From 1963 to 1974 a unique series of domes were designed by my father, the
Ipswich architect Birkin Haward of Johns Slater and Haward, in conjunction
with the engineers, Felix Samuely and Partners. These domes were an
economical way of enclosing a large clear space for sports and social use,
mostly for local schools.
These structures consisted of a timber shell framework, following the
geodesic principles promoted by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s. Fuller had
used a triangulated steel framework for large spherical enclosures as at the
USA World Expo 76m diameter pavilion at Montreal in 1967. Meanwhile Birkin
adopted standard timber struts with steel end plates, bolted together,
spanning up to half that size. These were supported on concrete perimeter
ground beams, sheet clad, waterproofed and lined, with openings for access,
lighting and ventilation.
Early local domes had hemispherical forms with framing based on the
icosedodecahedron, as the trial 6.4m diameter framework we erected at the
Spinney, Westerfield Road in 1963 [see the illustration at the end of this
article]. This was followed in 1967 at Dale Hall School with a 14.5m
diameter complete version and then at Landseer School at 18.3m diameter.
The varied triangular framework involved wasteful cutting of sheet covering
In 1969, a simplified 18.3m diameter segmental dome framework was adopted at
Downing School, where almost rectangular covering panels contributed
sufficient stiffness. However the circular plan did not suit most sports.
Alternative triangulated arcs had formed the faceted sides of the 18.3 x
36.6m Silver Jubilee School* dome in 1968 and the 16.5m square plan of
Britannia Table Tennis Club dome in 1969. The latter incorporated chamfered
hips at the corners for a more compact and contiguous shell form.
Horizontal lines of triangulation allowed more effective sheet covering.
Further orthogonal plan versions followed, mostly square as at Guardian
Royal Exchange Sports Club with 16.5m sides (since demolished) and the first
larger version at Nacton Heath Secondary School§ with 33.9m sides, in 1972.
The latter could accommodate two tennis courts, six badminton courts and
other sports, with a changing block along one side! During construction the
bolted intersection tolerances led to a top deflection, requiring
replacement multi-flanged junction plates after innovative computer
analysis. A similar large dome was then built at Woodbridge School, in
1974, with the alternative junction detail.
Other rectangular plan domes followed in 1974 at Handford Hall School at
16.5 x 29.9m with hipped corners and a larger version at Thurleston School
of 24.4 x 36.6m. The detailed structural design also benefited from
Constructional details using prefabrication evolved with the overall forms,
but precision and careful sequencing were necessary for effective assembly.
The silver external 'Evode' bituminous treatment protected the plywood
sheathing while internal linings provided insulation, acoustic control, fire
resistance and finish to suit use. Heating avoided airflow affecting
badminton, while natural ventilation utilised stack effect. Fluorescent
lighting at high level also became the norm. Overall costs were 25% less
than the equivalent steel frame structure.
By 1975, restricted educational funding temporarily halted these projects
and Birkin produced his comprehensive volume 'Timber Domes Developed in the
Ipswich Area' as a record. In 1976 he was awarded the international Stuart
Mallinson Gold Medal for Timber Research and Development. While a high
level of design and construction skill was involved with this innovative
development, an alternative economic basis for enclosing larger span spaces
had been demonstrated. They mostly remain a distinctive feature on the
Bill Haward RIBA
*Silver Jubilee School. Now called St Edmund VI School (Bury St Edmunds).
§This was the Priory Heath Wing, later called Holywells High School, then
closed late 2013. The dome is currently used by 'Inspire', but the site is
proposed for housing, giving concern over the dome's future.