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‘More island community than office’: Gas Networks Ireland Service Centre by Denis Byrne Architects

AR Work 2016 Winner: the label of ‘office’ evaporates in this egalitarian combination of white and blue collar work

If you stand on the AstroTurfed walkway of the green roof of the Gas Networks Ireland Services Centre on the northern edge of Dublin, you rapidly become overwhelmed by the rumble of traffic surging along the eight-lane M50, not much more than 100m away. The road is Dublin’s equivalent of the M25, and it’s an ambient dominatrix: the noise level is quite something; so too  is the telltale extra density of slipstreamed air tainted with exhaust and vaporised rubber.

Not far beyond, the horizon  is carpeted and silhouetted with an odd mixture of farmland, golf courses, light industrial units and, 2km north-west, the bumptiously knobbly structure of the Roadstone factory at Huntstown. Despite the natural grasses and plants around you on the roof – the planting is more ambitious than the usual sedum toupée – the services centre might seem equally brusque and industrial, screened as it is by an outer skin of perforated aluminium, and topped with a no-frills vent shaft and environmental services tower.It’s a setting fitting of the cliff scene in a postmodern King Lear.

‘Waiting beneath your feet is another, entirely undramatic, world: an admin, parts and training hub for Gas Networks Ireland’

But waiting beneath your feet is another, entirely undramatic, world: an admin, parts and training hub for Gas Networks Ireland (formerly Bord Gaís), which operates in quiet, palpably relaxed open-plan spaces with precisely modulated ventilation, temperatures and humidity. All evidence of the M50 vanishes.

At least 240 people work across two large floorplates in a 5,200m2 building awash with natural light. Together with its workshop, training and storage segments, it has the capacity to absorb up to 300 administrative staff, hot-deskers and short-stay delivery drivers and fitters. It does not seem in the least crowded. And this is the primary reason why it is an outstanding place to work: it creates a decompressed, distinctly communal internal atmosphere. 

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne Plans

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne Plans

Floor plans - click to expand

The architecture has roundly defeated both the traffic and its triangular five-acre site in the banal commercial fillet of Dubber Cross, Finglas. But the centre is also exemplary in another way:  it is the first office building on  a brownfield site in Ireland to pursue environmental efficiency in a relatively radical way. The only approximate precursor was the pair of BREEAM Excellent office buildings on the Royal Dublin Society campus in central Dublin designed by RKD Architects; since then, according to Byrne, there have been a few university buildings of environmental merit, but environmental design has not yet (like the snow in James Joyce’s short story, The Dead) become ‘general all over Ireland’.

It’s impressive that the centre was commissioned in the economic darkness of 2008, following a design competition that attracted 56 entrants, including Heneghan Peng and Nord. The process,  says Gas Networks Ireland  spokesperson Linda O’Brien, was founded on a vision that would produce centralised facilities in a workplace ‘that has a real sense of community and place, at a time when the business was undergoing significant change – and one that set out to invest in its people, systems and facilities to sustain its future’.

The company had been renting several traditional office premises in Dublin, and it had one light industrial unit on this peripheral land at Dubber Cross. ‘It was a leftover brownfield site,’ explains Byrne, ‘but it interested us because it seemed a damaged  site that would give us the raw material to stitch something back’.

Most of the shortlisted designs proposed two separate buildings, that divided administration from ancillary services. Byrne’s scheme put everything together: ‘We were quite clear from the start that this would not be a building with an office typology or a workplace hierarchy. You’ve got white collar and blue collar together, people arriving in their vans to collect fittings, desk workers, people being trained. That was important to us. There were possibilities – a building with no prescribed [formal and spatial] identity.’

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne DSC8879 Edit Edit

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne DSC8879 Edit Edit

Source: Anthony Coleman

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne08

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne08

Source: Anthony Coleman

The basic design concept was simple enough. ‘We thought a single compact volume would  be easy to insulate, and not typologically readable as an office – a sense that it seemed industrial, but what was it, actually?’

In considering the workplace qualities of the scheme, Byrne focused on developing open-plan spaces on the two floors to signal ease of movement and spatial flexibility. ‘We had never done a building like this,’ he says, ‘so it was interesting: how do you order a deep plan to get ventilation and light into it? How can it be a box at first glance, then something else?

‘We looked at courtyards in  the plan to increase the sense of informality and orientation, not least because the energy industry is still very fluid. So there was  an effort to accommodate this dynamism in the design; two storeys, two staircases, one lift, so everybody can see everybody else moving through the building.’

The character and qualities of this workplace are essentially the product of three ambitious, well-resolved design moves. First, there was an environmental systems strategy that has been more or less invisibly embedded into the structural fabric of the building. Second, the positioning of the courtyards in a section topped with a faceted roof plane, and with a maximum depth of 12m. The courtyards punch down in five places through single- and double-height volumes and have an absolutely critical, if not vivid, effect on the ambience. Third,  the site of the building had been landscaped in a particularly deft way so even the car park and drainage pond are simultaneously natural and composed. As a composition, this is anything but tarmac tundra plus office block.

‘This “grunt” aspect, combined with environmental technics has been vital to the egalitarian working atmosphere created’

Environmental technics, and the building’s cast-concrete structural slabs and 9m column grid, are critical to the ambience and sense of freewheeling internal space that made this workplace innovative enough be awarded Best Sustainable Building and Best Commercial Building by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, Building of the Year at the Irish Building and Design Awards, and the Irish Concrete Society’s main building award.

The pragmatism of the building’s structure and details reflects the pared-down €14m (£10.5m) construction cost. The concrete slabs and columns with a high thermal mass were formed with a cheaper-than-usual mix using recycled aggregate and blast furnace slag; the columns and exposed ceilings are not polished and the variations in the concrete show, but it’s a generally pale mix that reflects light well internally.

This ‘grunt’ aspect, combined with environmental technics – heat-radiating ceilings, ground source heat pumps, solar water heating and photovoltaic arrays, heat-exchanging ventilation chimney, water conservation – have been vital to the egalitarian working atmosphere created.

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne03

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne03

Source: Anthony Coleman

The circulation, for example, couldn’t be simpler: a clear central promenade axis on each floor with wide staircases at each end. When you enter the building, you read the straightforwardness of the plan and the volumes immediately. Wherever you stand, you’re in  or very near considerable amounts of natural light – from the courtyards or the largely glazed end walls. In any one position, natural light will be close by on two, and even three, sides.

The arrangement of non-office workspaces is equally adroit; they include a training room for underfloor work and a slightly surreal gas boiler training unit fitted with more than 20 historic, but still functional, pieces of kit. Natural light dominates here, too – further confirmation of the shared workplace conditions.

Given the building’s unfussily applied aluminium mesh outer cladding, which emphasises the design’s deliberately hunkered-down typological ambiguity, this is all quite a surprise and very refreshing. The label ‘office’ evaporates, giving way to something more intriguing: this is a hybrid interior – workplace meets indeterminate settlement.

‘It is a triumph that a building that appears relatively ‘closed’ from the outside should be so completely the opposite once you’re inside’

There is little or no sense of spatial or professional demarcation: three-quarters of both floors are open plan across their central areas, with low-level section dividers. The double-height restaurant at the building’s south-east corner can be looked down on from the first floor, and open entrance courtyards cut into both ends of the plan’s central axis. It is a triumph that a building that appears relatively ‘closed’ from the outside should be so completely the opposite once you’re inside.

It’s not just about light or  open space per se, but about the collaging of the two: there are several qualities and overlays of light and outlook, and they change as you move across the floors; there is an almost playful feeling to these shifts of light, which subvert the open-plan vibe. The placement of the five courtyards disrupts the open plan so that there’s no sense of workplace-as-floorplate.

The controlled ventilation, humidity and temperatures are equally important. Gas Networks Ireland’s facilities manager, Cormac OLoughlin, notes that the ceiling slabs radiate heat at a more or less constant 20°C for two-thirds of the year, and can be spatially ‘tuned’ via 10 sensored zones on each floor. In terms of overall energy use, the centre consumes 50-60 per cent less than the company’s other buildings. 

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne Section

Gas Networks Ireland Denis Byrne Section

Section - click to expand

‘We’ve had a lot of companies come here to look at the building, including the Central Bank,’ he says. ‘In a standard office, you can get 20 complaints about heat or cold or draughts in one day. I’ve received about 20 in the last four years. That’s very impressive.’

Looking ahead, Gas Networks Ireland will have no difficulty rearranging the interior if it wishes; the only fixed elements are the ceiling light positions, because the electrical conduits were cast into the ceiling slabs. Otherwise, anything goes. ‘It could be a wonderful school,’ Byrne muses, ‘a variety of spaces where you could find the most comfortable places relating to the individual or the group, yet also be in a landscape, and protected, and removed from the normal discourse.’

In fact, he’s just describing the building in its current mode. This architecture is unquestionably the starting point for a new level of discourse on office design in Ireland that can deliver far better environmental conditions in both technical and human terms.  The Services Centre is a fine demonstration of how formal  and structural simplicity can be stretched just enough to create a place that’s less like an office and more like an island community of workers barely aware of the sea of transport infrastructure and light industry around them.

Before this project, Denis Byrne Architects was known as  a skilled designer of houses and housing. The Services Centre  was its first larger-scale building, and that gives its achievement at Dubber Cross a considerable extra gloss.

Gas Networks Ireland Service Centre

Architect: Denis Byrne Architects

Design Team: Sean Attley, Serena Bastianelli, Roland Bosbach (Project Architect), Denis Byrne, Louise Clavin, Dave English, Gosia Meder, Marcus Reid, Gustavo Sapina

Landscape architects: TOPOTEK 1 (with Cunnane Stratton Reynolds)

Environmental consultants: Transsolar

Structural, civil and M&E engineer: Buro Happold

Façade consultant: Buro Happold / FSA

Project Management and Quantity Surveying: Long O’Donnell

Acoustic Consultant: AWN

Ecologist: Open Field

Transport Consultant: MVA

BREEAM Assessor: Buro Happold

Contractor: Walls Construction

Photographs: Anthony Coleman

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