Hall McKnight’s £695/m² retrofit of a factory makes a little go a long way, writes Laura Mark. Photography by Ros Kavanagh
Factories are rarely associated with award-winning architecture, with the exception of Zaha Hadid’s BMW factory or Foster + Partners’ McLaren Production Centre (AJ 16.02.12). They are normally metal sheds, lacking in architectural intervention. But Hall McKnight’s Leckey offices are not designed by a starchitect with a top price to match. This retrofit project is a perfect example of the value which employing an architect can bring to even the most industrial of buildings with the tightest of budgets.
You may not have heard of him, but product designer James Leckey is something of a superstar in Northern Ireland. Leckey started his company in 1983 designing and manufacturing position aids for children with special needs. These highly bespoke products are designed with children in mind, as expressed by their brightly coloured aesthetic. Leckey needed an accessible building to accommodate visiting families, but also wanted the office and factory to reflect the company’s design ethos, which is based around a ‘user-centred approach’.
In 2011, they purchased an existing factory on a site in Lisburn, County Antrim. This was the first time all of Leckey would be gathered together in one building - management, design and manufacturing. With a limited budget of £695 per square metre, the only option was to refurbish. Leckey chose Hall McKnight for the project after seeing offices completed by the practice for a branding company.
Hall McKnight’s refurbishment is composed of three parts: an extension to create the entrance block, the conversion of a gable bay of the existing factory to create a two-storey office area, and the refurbishment of an existing two-storey office block.
To link the design studios with production, new and existing spaces have been arranged to allow views from the offices and visitor spaces over the factory floor, as a focal point for the building. This creates a continual connection with the production process for both staff and visitors. Customers who come to be fitted for their aids can look out to where their device was prototyped, tweaked and made, and experience the hands-on nature of the creation of their product.
Due to budget constraints, the architects used the existing facade wherever possible, painting the factory grey to tie old and new elements together. This gathers up the materials of the facade, creating a unified finish.
Located on an industrial estate off a main road, the building needed a marker, and this is where the totem comes in. Signalling the new entrance, project architect Nigel Murray said the composition ‘felt right’, and indeed it is now hard to imagine the building without it.
The irregular windows punched into the facade have opened up the front of the building, and these, combined with the totem and the unifying grey paint, have given the factory an architectural language. But it is the materiality found within the building that really shines. Hall McKnight has chosen industrial materials which are low-cost and need little maintenance, but give a carefully detailed raw aesthetic to the building. This approach can also be seen in the practice’s material detailing for the MAC (AJ 10.05.12), an arts venue in Belfast, though at Leckey this was managed on a significantly smaller budget.
Normally a lining material not left on show, wood-wool boards have been used to line an internal mezzanine space that acts as both meeting place and main circulation, with a view over the manufacturing floor. It was a brave move for Hall McKnight to leave the wood-wool visible. ‘We got the idea from a previous project we did in London, where we had used wood-wool board internally as a substrate for lime plaster,’ says Murray. It could have looked unfinished and perhaps highlighted the low budget, but instead, painted grey, it looks right.
Delivering a building for a company so intently decisive in what they want can be difficult, especially on such a tight budget. But through small and modest interventions, Hall McKnight has created a blank canvas for Leckey to inhabit, yet sensitive to the needs of those who visit it. This modest factory shows they are a design-conscious firm without shouting about it.
The building may not be the next BMW or McLaren factory. And let’s face it, a retrofit with a budget of just £695 per square metre was never going to be. But the Leckey offices show what can be achieved with careful detailing and specification - and how to make factory buildings more inspiring for the people who visit and work in them.
AJ Buildings Library
Industrial evolution: Leckey offices by Hall McKnight