Words by Elizabeth Burns, photographs by Dariusz R Cyparski
2006 saw the attention of architectural practice in Ireland and beyond be drawn to the spatial requirements of Wexford County Council and its some 370 employees who administer community services to the County. The RIAI administered open design competition garnered 97 responses to the Council's detailed brief.
In December of that year, young Glaswegian practice NORD Architecture (formed in 2002) were identified from the 6 shortlisted practices as having responded most appropriately to the twofold objective of making manifest functional as well as ceremonial, civic spaces for the town. The other shortlisted entries were BoARD (Bureau of Architecture, Research, Design) from Rotterdam, Mario Cucinella Architects from Bologna, along with Bucholz McEvoy Architects, Patrick Harrington Architects and Denis Byrne Architects from Dublin.
Just over three years after their appointment, 25 AAI members found themselves on an unseasonably cold, bright May Saturday experiencing NORD's proposals and hearing how this small Scottish firm have dealt with the complex task of realising the 11,000m², €34million project.
Matt O'Conner (Managing Director/ Architect, National Building Agency, along with Robin and Oonagh from NORD
‘2007 was a period of intense design development. We had committed to the client on appointment that we could deliver this building', explained Robin Lee, clearly insinuating that commitment and dedication was to prove important leverage in convincing a large client that a practice of this scale could defy their fears to the contrary.
From their newly formed Dublin office and the Glasgow studio, NORD assembled a design team that included Arthur Gibney (acting as contract administrators in a similar collateral role as they had done for heneghan.peng in their Kildare County Council offices), Buro Happold providing complete engineering services (structural, civil, mechanical, façade, acoustic), MMP as cost control and Mitchell Landscape engineering.
In a example of project progression that beggars belief, just one year after winning the competition Pierce tendered successfully to construct the project under the GDLA contract on this slopping, greenfield site about 2km outside the town centre on the New Ross Rd.
‘Why this this site chosen as apposed to an urban location?’, inquired Cian Deegan former AAI committee member. ‘We looked at half a dozen sites that the council owned’ explained Matt O’Connor architect and manager of the National Building Agency, who was a jury member and acts as client representative. Some of which it seems were more closely weaved into the tight medieval fabric of Wexford; ‘but none were capable of accommodating this large brief and proved to be cost prohibitive. Three sites were shortlisted and council members were unanimous about this choice’.
As we traversed the terraced car park from the site compound a further attraction alluded to by Matt became increasingly apparent; the pure hillscape rolling gently to the shimmering sea-destined Slaney and its floodplains, defying the urban fringement to the east and adding a new chapter of understanding to the story of this Irish Sea settlement. The project shares this vista with the recently occupied, decentralised offices of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; together thought of as forming a campus, which along with the nearby hospital which will employ 3000.
View towards Slaney River form the roof terrace
NORD were insistent however that some of Wexford’s urban compression be adopted in the project as a counter to the verdant expanse. Six limestone wrapped 'buildings' represent each council function and address a central, internal street covered by a punctured concrete soffit. Each share the limestone uniform, but are carved and articulated distinctly to express the individuality of each civic function.
Limestone Civic Street (photograph by Robin Lee)
Detail of limestone
Council functions and their providers are at present distributed throughout urban buildings in the town and are accustomed with a cellular working environment. NORD needed to balance openness of programme with privacy of the individual worker so utilised the planar device of punctuating courtyards to achieve this dichotomy. The open plan office floors have roof lit voids and workspaces clustered around the extremities of the plan, allowing workers to be always close to outer edge or courtyard edge.
The expression of the individual departments is conversely suppressed in the external expression of the whole; an umber anodized aluminum double layer is a consistent skin around the internal and external spaces in the project. This façade is inherent to the environmental concept of the building, acting as a heat trapping blanket in winter and a ventilating skin to evacuate warm air in summer.
North-east entrance corner
The departmental blocks are typically two storey under the datum of the concrete soffit, but sometimes break beyond this; most notably at the north-east entrance corner which lengthens to accommodate the principal meeting spaces, managerial offices and council chambers. After ascending to this realm via the oak lined stair at the end of the urban street you encounter a spatial switch. In contrast with the introverted verticality and massivity of the internal urban street there are a series of long, pavilion like structures inhabiting the roofscape connected with the landscape beyond. A switch to steel structure introduces contrast to the massivity of the built landscape below.
Functions on this level also include a staff (and possibly public) restaurant and are clustered to the north and River side, leaving a generous expanse of south facing roof terrace for staff inhabitation. Adorned with pockets of ferns this datum is strewn with remnants of the world below; pop up rooflights over each department and the double skin emerging as guarding.
Despite the multiplicity of functions, the project retains a conceptual legibility; mainly thanks to its realisation in a limited palette; Kilkenny limestone, concrete soffits, the aluminum outer wrapper and fitted furniture and internal joinery to be made in European oak.
Robin descbes the project to the group
The project is a testimony to a small, young office's ability to make clear careful choices that have been multiplied many fold over this large complex. As too is it testimony to the client and their advisors who defied recent consensus that traditional procurement is illiquiped to deal with a project of this size in an expedient and cost effective way. They turned their back on the PPE design-build route that has brought to fruition its department of education neighbour also built by Pierce. Curiously, a representative of the contractors remarked on the contrasting position of the two buildings; in one decisions about specificaction were made by the contractor based on economy, in the second under the auspices of the architect for whom every decision related back to an appropriate use of quality materials; ultimately resulting in a better built outcome.
It should also act as an assurance to clients of the open design competition as a vehicle for procuring a quality building in terms of the programmatic needs, quality, environment, economy and architecture.
The project was delayed from the offset due to unforseen ground conditions, but is hoped to be inhabited later this summer. All of us lucky enough to experience the tour will await with anticipation revisiting post occupation; in particular to see the civic street which is envisaged as a space for wayfinding, resting, exhibitions and presentations. Lets hope it garners the same life blood as Wexford's charged pedestrian core.
Model of the project
Thanks to Robin and Oonagh from Nord, Matt O'Conner and Pierce Construction for generously volunteering their time to facilitate this fascinating tour.