Your mission: to take a superstar designer's concept for a baroque lounge for the Euro-elite at Waterloo International and bring it in on budget, complete with floating glass partitions, chandeliers and huge graphic artworks. Oh, and the entire site vibrates. Alex Smith finds out how architect Haskoll did it
"It's no coincidence that 'Starck' rhymes with 'dark'," whispers Martin Atkinson. The associate at architect Haskoll has just finished working with French design superstar Philippe Starck on two Eurostar business lounges, deep in the heart of Waterloo International Station. Atkinson is standing in the bar area of the larger lounge, where dark grey curtains and atmospheric lighting create a feeling of brooding intimacy.

"Starck was particularly keen on dramatic lighting," recalls Atkinson, "but while Eurostar didn't want to sacrifice the drama of the lighting, it did want people to be able to read their newspapers comfortably." Haskoll's task was to realise Starck's design vision and ensure that the end product still worked as a business lounge. Lighting was just one of several areas where the London-based Haskoll had to modify Starck's designs to meet Eurostar's brief – but with the help of a crack project team and some well-considered compromises the architect was able to do just that.

Project architect Romi Dahele was entrusted with the task of turning Starck's concept drawings into a working design. It was a tough project – Dahele had to work within Eurostar's tight budget while coming up with specifications that pleased the creative director. Dahele admits that he embarked on the project with some trepidation.

Not only that, he had to choose materials and designs that could cope with vibrations caused by trains rumbling overhead. The biggest technical challenge the team faced was the installation of a large glass partition and sliding door separating the business lounge from the rest of the departure area. Eurostar wanted the wall to be as unobtrusive as possible, with no visible means of support, so as not to stand out from the design scheme in the rest of the building. However, according to the structural engineer, the partition design had to be able to withstand vibration resulting from the vertical load of a full train and a horizontal load equivalent to a train hitting the buffers at 30 mph.

The architect also needed to make sure that the £2m lounges would not disappoint fans of Starck's eclectic work. Quirky set-pieces such as a Georgian chandelier, underlit marble tables, and witty images combine with sleek, modern materials to provide a classic Starck concoction that is theatrical, unique and luxurious. The first lounge to open has a bar, toilets, seating, reception area and can accommodate 120 passengers. The second was designed as an overspill lounge, with the same facilities but a 60-passenger capacity.

The lounges are part of a £35m makeover of Eurostar, which Starck is overseeing as artistic director. As well as "Le Salon" in London, Starck has designed "The Lounge" at the Gare du Nord in Paris and is working on a lounge for Brussels. By 2004 Starck will also have worked his magic on the interiors of the Eurostar trains.

Once Starck had supplied the sketches for the Eurostar lounges, he took a back seat. His man on the ground was Bruno Borrione, who was responsible for signing off most of Haskoll's designs and specifications. "Starck relies on the Brunos of this world to get things done – he has a lot of practical experience," says Atkinson. "I'd thought the job might be difficult, but it was made easier by Bruno."

Dahele had to work with Borrione on a regular basis and pass designs through him for approval. "We were a bit scared originally," admits Dahele, "but it was fine. It wasn't as though all the screw heads had to face a certain way – they weren't that anal." Dahele also had the tough task of conveying the Starck vision to the rest of the project team. "The subcontractors might come up with an easier way of doing things," he says, "but if it didn't remain true to the Starck vision, we couldn't do it."

As the 25-week project progressed, and Borrione and Starck grew to trust the practice, they let Dahele take more responsibility over decisions. "Sometimes I would have to make an executive decision about something and then follow up with a note to Starck or Borrione about what we'd done," he says.

Because of the tight schedule, Dahele conducted workshop meetings to tackle design problems as they arose. A typical meeting would involve Dahele and representatives from the main contractor, Interior, and the specialist subcontractors. Roughly every two weeks Borrione would come from Paris to attend. "The workshops were brilliant," says Stuart Wilson, whose company Teeway won the two-stage tender for the partitioning package. "We would throw ideas on the table and between us we would interact and come up with a solution."

There was scope for Haskoll to change Starck's designs if money could be saved or there was an unforeseen design problem to be overcome. Among changes that Starck and Borrione approved was the use of white plasterboard in the entrance corridor to the larger lounge, rather than a more expensive translucent stretch ceiling system. The white glass tiles specified by Starck for the washrooms were also replaced with a less expensive ceramic alternative from Domus Tiles. "We weren't cutting costs, we were containing costs," says Atkinson.

Haskoll also made improvements and adjustments to the lighting. Heat generating bulbs were replaced with fibre optics in the newspaper stands to prevent papers from browning. The fibre-optic system only requires one generator bulb, which meant that Eurostar wouldn't have to replace individual bulbs. Haskoll also removed diffusers from lampshades and changed the bulbs to eradicate shadows on the inside of the lamps.

Procuring interior materials and furniture for the lounges was a complicated mission, as Haskoll had to use Starck's original choice of fitting in many of the set-piece designs. These included the marble for the bar tables, a chandelier, Starck-designed sanitaryware and one-offs such as the specially commissioned graphics. For the materials used in the interior envelope, however, Haskoll was free to source cheaper, more local products. The deal was, if they couldn't find a suitable alternative, they would default to Starck's original choice.

The mirrored yellow-coloured glass specified by Starck for the entrance corridor walls turned out to be particularly troublesome. Furniture subcontractor Cheesman Interior couldn't find a similar glass in the UK and in the end went to French company Concepta, which had made the glass for Starck before.

Another overseas company that was recommended by the designer, Italian firm Abet Laminati, had to be used to laminate the timber doors and partitions built by Cheesman (see "The hound factor", below). Both Continental firms came up with the goods, but the use of the unfamiliar, overseas suppliers meant the project team had to incorporate longer lead times into its tight schedule.

In the end, though, Dahele and the project team managed to deliver the quality desired by Starck at the price stipulated by Eurostar. Furthermore, the project team had overcome the technical difficulties of fitting out a luxury interior beneath the trackbed of a major railway station. The chandelier is unmoved by the vibrations created by the trains overhead and thankfully for well-heeled passengers, their martinis are only ever shaken at the bar.

The fish factor: sourcing the ceiling tiles

Philippe Starck was keen to reflect the industrial aesthetic of the original Nicholas Grimshaw building where the lounges are sited. He decided to retain the exposed metal tiles of the sloping ceiling to create a contrast with the opulent, baroque lounge with its curtains and chandelier. Installing partitions and fittings caused damage to the ceilings, so a specialist had to be called in to repair and replace the 12 m long steel tiles. However, soon after winning the tender package, ceiling contractor Phoenix Interiors found that the maker of the original, bespoke tiles no longer existed. “It was like being slapped across the face with a wet fish,” recalls Bernie Brock, project manager at Phoenix. The firm realised that new tiles matching the originals would have to be installed. To avoid delay, and extra cost to itself, Phoenix had to find a new manufacturer quickly. It turned to Ace Ceilings, a company it had worked with before. “If you trust suppliers, you work with them again and again. We knew Ace could do it,” says Brock. Phoenix was able to use its relationship with Ace to secure a quick turnaround. “If we had gone to a large manufacturer, we would have had to have interrupted its production lines. There would have been a wait of 10 weeks,” says Brock. Phoenix’s other problem was that many of the grub screws holding the tiles in place had seized up in the eight years since the tiles had been installed. There was no choice but to spend extra time drilling them out before retapping the threads to refit the tiles. All the tiles were resprayed a metallic grey using car paint supplied by Luton Paints.

The rumble factor: designing under a trackbed

The team was told that the Pilkington glass partition was to look as though it was suspended in thin air. The task would have been relatively straightforward if the 20 mm thick reinforced silicon-bonded glass could have been fixed to the ceiling. But this was not possible because of the vibrations created by the trains on the platforms above. Subcontractor Teeway Partitions invited its regular glass contractor Firman Glass to the project workshops to discuss solutions. Also involved were metalworker STG and Dorma, which was supplying the automatic sliding doors. Firman decided that the best solution was to support the 4.5 m high glass by securing it to a 2.5 m high steel frame around the entrance doors, like the net in a goalpost. The base of the partition was then clamped to the lounge’s concrete floor (see graphic above left) The top finished 50 mm below the ceiling. The fixing supporting the chandelier from Kensington Lighting also had to be designed to withstand the vibrations. Metal contractor STG incorporated a rubber pad into Haskoll’s design for the bracket that would secure the chandelier to the ceiling. Haskoll hung a 60 kg bag of sand from the bracket once it was up to make sure it would take the weight. “We knew it would work, but it was nice to reassure ourselves,” says Dahele. The architect’s caution was understandable. “It was our liability, once the thing was up.”

The hound factor: creating the interior graphics

Dogs and doors are among the quirky images that lift Starck’s lounge out of the ordinary. The images were created by graphic designer GBH, which won the tender against five companies after impressing Starck with its design for a frequent traveller’s card. GBH’s brief was to create dynamic imagery that would stir the imagination. One of the most impressive displays is a series of huge doors printed on fabric screens hung from the ceiling. GBH used print studio Service Graphics, with its experience of printable materials, to source the translucent screens. “Originally, Starck wanted a foot-wide light box covered in fabric, but cost-wise it was impossible to do,” says GBH director Peter Hale, who was thrilled by Starck’s response to its design pitches. “Considering Starck is known for baroque pieces in minimalist locations we couldn’t believe how ready he was for imagery.” For the wooden partitions, which were also to bear GBH’s images, architect Haskoll played it safe and used Italian printer Abet Laminati, which Starck had used before. Abet Laminati printed GBH’s images on paper and then sandwiched them between seven layers of laminate, which gave a milky white finish. The images were then shipped back to England, where they were stuck onto the fire-resistant timber shelving and cubicle doors. Apparently, Starck didn't mind what the laminate was stuck to as long as it fulfilled its functional requirements. According to Hale the job represented a steep learning curve for GBH. For one thing, the firm found working in the lounge’s dim lighting difficult. Matching the dog images on the newspaper shelves with their laminate backgrounds proved “not quite possible”.