Manchester has a new low-carbon energy center that will supply heat and power to several buildings throughout the region. The architectural and functional design of the structure is a result of 10 years of innovative material and geometric research by Architect Tonkin Liu. 

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A tall white structure stands in the middle of a city street

The process is called a Shell Lace Structure and the result is the thin and lightweight Tower of Light. The structure consists of laser-cut sheets of thin steel welded together and curved into shape. The final design, developed in conjunction with engineers at Arup, won several awards. Some notable mentions includes Public Realm, Civic Trust Award 2022 and Net Zero, Future Cities Forum Awards 2020. 

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In a warehouse, mesh metal structures are stored

At the base of the tower is the Wall of Energy. It is an artistic façade made of 1373 glazed ceramic tiles that encloses the workings of the energy center. Together, the functional display acts as a gateway into Manchester’s historic district and “make a statement about the city’s zero-carbon ambition, creating a nature-inspired addition to Manchester’s historic cityscape,” according to the architect.

A single white energy tile

Furthermore, the Tower of Light is highly energy efficient. As wind blows through the structure, reflectors inside move and redirect sunlight throughout the tower. Similarly, the Wall of Energy reflects car lights and passing clouds. For special celebrations throughout the year, both structures illuminate in colored lights. 

Two people wearing construction worker vests pull out white tiles from a kiln

Moreover, low carbon and hot water is sent to the Civic Quarter Heat Network (CQHN) and Energy Center. It is made up of iconic buildings in the city through buried, insulated pipes and power cables. Designers say the installation lowers energy costs and “the technology improves energy, contributing towards the city’s goal of becoming zero carbon by 2038.”

A diagram drawing of the shell lace process and it gets woven together

The design team found inspiration in nature and existing cultures in a variety of ways. For example, the Tower pulls in elements from chimneys in Hampton Court. Similar designs are found in nature in the tall Cholla desert cactus that efficiently processes solar exposure. Other elements of the Tower of Light reflect plants and animals such as the Venus flower basket sponge and bamboo. The Wall of Energy mirrors designs found in nature, such as ripples in expanses of sand and the structure of bee hives. 

+ Tonkin Liu

Photography by David Valinsky