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Library of Birmingham, UK

Issue 76 December / January 2014 : Retail : Library


Opened by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and who now lives in the city, the Library of Birmingham met with rave reviews. Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo with lighting design and engineering by Buro Happold, the building described by Mecanoo’s Francine Houben as “a people’s palace”, makes a bold statement coupled with a BREEAM Excellent rating.

When the doors to the Library of Birmingham opened on September 3, there certainly was no hushed silence to the news that the largest public library in Europe had just opened in the UK’s second largest city.

Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo who won the bid in August of 2008, this modern day “People’s Palace”, as described by Francine Houben, creative director of Mecanoo, has been lauded as one of the most important cultural projects to have opened in the UK for years.

Better still, the total costs amounted to £186 million, well below the available budget of £193 million. The Library is a flagship project of the 20-year Big City Plan, focusing on the regeneration of Birmingham, the second largest city of the UK with 1 million inhabitants.

Sited in Centenary Square it is designed, along with the Repertory Theatre and Symphony Hall, to form a new cultural heart for the city. It is an open, public building, welcoming everyone regardless of background or age. Houben comments, “Investing in knowledge is a key factor for the future success of a society. Libraries play a crucial role in this. They offer access to a collective knowledge bank and support self-development of large groups of people.”

The transparent façade is wrapped in a metal frieze of interlocking circles, a reference to Birmingham’s industrial past. From the inside the circles offer a new panorama of the city. The interior is based on a sequence of ‘rotundas’ - circular voids that form the heart of the building, culminating in the impressive Book Rotunda.

Lifts and escalators lead visitors on a journey through the building. These rotundas play an important role not only in the routing through the library but also provide natural light and ventilation. The golden rooftop rotunda houses the Shakespeare Memorial Room, a restored Victorian reading room from 1882. The Outdoor Amphitheater can host events and small concerts. It is accessible from the Children’s Library on the ‘Lower Ground Floor’ which was designed as a separate library within the library. The first and second floors form a cantilever on the square that accommodates a public, green terrace.

Buro Happold was appointed as part of the multi-disciplinary team on the project in 2008, working closely with Mecanoo.
The library has been designed to be an exemplar low energy and sustainable building, minimising the impact on the external environment and to run with 50% less energy demand than the old Central Library.

The environmental and indoor climate strategy heavily influenced the building massing and form, in particular the size and shape of the atrium space, and responded to the design brief set by the client to achieve an exemplar and innovative design with a BREEAM Excellent rating. Laura Phillips, head of Happold Lighting, who led the project identified the challenges for the design and construction team in illuminating the building where the BREEAM Excellent rating was indeed achieved.

“The initial challenge was to start understanding the proposed series of architectural spaces, how the massing worked with the ventilation and the lighting strategy for the building,” she begins. “Lighting work commenced with daylight modelling of the external frieze to determine what level of light could penetrate the floor plate without overheating or glare. An optimum design was reached which allowed Mecanoo to develop the unique external frieze design. The frieze reflects light and heat during the day but at night it becomes a veil to the building and is lit from fittings mounted within the space to provide a consistent appearance to the overall massing of the building at night. This approach allows the building to retain a lit appearance within the city context at night without relying on large areas of the interior being on during darkness.”

The controls strategy for the building was key in achieving the BREEAM requirements where perimeter areas are daylight linked, all back of house areas have occupancy detection and timed switching which were critical for meeting the energy targets. Through a series of site testing on the façade it was agreed a high number of smaller wattage sources on the façade should be adopted to keep energy use to a minimum, to control light spill into the sky and to make sure the interior spaces were not interrupted from any extraneous light spill from floods.

While the façade is lit with white light for the majority of the time, the acdc Como fittings allow the entire façade to be illuminated in different colours via a Mode DMX control unit to allow the building to act as a backdrop to Centenary Square where public evening events are often held. As each fitting is individually controlled, colour washes and a level of dynamic lighting is achieved with the cost effective scheme.

Within the building, interior daylight modelling was required on the central skylight to ensure it was producing the chimney stack requirement for the natural ventilation strategy and delivering natural light to the central circulation space given the deep plan of the building in areas.

A number of lighting workshops were carried out at Mecanoo’s offices in Delft to develop ideas that could work with the energy targets. Visually the spaces are relatively open and non-uniform and interesting views are created across the floors through the central voids. Also with the height of the building, the vertical circulation was important and visitors are taken on a journey through the space through a series of escalators and travelators which are visually connected with the use of blue light in the handrails to create a sense of drama and anticipation as they carry visitors to the centre of the building.

This central Rotunda is illuminated with a series of custom curved linear fittings. The original specification was for linear cathode in a custom housing. However, due to the energy criteria and the advancement in technology over the course of the project, these were changed to LED bookshelf fittings manufactured by Lighting Motions. Testing was carried out to determine the correct distribution and colouration to ensure the bookshelves are illuminated to 200lux on the vertical.

Archive storage is enclosed and located on the mid floors of the building that are wrapped in gold coloured cladding to represent the precious nature of these materials. The Shakespeare Memorial Room, relocated from the old library, is clad in the same material and takes pride of place at the top of the building. A glass entrance lobby to the room provides breathtaking views across Birmingham that resonate of the shapes and materials of the façade of the building clearly influenced by the local industry and heritage of Birmingham.

Given the 2.5W/sqm per 100lux criteria for the building, the base lighting had to be as efficient as possible in delivering light at desk level. As the architectural decision was taken early on to make the main public ceilings black in finish, it was decided that a simple direct downlight design with dedicated wallwashing to key walls should be adopted as the base scheme, with a level of different overlay lighting that would give different spaces a different character allowing each area to have a slightly different language and distinct feel.

The main downlights from Whitecroft use a single 70W metal halide lamp of varying beam widths depending on the floor to ceiling heights which varies across the floor plates. This was then overlayed on the ground and mezzanine floors with smaller aperture LED downlights that provide a ‘Milky Way’ appearance to the ceiling. This continues out to the entrance canopy and lifts the light levels in the main areas of activity within the spaces.

On level two, custom designed hoop pendant fittings, conceived by Mecanoo and manufactured by Lighting Motions, replicate the circular motif on the façade. These are suspended over the main reading areas to provide a more social space.

Unlike some of the more recent Library spaces completed where white finishes are used throughout, Mecanoo wished to give a distinctive character to different uses in the Library where some areas are for public use and others relate to archives and administration areas. While the lighting is largely uniform, the height and material selection in each space provides quite a different character to each area.

Phillips comments, “A palette of black, deep blue, gold and pale floors created challenges with the lighting and a lot of calculation work was carried out to ensure levels were met and the visual balance in the space was correct.”

A range of lamps and colour temperatures sympathetic to materials were used. Warm CDM and warm 3000K LEDs for gold and timber finishes and cooler 4200K for the CDM walls washing of the blue walls and 5000K for the feature LED pendant hoops on level two seen against the day-lit windows.

On the Lower Ground floor, which houses the media area and children’s library, a timber ceiling provides warmth and a continuous linear detail around the wall provides vertical luminance to the space given there are no windows in the below ground area. A central external performance space allows natural light to enter this space during the day and allows the internal light to glow out at night creating a connection to the landscape amphitheatre above.

The perimeter landscape of the building is lit with multi-head column fittings (iGuzzini MultiWoody pole mounted floodlights) that illuminate the paths to the building across Centenary Square and the steps of the circular amphitheatre have integral linear step-lighting from LED Linear to draw you to the space at night and to allow visitors to enjoy performances in the stage space below.

The project was a design and build contract and post Stage D+ design was handed over to the contractor Carillion and their specialist sub-contractor EMCOR. It was beneficial that the client, Birmingham City Council, had the foresight to continue with Mecanoo and Buro Happold services as a review consultant to allow the design team to continue to assist EMCOR and Capita Symonds on the more challenging aspects of the project as the design developed. One such example was the external terrace lighting that required careful modelling and specification to ensure safety levels were met while retaining a subdued light level to allow views of the city to be enjoyed at night from these unique exterior terraces.

The design team has very much treated the spaces as social areas and a practical approach was adopted to future proof the building while meeting the energy requirements for the spaces. Tracks and busbars are allocated in parts of the Library to allow future development. By concentrating on key visitor areas and the core library activity spaces the brief has been met where an exciting and creative backdrop has been achieved to promote learning, knowledge and culture.


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