Cutty Sark

Buro Happold
  • cutty sark bow
  • cutty sark hull viewing area
  • cutty sark hull
  • cutty sark mast

1 / Introduction

The Cutty Sark cuts a dramatic outline on the bank of the River Thames; an iconic reminder of Britain’s proud maritime history and the importance of the sea in the country’s economic development.

Following a colourful past, then years of neglect, a comprehensive programme of conservation began in 2004, and has seen the biggest overhaul of the Grade I listed landmark for 50 years. In addition, plans were drawn up for the development of a new event venue designed to play a major role in securing an ongoing income which would protect the Cutty Sark for the enjoyment of future visitors for years to come.


Key facts

  • Only surviving 19th century tea clipper in the world
  • Weighing 963 tonnes the tea clipper has been lifted into the air and suspended three metres above the dry dock floor
  • New visitor viewing gallery, event space and museum created beneath the ship

This is a Buro Happold project - Visit the website to see more stories like this

2 / Challenge

of significant restoration work. In addition, the ship’s hull had started to deform and sag as the iron ribs lost their ability to carry its weight.

In order to transform the ship into an exciting destination for tourists, the ship was to be suspended in mid air, enabling the space below in the dry birth to be used as a museum, viewing gallery and public space. This presented the biggest challenge of all: at 963 tonnes, the process of raising this ‘fragile old lady’ would require a significant technical accomplishment.

Further challenges arose when the project was bought to a dramatic halt by a catastrophic fire in May 2007. The fire swept through the ship causing extensive damage to the already delicate wooden structure.

3 / Solution

Following the fire, our role on the project changed from one of conservation and public access improvement to a rescue project for this important piece of British history. Demonstrating how the Cutty Sark resonates with the public, a major fundraising campaign enabled the project not only to be resumed at the end of 2009 but to an enhanced design brief.

We had already begun the process of dismantling of the ship’s structure and a significant amount of timber material had already been taken off site so most of the original fabric survived. All of the hull planks were sensitively repaired by hand using traditional methods which involved carefully removing areas of decay and piecing in new timber. Some planks were in a very poor state and had broken up into several sections. These had to be pieced together and reinforced with glass fibre rods.

The next challenge was lifting the massive structure to allow it to be suspended in mid air – our team only had one chance to do this successfully, as once the process was started there was no going back. A carefully phased operation to remove props and raise the ship ensured she was safely transferred from her previous support system on to the new permanent supporting steelwork. Taking place in three stages, the ship was lifted 100mm at a time on 24 climbing hydraulic jacks until it was suspended 3 meters in the air, before being lowered onto its permanent supports.

With the ship safely in its new home, the space within the dry dock of the Cutty Sark has been covered with a glass canopy and the supplementary accommodation has been significantly increased by the construction of a new basement.

4 / Value

Following this iconic transformation, the Cutty Sark is now a stunning visitor attraction. Designed to ensure she can avoid any major refurbishment work for the next 50 years, the conservation project has enabled our experts to protect this great Victorian matriarch for generations to come.