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Monday28 July 2014

Curve your enthusiasm at Page & Park’s Loch Lomond National Park HQ

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Dry stone walls and timber have been combined to stunning effect in a sustainable structure. Photos by Renzo Mazzolini

Making a home for the headquarters of the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park alongside a roundabout seems perverse when you consider the potential locations offered by the park’s dramatic landscape — 1,860sq miles of mountains, lochs and forests. Nevertheless, that was the task facing Page & Park when it won the commission in November 2005, beating competition from firms including Gareth Hoskins Architects and Reiach & Hall. Land ownership issues meant that there was no arguing over where the building could be sited, so the only way forward for the practice was to embrace the roundabout.

Director David Page describes the roadside location in Balloch as a non-place, or at best a place for cars, a place where pedestrians fear to tread. That aptly sums up what most roundabouts are even if, as is the case here, the shingle shores of Loch Lomond lie hidden from view just a few hundred metres away.

But the firm, noted for its ability to tackle both urban and rural public buildings with verve — think of Glasgow’s Lighthouse centre for architecture and design or the Museum of Scottish Country Life in Wester Kittochside — has conjured a public realm out of this archetypal non-place by creating an imposing building which follows the curve of the road.

The entrance of the two-storey, £5 million headquarters is marked by a double-height oak-framed porch which occupies three bays of the building. Its grandness hints at the public nature of the building, while the exposed frame marks out its rhythm. In other words, it is inviting. From the reception, members of the public can access two large conference suites upstairs, while the staff area lies beyond glass doors.

The building’s form is that of a twin-pitched barn profile extruded along a shallow S-shaped curve. Ironically, the idea of using the roundabout to generate the form and the subsequent S-shaped plan suggested by project architect Karen Pickering sprang from a desire to create a sense of townscape and civic meaning. The curve also addresses the neighbouring community of Haldane on the roundabout’s far side.

We used the volume we associate with Victorian interiors — churches or lecture theatres — with 21st century technology.

 

The building’s materiality, however, speaks to its rural backdrop. Given a setting in a national park that consists of 35% forest with richly lined slate quarries dotting the landscape, the practice opted for a Douglas fir structure, a rear wall clad in larch strips and both a slate roof and a slate stone roadside elevation.

The double-pitched extrusion is aesthetically striking but like the oak-framed porch, it also hints at the internal spatial arrangement. “It signifies the division we’ve applied to the 16m floor plate,” says Park. “Instead of a deep-plan office space, we have two 8m floor plates, the classic dimension for ventilated, one-sided office spaces.”

The building’s curve is marked internally by a glazed strip that bridges the seam between the two pitched roofs. Apart from lighting the interior, it also emphasises the curious nature of the structure’s volume. Essentially a vast hall, the sense of its scale is diminished — for the better, according to Page. “It’s allowed us to cellularise the working space without using divisions. And because the perspective is continually blocked, you don’t feel that you are in a vast space, which can often feel alienating.”

The open nature of the work space, most of which is located on the first floor, has environmental benefits too. Page describes the interior as a “Victorian volume” because the building is cooled primarily by its sheer scale alongside mechanical systems. “We used the volume we associate with Victorian interiors — such as in churches or lecture theatres — alongside 21st technology to get the most out of the environmental performance,” he says.

The volume is made possible by the spectacular timber frame — apparently the largest greenwood frame in the UK — that runs the full length of the building. The frame is dominated by its support columns; gigantic, two-storey-high Douglas fir columns and beams, which are doubled up to deal with charring should the building ever catch fire.

The architect was forced to source slate from Cumbria — Scottish quarries have been shut for years.

 

The ground floor is defined by a series of courtyard spaces which Page describes as “urban squares”. These begin externally with the oversized porch, followed by a double-height café area and a staff library. The café features views across the roundabout — a curious move when you consider the other elevation looks onto parkland and towards Loch Lomond. But, given that Page says he wanted to give meaning to the “placelessness” of the roundabout, perhaps it is the right call.

Page says the practice drew upon its back catalogue of public buildings, including museum and gallery commissions, when considering the new national park headquarters. “The lessons we learned on art projects have definitely permeated into the planning we have used at Balloch,” he says. And to good effect — this is a fine addition to the growing number of good buildings in Scotland’s first national park, including works by Gareth Hoskins Architects and Bennetts Associates. It also works well as a companion piece to the practice’s nearby lochside visitor attraction, completed in 2001.

But as with the building’s plan, there’s another twist in this tale. Sadly — and despite the national park’s tendency to boast about the building’s strong sustainability credentials — few of the natural materials used were actually sourced locally.

The architect was forced to source the slate from Cumbria as Scottish quarries have been shut for years, deemed uneconomical in the face of competition from carbon-heavy Chinese granite and cheap Spanish slate. Worse, although the Forestry Commission offered to donate fresh local lumber, it proved too expensive to collect, dry and cut, so the usual procurement route prevailed, and Douglas fir was trucked from Aberdeenshire and the north of England.

Yes, the building is fitted with the latest in sustainable systems such as a wood chip-fuelled boiler and a reed bed water filtration system, but without a reliable supply chain for locally sourced sustainable products, it’s also filled with a degree of hot air.

Let’s hope that that the perversity of a national park headquarters built with such far-flung products is enough of an national embarrassment to mark a turning point.

In the architect’s own words: Karen Pickering, Page & Park director, on the effective use of timber

We put forward the idea of a timber-framed building at interview stage. We worked closely with structural engineer Buro Happold, but also got input from
a specialist sub-contractor. So Car-penter Oak & Wood-land came on board as a member of the design team. In turn, they employed SKM Anthony Hunt to design the frame connections.

Timber columns

Green Douglas fir works most effectively in vertical mode, so it is used for the 6.2m-high columns, the roof, and to support the central rooflight, but the horizontal members are glu-lam. The timber is now drying out, with cracks and splinters appearing. But somehow, it doesn’t feel like a log cabin — it still feels like an elegant space.

We had to use steel ties to tie the portal frame together at roof level, or the structure would have sprung apart. At each connection, we have a steel flitch plate between the two timbers, bolted with steel bolts. Generally, we did a lot of engineering calculations to minimise the use of steel. On the ground floor we have load-bearing timber stud walls that help support the engineered timber first floor.

Dry stone wall

The slates are from the Burlington quarry in the Lake District, as is the stone. We were keen to get a dry stone wall effect as many walls around Loch Lomond use it — a lot of this came from a quarry at Aberfoyle. Burlington did look into reopening it, but found it financially unfeasible. We wanted to use local Scottish materials, but Cumbria isn’t so far away.

The stone wall is 250mm thick, but each stone has 200mm of mortar, so you can’t see the pointing. It’s laid in courses, but you need to be an expert to work out where it goes. It was difficult to write the specification, but we knew the stonemason had the expertise.

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