The Word, UK

Pic: Hufton & Crow

In the UK, the impact of austerity measures over the past few years has hit certain sectors hard – particularly public libraries. Cut backs on expenditure have led to a raft of library closures across the country, and for all intents and purposes, it appeared that the local library was fading from British society.

So much so that figures recently published by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, there has been a 14-percent decline in library visitors over the past five years.

That is not the case in South Shields though, as thanks to FaulknerBrowns Architects, Muse Developments and Desco, a stunning new library building has been constructed.

Dubbed The Word, the new building is not just intended to be another run-of-the-mill library, but an outstanding social hub for the community, with it’s unique circular structure designed by FaulknerBrowns to mimic the fanning pages of an open book.

Located on a prominent gateway site linking South Shields’ riverside area with the town centre, The Word is one of the first projects for the redevelopment of the area, and as such the scheme needed to be successful to provide a striking new focal point in the North East town’s marketplace, in which its community can take great pride, and from which the wider regeneration will develop.

Because of this, the design and construction team created a shining example of an attractive, efficient civic building, encompassing design features that reflect the town’s industrial and manufacturing heritage, enhanced by a complementary, bespoke lighting scheme, developed by Desco, to attract and engage visitors.

Desco had previously developed a good relationship with FaulknerBrowns, having worked on numerous projects together over the years. Through this existing relationship, Desco were recommended by the architects to Muse Developments to join the team.

From this initial recommendation, Desco was involved from the project concept through coordination, installation, commissioning and all the technical aspects of the lighting scheme, including prototype design and approval. Alongside this, they worked with manufacturers Hacel and Atelje Lyktan to develop some bespoke lighting solutions.

James Davison, Senior Design Engineer at Desco, explained how he worked with the architects to develop the lighting concept: “FaulknerBrowns’ initial concept of an open book with the pages fanned out was also the main inspiration for the lighting design.

“The concept matured as the client’s ambitious vision for a more wide-ranging, exciting visitor attraction emerged. As the brief and client expectations gradually evolved, so too did the lighting design, retaining a flexible approach to the design being the key element.

“Faulkners had a very keen sense of how they wanted the building to look and the lighting needed to tie into this vision whilst maintaining the element of flexibility throughout the building.”

However, while the lighting design needed to be flexible, there also had to be a sense of uniformity. As the highly sophisticated building includes library and exhibition spaces, alongside a number of key areas allowing interactive exhibitions, storytelling and social spaces, all co-existing alongside contemplative and study zones, Desco sought to utilise a singular concept to illuminate all these areas, creating a sense of commonality in the space.

Davison explained: “We developed the notion of a linear extrusion with multiple uses, which could be interchangeable to reflect the fluid nature of the architecture. These linear ‘spokes’ tied in with FaulknerBrowns’ concept and the overall ‘language’ of the building.”

The multiple uses of this bespoke linear extrusion meant that Desco was able to adapt to the changes throughout the building as the areas and room boundaries ebbed and flowed by modifying the luminaire components to suit the spaces.

“Within the main luminaire housing there are three main sections,” Davison elaborated. “High output linear sections to illuminate larger areas and displays, track mounted spotlights to emphasise exhibitions and key artwork pieces, and lesser output linear sections with a more controlled and diffused light for areas where glare control was paramount – offices and reading areas.

“By interchanging these elements within the confines of the original ‘spoke’ design, we were able to be extremely agile to the client’s changes.”

This bespoke linear lighting design serves to complement the structure’s circular, ‘fanning pages’ effect, extending from the building’s centre outwards, to align with the architecture. The fluid solution of multiple linear sections within a single extrusion brings a sense of continuity to the design aesthetic while maintaining the desired element of flexibility.

Desco collaborated with local manufacturers Hacel to create this linear system, as Davison explained: “Hacel were in the midst of developing a linear lighting system and we were able to exploit this process and tailor the luminaire to our needs.

“We started with the continuous extrusion – this needed to come in different lengths to tie in with the architecture. Once this ‘carcass’ was established, the individual components could be inserted almost like piecing together a jigsaw.”

The main feature, Davison explained, that differentiates this system – which later became Hacel’s Infinitas – with other linear installations is the inclusion of the track section. This means that the spotlights incorporated within the ‘carcass’ allow a single extrusion to run for, in some cases, more than 10-metres, illuminating several areas differently while maintaining a sense of commonality.

On entering the building, a halo of LEDs integrated into the soffit of the overhanging upper floors illuminates the building’s perimeter at ground level, encouraging the public to engage with the building, while the glazed triple height atrium floods the space with natural light, while providing stunning views of the River Tyne and the neighbouring Grade I listed Old Town Hall – two enchanting aspects of the building’s historic context.

Due to its circular shape, the whole building appears to emanate from a central point, the large, three-storey atrium. The whole building seems to channel visitors into this fabulous space, and the lighting revolves around this concept. The linear lighting emphasises this, while providing an optical illusion that the entire building is sloping inwards.

At the heart of the development is a bespoke, 6.5-metre wide LED luminaire, designed by Desco and FaulknerBrowns in collaboration with Atelje Lyktan. The chandelier – the largest single fitting ever manufactured by Atelje Lyktan, was custom-made to fit an architectural ceiling recess with the depth of the fitting dictated by the architect’s vision. The installation is comprised of 84 ‘drums’ mounted to a bespoke frame. As the chandelier is literally bolted to the soffit, all cables were hidden within the bespoke mounting frame of the luminaire installation, with the cabling cast within the concrete before the installation design had been completed.

The chandelier was incorporated with tuneable white LEDs, allowing for the atmosphere and mood of the building to be altered depending on the time of day, as Davison explained: “The colour temperature of the fitting is designed to simulate daylight; a warm 2700k light in the morning gradually changes to a colour temperature of 6500k as the sun peaks, then turning back to 2700k tones at sunset.

“As the colour of the light changes so gradually, most people don’t realise the subtlety of the effect directly. This gradual change results in the mood of the building changing over the course of the day, with the building awakening with the sun in rich golden tones, achieving its peak effect at midday with a very clean natural light, and gradually returning to the early colours, changing and evolving the atmosphere of the building throughout the day.”

Desco was also responsible for the external lighting design, in which they aimed to enhance and enliven The Word’s context within the public market square, creating a new meeting place and community event space. Peripheral lighting with a mixture of Concord uplighters and integrated LEDs clearly defines routes and complements the architectural form of the building, helping to draw visitors in. The Word defines its landscape, and the external lighting scheme helps to transform and emphasise the structure at nighttime.

FaulknerBrowns worked hard to ensure that the building, while remarkable in its shape and design, still held true to its surroundings, paying homage to South Shields’ industrial heritage with a palette of materials chosen by the architect including coal, salt, glass, stone and metal.

“As such, the colour temperature of the luminaires needed to be correctly chosen to bring out the rich tones in each of these materials,” said Davison. “All of this occurs within the confines of dark sky initiatives to reduce light pollution, which is something we were very keen to achieve.

“It would have been very easy to bathe the building in light but we have picked out key components to the external façade instead, allowing the building to be highly engaging.

“The external lighting was also selected and placed to highlight the circular nature of the building, where traditional façade lighting would have made the building appear flat and lifeless, the shape is highly accentuated by the scheme without ever overpowering it.”

Despite The Word being an incredibly unique building, particularly for a library in the UK, Davison asserted that Desco has, through its experience in the leisure sector, worked on projects of a similar nature in the past, although he did concede that the approach towards this building was quite different to other projects.

“Sometimes a client or architect gives an open brief to the lighting design – they’re not sure exactly what they want but normally have a strong idea of what they don’t! With The Word though, the concept was well established and the challenge became one of ensuring the brief was met and maintained,” he said.

“The other major factor in how this differed from other buildings is the shape – there aren’t too many spherical buildings built these days! I enjoyed the challenge of creating a lighting design that responds to and complements the architectural concept.”

However, Davison revealed that, while he enjoyed creating the lighting design for The Word, trying to maintain the aesthetic while having an eye on lighting requirements of such a firm, restrictive geometric pattern was a ‘real issue at times’.

“Avoiding over illuminating at ‘peak’ areas, i.e. where the linear extrusions meet, meant a lot of work was done on the DALI lighting control system,” he said. “We dimmed the lines of light as they became closer together, but not too much so as it would be instantly noticeable – we wanted to maintain a sleek, uniform light.

“It’s a detail that isn’t immediately obvious and possibly passes most by, but it’s something that for me, although relatively simple, really captures the extremely detailed thought pattern that has been applied to the lighting design.”

This detailed thought process has led to the creation of a very effective lighting design throughout the new centre, serving both on a functional basis to emphasise the architectural form of the building, blending into the overall concept of the design, and also as a statement piece, with the bespoke Atelje Lyktan chandelier dominating the three-storey space without ever looking out of place.

“Both major applications achieve their goal and demonstrate the technical capabilities and expertise available,” said Davison. “Sometimes it is difficult to imagine how a building will look, especially from 2D plans and even 3D models as the light interaction within a space may differ in reality.

“With The Word however, the vision we wanted to achieve was clear and the similarities between our initial concept sketches and calculations and the finished building is striking.”

Since its completion, the impact that The Word has had on the South Shields community has been reflected in its success. Figures revealed that in its first two months of operation, this new cultural venue has attracted 88,000 visitors, and as further evidence of its success to date, 867 new readers have joined the library – an increase of nearly 400-percent compared to the same period at the old Central Library. Alongside this, there has been a staggering 750-percent increase in library users in the teenage demographic, which Davison puts down to the “sleek, modern and welcoming design of the building” being a major contributing factor in creating appeal for new and future generations of readers to come.

“Against the backdrop of gloomy figures recently published by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, The Word’s statistics are very welcome news,” added Davison.

One of the most impressive feats of The Word though, Davison believes, is that it was completed not under the big budget that privately-funded developments are, but the slender means of a local authority deep in the midst of austerity measures, making the success of the project all the more remarkable.

“All aspects of the design needed to reflect this, including the lighting package,” he explained. “Our cloth needed to be cut accordingly whilst maintaining a high level of design. This was achieved by good design, collaboration and innovative thinking; all leading to the development of an iconic and flagship structure.”

Overall though Davison is delighted that The Word can serve as a social hub for the local community, providing a beautiful new location for residents to take pride in and taking that all important first step in the regeneration of the town centre.

“South Tyneside Council’s aspiration for the scheme was for it to be an icon for South Shields, promoting footfall and tourism back into the town centre. The impressive visitor figures and positive feedback serve to demonstrate how The Word and its intelligent and eye-catching design is already achieving that aspiration and helping to shine a national spotlight on culture and design excellence in the North West of England.”