to take the loads and span. In this instance, the design was partially that, but also for an aesthetic that was to look quite different. The engineers were nervous about it and understanding took quite some time. We created the jigs for all the trusses in the factory.

“Once we made the decision to proceed with this project, the major challenge was how to accomplish it logistically: how to erect it within the cost and time frames. Barely two weeks before the project was due to commence, the client was informed that the site next door could no longer be used as a laydown area. With the detailed programme in jeopardy as a result, Van Gool and his team undertook the herculean task of a 75% acceleration of the entire project cycle. Lifts and installations that normally would have taken two weeks to execute were now scheduled for four to five days.”

Gibson explains that he was aware that his upgrade would immediately make the vacant neighbouring stand a more attractive acquisition – it hadn’t been expected to happen so soon.

Abcon had to lift the steel spans almost overnight, while leaving enough space on the mezzanine floor to continue working. That site remained the only one where the work could be done, according to the roads authority, so cranes and skyhooks were brought in for what Van Gool describes as a Herculean task.

“However, our team pulled through, and it is incredible what they managed to achieve at the end of the day. What this project has taught us is that, no matter how careful the planning, one must always allow for contingencies at the end of the day,” Van Gool adds. 

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