Thursday, 29 January 2009

New Bord Gais centre should add spark to the M50

When Bord Gáis was planning a new distribution centre it ran an international design competition, which was won by Denis Byrne Architects, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

ANYONE WHO uses Dublin’s M50 will know that it sorely needs more landmarks to overcome an overwhelming sense of disorientation, relieved only by gantry-mounted direction signs to steer motorists through an elongated maze of traffic and construction activity.

“The M50 is like a new city wall, with the city inside,” says architect Roisín Heneghan. “This is an edge condition from which many people see the city, yet the land adjacent to the road is generally disused for noise reasons and any development is nearly always sprawl.”

The first conscious effort to provide a new landmark on the M50 was Hunt McGarry’s telecom mast for Denis O’Brien’s one-time flagship, Esat Digifone, at the Tallaght interchange.

This elegant 30-metre high mast, shaped like an inverted cone, is brilliantly lit at night by double rings of green neon so nobody can miss it.

Denis Byrne Architects (DBA) obviously considered the landmark issue when they entered an international competition to design a new national distribution control centre for Bord Gáis Networks, on a rather unprepossessing site on St Margaret’s Road at Dubber Cross, just south of the M50 near Finglas.

This will become the nerve centre for Bord Gáis Networks, which is responsible for constructing and extending the gas network in Ireland. The services it provides include pipeline service laying and modification, safety and emergency response, and meter installations and alterations across the State.

Bord Gáis wanted a building that would reflect its declared commitment to environmental protection, energy conservation and sustainable development that would simultaneously “sit in harmony with its physical context” as well as being flexible in its internal planning to accommodate the main functions.

Inevitably, the competition produced a very wide range of proposals – from a multi-storey tower block to a single-storey complex covering the entire site. However, a number of competitors misinterpreted it as a corporate headquarters rather than an operational hub carrying out a variety of functions.

In all, 56 entries were received for the competition, which was organised by the RIAI (Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland). These were whittled down to a shortlist of eight, who were invited to make presentations, including Glasgow-based Nord Architecture and VMX Architects from the Netherlands, where Cork-born Don Murphy is a partner.

What DBA proposed was a compound in a reconditioned landscape, with a projecting tower inscribing Bord Gáis in large capital letters.

Arguably, this unique selling point persuaded the competition jury to award the €17.5 million project to DBA, ahead of such luminaries as Bucholz McEvoy and Heneghan Peng.

As the assessors noted, Bucholz McEvoy’s design “advanced considerably” between stages one and two and “fully took into account the comments raised by the jury” following stage one.

“The curved geometry of the building showed potential for the development of strong internal social and working spaces.”

Heneghan Peng, who have won numerous competitions, had “a very clear design concept which met aspects of the brief well. It projected a simple yet compelling linear form well integrated with the site, developing a good landscaped solution against the bank. Internal planning was fluid and flexible.”

DBA’s winning entry took its inspiration from industrial buildings rather than swish corporate office blocks, to provide a home base for a diverse range of activities both within the building and for mobile staff checking in and out. A layer of perforated metal wraps the building in a light and permeable yet robust protective skin.

“Organised over two levels with gardens and circulation woven to an informal fabric of flowing internal and external spaces with meeting and social areas interspersed, the building promotes an inter-departmental, multi-disciplinary approach to staff interaction and organisation.” And that’s as it should be.

According to DBA, “the integrated sustainable design approach combines microclimate, landscape, transport and a compact building volume with low-energy design to establish a service facility that humanises and civilises the environment of the corporate workplace [and] provides acoustic shelter from the nearby M50.

“In terms of energy use and environmental control, the building is equally responsive to its users’ needs, employing a system based on the principles of thermal mass, natural ventilation and water-borne radiant cooling and heating supplied by a combined gas-fired heat pump and chilling device.”

The assessors, who included award-winning architects Louise Cotter and Niall McCullough, said the winning scheme “offered an innovative and achievable work of modern architecture” and also scored very highly on sustainability. It also used the site well, locating the required car-parking behind the building.

“The amorphous external form with projecting tower (which would be visible across the M50) was innovative; the internal layout studded with natural ventilation courtyards was flexible and interesting, offering cross views to the landscape” while also providing “the sense of a common working environment”. John Barry, managing director of Bord Gáis Networks, said environmental protection and sustainable development were critical in choosing the winner.

“The standard of entries was exceptionally high, but we are looking forward to working with Denis Byrne Architects on this exciting and innovative project.”

DBA won an Architectural Association of Ireland award in 2004 for a wonderfully successful infill apartment building at the lower end of North Great George’s Street. Dubbed the Cigar Box, it was hailed by the AAI jury as an exemplary urban intervention in a very specific place with no resort to (gutless) pastiche.

The relatively small practice is based in a Georgian house on the opposite side of the street, which was splendidly refurbished and converted into offices and apartments in 2007 at a cost of €2.4 million. Denis Byrne himself lives doors away in another Georgian house which he restored as a large family home.

Recently completed projects include a double-height car showroom for KC Motors in Cornelscourt, while one of the most interesting projects in the pipeline is a housing scheme for Killenaule Co- operative in south Tipperary, which would provide 35 four-bedroom detached houses and 12 “zero energy” houses on a greenfield site.

Also in Killenaule, DBA’s Roland Bosbach headed a team that designed a 60-bed nursing home and 48 sheltered housing units – all timber-clad – for the co-op.

Bosbach was also involved in designing a new viewing gallery and changing rooms for Tolka Rovers in Dublin.

A flat-roofed house in a rural setting in Co Westmeath won an Opus award in 2005 because of how DBA had responded to the site contours with “an attention to detail and a craftsmanship rarely found in similar settings or building types”.

Indeed, it was rated as being “well above the bungalow blight of most single houses”.

Irish Times

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