Gas Networks building sparks creative success

The Finglas site was awarded the top building prize by ‘Architecture Review’ magazine

The architectural photographer honed in on a pinboard created by staff at the Gas Networks Ireland Services Centre out on Dublin's edge, in Finglas, where the M50 drones by. The gas company was reluctant to release a photograph of the pinboard array compiled by those who work here – not a usual corporate or architectural image but the Architecture Review magazine, which has awarded the building top prize in its 2016 Work Award, said it was exactly what they were looking for.

The pinboard is part of the evidence that the building had been taken to heart by those who spend their days and nights in the 24-hour facility.

The success of the building for those who work in it – and among the judges who visited four shortlisted buildings in Mexico, the US, Sweden and Ireland – shows once again how good design can create magic from the sorriest seeming sites. One reason they won first prize, says Denis Byrne, is because of so much evidence of "colonisation; occupying the space".

Denis Byrne Architects won the project in a 2008 competition run by Gas Networks Ireland (formerly Bord Gáis), through the RIAI (Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland) at a stage when the practice was ready. "We had a good design team that had ambition to do larger projects," says Byrne.


Low-energy excellence

The energy company, in a seeming dichotomy driven by progressive foresight, set out to achieve sustainability and low-energy excellence, as well as good design in its new offices. Companies don’t have to, and rarely, run architectural competitions. When they do it offers smaller practices the chance to move into bigger projects. This avenue has largely been cut off in public procurement, where cautious public bodies interpret EU law as meaning that only architectural practices which have designed several similar buildings, a hospital or school for instance, will get the job – leaving smaller companies stuck in smaller projects. “They either hide behind the EU guidelines to play it safe or don’t understand the possibilities inherent in the system,” says Byrne, pointing out that the








all work under the same guidelines but interpret them differently “to create hugely innovative work”.

Yet look what happens if you take a “risk”: you risk procuring an award-winning building that staff like working in. This commission allowed the architects to prove they could expand beyond, says Byrne, the fundamentals of house design – orientation and issues of public and private space (“Sort those out and everything falls into place,” he says) – to a wider remit.

“Large urban projects call for more architectural muscle: it is a different exercise,” says Byrne. It also meant working with a much larger team of consultants, notably on the environmental side, to achieve the excellence in the Breeam assessment of sustainability in buildings.

That team included Transsolar in Stuttgart, Topotek landscape architects from Berlin and Buro Happold engineers' UK office.

Brownfield site

“Breeam does take a lot of work and the client does need to buy into the accreditation system,” says Byrne, who points out that it gives a building huge prestige, and selling and letting power. “More and more developers almost see this as a requirement because there is so much trash – Ireland built trash.” And achieving ecological excellence informed the design, such as having a green roof, and the position of the ventilation tower. “It doesn’t compromise the design,” says Byrne. “It’s a huge aid.”

The architects’ response to the brownfield site of five acres was to armour the exterior of the building, in perforated aluminium with a ventilation shaft and environmental service tower standing guard, to take on the industrial and road-network surrounds. A soft-hat roof of flowers and grasses (crucial in Breeam, to encourage wildlife and store rainwater, insulation) while the designers put lightness of being within. The open-plan interior breathes with controlled ventilation and openable windows (healthy both bodily and psychologically), bringing a feeling of control and is charged with natural light.

This comes through openings in the glassy end walls and via five single- and double-height courtyards planted and floored in vibrant colours, whose frequent punctuations mean light often comes in from more than one side wherever you are in the deep- and open-plan building.

That struck the award judges, led by Sanjay Puri and including John McAslan and Manuelle Gautrand, who wrote: "It is a triumph that a building that appears relatively closed from the outside should be so completely the opposite once you're inside."

Accommodated together

The building is also enlightened in its mix of staff – from admin to delivery drivers and fitters and people being trained in practical gas-work – spanning office and industrial, blue-collar and white-collar workers, who are all accommodated together. “There is a lack of hierarchy, a sense of an organisation working away comfortably, a sense of the entire,” says Byrne.

This entirety translates to the structure: a single-form, two-storey building that is community-spirited with two wide staircases, one at either end in which everyone can see everyone else. Now that the soft-centred, metal-wrapped building has stood some time it has been tested to show that it uses 50-60 per cent less energy than the company’s other buildings.

It also incites fewer complaints from staff about working conditions such as temperature fluctuations; the company's facilities manager Cormac O'Loughlin says he typically gets 20 complaints a day about heat, cold or draughts in the company's other offices whereas this structure has elicited just 20 complaints in four years. This from a building that is naturally heated, cooled and ventilated via ground- source heat pumps, heat storing and generating concrete ceiling slabs, photovoltaic panels, solar heated water and a ventilation stack. This latest award adds to Gast Network Ireland's other accolades including a Green Building award, Concrete Society award, and RIAI Best Sustainable Building and Best Commercial Building awards. As the AR judges said: "This architecture is unquestionably the starting point for a new level of discourse on office design in Ireland."

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in architecture, design and property