New Irish Lights building a beacon for contextual design

ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN: The sea plays a key role in the design and running of the new Commissioners of Irish Lights building…

ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN:The sea plays a key role in the design and running of the new Commissioners of Irish Lights building which sits on the Dún Laoghaire coastline, writes Emma Cullinan

A SPACESHIP has landed in Dún Laoghaire and it comes with it own mission control. The new building for the Commissioners of Irish Lights - whose remit is to safely guide craft through the seas around Ireland with lighthouses and massive buoys among other things - has an impressive bank of screens just by its entrance door.

This is where all of that navigational equipment is monitored - in today's technoligical world remote sea-based beacons can send back signals if they are in distress and, as Captain Kieran O'Higgins points out, if a large metal buoy (normally held down by a sinker and anchor) breaks lose it becomes a danger to seafarers in itself.

Inside this circular glass building, steps spiral up the centre, with employees' desks radially emanating from the core like spokes on a wheel, making this building seem even more like the Starship Enterprise.


But despite its spacelike form this building is beautifully linked to the sea. Most obvious is the visual connection: the sea is visible from most of the glass administration building; this is a big change from the days when admin was based in a Georgian building on Pembroke Street in Dublin city, while the engineering side was in Dún Laoghaire.

"There is a synergy between the two and we do need to communicate. Before, when we discussed sea buoyage on the phone we would try to imagine it," says Captain O'Higgins who has the most incredible knowledge of the navigational world, told in an entertaining way. Schools would do well to ask him for a tour.

Although the engineering part of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, which repairs and services equipment, was always beside the sea in Dún Laoghaire, it is now accommodated in a more functional-looking rectangular granite-clad building (chosen to match the local stone) linked to the glass cone, home of administration, by a walkway.

This has clinical white walls, an industrial corrugated roof and breeze blocks piled done directly on top of the other - instead of the more usual stretcher bonding - showing architecture that's not just following the standard.

This tunnel, while offering a link between the two buildings, also is required for fire regs: it serves as an extra escape route to the central staircase in the round tower.

As well as looking over the sea, the building fronts onto the docks that contains the buoys which are here to be serviced and, with their bright colours that make them beacons of safety, they look like large industrial toys. Right beside the building on the day I was there sat the Arklow buoy both joyful in red and scary in its mass: yet its overall form is very like that of the glass building - round with a projection from its top.

The building's third link with the sea is very physical: the building is warmed and cooled by seawater. Anyone who paid attention during geography will know that the sea stays at a pretty constant temperature, at least it does 15 metres down, although you might not guess that when swimming in the depths of winter.

It is from down here that seawater is piped up and further heated and then used to warm the pre-cast coffer (recessed) ceiling slabs. Further eco-friendliness is to be found in the double cavity walls, which work as an acoustic and thermal buffer and, says architect Denis Rehill of Scott Tallon Walker (STW), it "creates a woolly jumper around the building".

The thing that immediately strikes you is how similar this skin is to that on Riverside One, in Dublin's docklands, also by STW, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Rehill was the project architect there too.

He grew up in the US (he has an Irish father) and worked at Skidmore Owings Merrill, on the lofty Burj Dubai, in a team with Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill who have since set up Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture which designs high-performance, energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.

At the top of the glass tower photovoltaic panels sit around the building running from east to west via south. These are set on clear panels so as not to cause shadows of their own. Energy from these powers trench heaters which draw air through the double skin facade.

While this is still cutting-edge technology, solar panels have been making waves at sea for many years, sitting on buoys and offshore lighthouses, allowing them to beam under their own steam. Before that they were powered by diesel, but as Captain O'Higgins says, they don't want such filthy unctions floating around. "Natural energy is an important concept at sea," he says.

It is heartening to see all this new technology, which includes western red cedar and aluminium brise soleil, on both buildings, that tilt automatically with the sun, and Rehill says: "It is rare to have a client wanting you to use all technology embedded into this building," pointing out that this, like Riverside One (home of McCann Fitzgerald Solicitors), is owner-occupied.

As with Riverside One, this high-tech building has a timber panelled room harking back to the past, where people can meet with Victorian or Georgian gravitas, and in the wooden womb here there is a classical oil painting of the Kish Bank light vessel (ships were sometimes used instead of lighthouses) by Admirable Beechey RA, which looks suitably dramatic in high seas.

Irish Lights is an organisation that has dealt with many a drama at sea and the building responds to that: offering steadiness with a frisson of excitement.