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Lighting the match

buildings - Daylighting and a refined use of steelwork mark out David Morley Architects' National Cricket Academy

The National Cricket Academy (NCA) is a workplace, not just for permanent staff but also for the test cricket hopefuls who come here for several months in the winter, interrupted only by a foreign tour around the end ofthe year. So the blank box that is typical of dry sports centres, ones that are typically used only for short periods, is too stifling an architectural response here. Through Morley's sequence of cricket training facilities at Lords, Edgbaston (Warwickshire) and now at Loughborough, the architect has moved the cricket authorities from a position of reluctance to introduce natural light to making it one of their normal requirements.

Daylighting and the views that can go with it make workplace sense. Morley's approach also saves energy. (The necessary environmental conditions were previously achieved by winter training in Australia. ) Morley's building is simple in organisation. The main hall is some 70 x 25m - that is, as long as a fast bowler's run-up plus pitch plus wicket keeper standing back, by six nets wide. At the south-east end is a three-storey entrance block of related facilities. All this is set into a slope on the edge of Loughborough University's cricket pitch, the first-floor front entrance reached by a pedestrian bridge. As you enter there are glimpses ahead through a glazed end wall into the hall, though only as far as fabric screens around the nets. It is a design balancing act.

On the one hand, it is good to draw people into the building's main function. On the other, these people should not be seen moving behind the bowler's arm. Only from the corridor/balcony of the floor above of this 6.6m-eaves-height building, can you look over the fabric screening into the nets.

The entrance block contains changing rooms, a fitness and conditioning centre, a recovery area including hot and ice-cold spas, offices, a performance analysis suite (with video facilities linked to a relaxation area with limited direct views of the hall), seminar rooms and a bar (divisible for meetings), which can also be used for viewing play on the pitch, as can the adjacent balcony.

The hall has simple portal trusses at 5.4m centres, the diagonal edge bracing set above walkways either side of the nets to give a clear span. By evolving the design over the successive cricket projects, David Morley has reduced steel usage/m 2as the structure has been honed - Lords 60kg/m 2, Edgbaston 56kg/m 2, Loughborough 46kg/m 2.The perimeter nets are tensioned from steelwork to floor; others are capable of rearrangement, such as turning all the wicket-keeping zones into one space for fielding practice.

Morley has refined again his neat variation on the northlight roof; there was no time in this tight contract for starting anew.

The principal, long, hall facade faces toward the pitch, to the north-east. A roof of three shallow pitches runs along the building: the south-west-facing plane of each is steel sheet, the north-east plane double-layer polycarbonate. This plane, of course, lets in direct sunlight, unlike a near-vertical northlight. But penetrating rays are controlled both by a band of translucent film adjacent to the ridge and by three overlapping flat bands of fabric louvres threaded on cables (made by Lucas Sails, tensioned with sail battens). These lie neatly within the depth of the portal trusses, providing complete protection from direct sunlight on the floor between a 9am start and late into the evening. Given that the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) artificial illumination standard is a uniform 2,000 lux, there is a lot of lighting energy to be saved.

There are supplementary artificial lights, initially required by the ECB across the building, but Morley made the argument for fitting them on the longitudinal trusses, parallel to the nets, keeping sightlines clearer.

With improved technology and less need for lamp use, lamp replacement should be reduced from being annual in a typical sports centre to three or more years hoped for here.

Daylight-sensing controls provide artificial light dimming/brightening to give consistent illumination in variable daylight conditions.

The sound-diffusing properties of the fabric louvres, plus the artificial turf, provide enough sound absorption not to need perforated liner trays on the envelope.

There is also a continuous band of lowlevel glazing facing the pitch, using simple mullion glazing (in the modest £200/m 2bracket). This has blinds, though they have not yet been needed since the NCA started to be used in October. The glazing band includes several double doors for outside contact and for ventilation. There are opening rooflights to complete the summer ventilation loop. In winter, air can be recirculated by high-level air-handling units and reintroduced via low-level heater batteries.

There are also de-stratification fans.

Not surprisingly, the low-level glazing facing the pitch is toughened; the cladding above it is of green oak boards set in steel liner trays; both were tested for resistance to cricket ball impact with minimum defacing damage. Other facades of the hall are clad in horizontally profiled steel; the half-round profile is set concave, a reference to cricket pads which Morley has used previously.

Performance analysis is a key element of this sophisticated coaching environment with its cushioned run-ups, two nets each suited to fast bowling, medium pace and spin, pressure plates in the floor to measure the bowler's delivery foot impact and video monitoring of all nets, including the 'HawkEye' predictive ball trajectory system seen in Channel 4's cricket coverage. All data come together in the performance-analysis suite, which also has an extensive video library.

In the three-storey part generally, floors are of steel beams with inset concrete planks, topped with a minimal raised floor to keep the structural depth shallow while providing exposed thermal mass.

Budget has been an issue throughout, both as a cost limit and in obtaining Lottery funding fast enough to open for 2003/4 winter training. The client for this building was Loughborough University, which will have some use of the building, as will others such as junior and women's cricket squads.Mainly though it is leased back to the ECB as the NCA. So Morley was also answerable to ECB and Sport England, which provided £4 million of Lottery finance, the other halfmillion coming from a charitable trust.

At around £1,300/m 2this is a particularly impressive result, the steelwork and cladding handled with a refinement that suggests a building more hand-made. And it works. As cricket director Rodney Marsh says, this is 'the best indoor cricket centre in the world, without a shadow of doubt'. And as for its role in a hoped-for cricket resurgence, Marsh says: 'there are no excuses now'.

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