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An engine room for innovation: Hoskins’ National Theatre of Scotland

Nts photo 007  open plan office with stairs and atrium
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Hoskins Architects has worked successfully within a clearly limited budget to produce a building of worth for the National Theatre of Scotland, writes Alan Dunlop. Photography by Gillian Hayes

Port Dundas sits on One Hundred Acre Hill, Glasgow’s highest. Established in 1786 as a terminus to link the Forth and Clyde and the Monklands canals, it became a centre for textile mills, distilleries, and iron foundries. The Forth and Clyde Canal was the main industrial and commercial link between Edinburgh and Glasgow from the early 1800s to the middle of the 20th century. It was closed to navigation in 1963 and Port Dundas went into decline.

In 1989, in response to market demand for New York-style loft apartments, the derelict headquarters of the Forth and Clyde Navigation Company on Speirs Wharf was converted into flats and commercial premises. Work to revive the Forth and Clyde Canal began in 2000 and it is now listed by Historic Environment Scotland as a Scheduled Monument. In 2006, the restoration of the Port Dundas terminus basin also began. Glasgow City Council recognised that the terminus, the canal and its hinterland had potential as a new cultural quarter for the city. So, in partnership with Scottish Canals and ISIS Waterside Regeneration, they agreed an action plan for a ‘distinct quarter … of the highest ambitions’. The plan focused on the terminal basin and Speirs Wharf, where it aimed to create a ‘daring and distinct place, with culture and creativity at its heart’.

National Theatre Scotland images2

National Theatre Scotland images2

Since 2009 many of Scotland’s cultural institutions have set up headquarters in and around Port Dundas. These have included Scottish Opera, The Glasgow Academy of Music, Theatre and Arts, and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The most recent institution to relocate there is the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS).

NTS was established in 2006 and now has a world-wide reputation. The company promotes itself as a ‘theatre without walls and building-free’, performing in established theatres, but also in ‘airports, tower blocks and forests’. For an organisation ostensibly unconstrained by any building or city, it might seem strange, then, that it commissioned Hoskins Architects to design in Glasgow a new headquarters, not referred to as such, but instead called an ‘engine room for innovation’.  The architects had recently completed the Mareel cutlural building, which includes rehearsal rooms and multi-use spaces, for the Shetland Arts Development Agency in 2012, so they were a good choice. 

The building was opened in February and is hard to spot. There is no clear signposting from the main Craighall Road access but a closer inspection reveals that what appears to be part of Jewson builders merchants, is in fact the gable end of Rockvilla, the new ‘engine room’. Apparently, the signage for the building is part of an ongoing discussion within the company. For now, the new exterior cladding matches Jewson’s grey tones, and blends chameleon-like into its yard, its identity confused by the building supplies, pallets and scaffolding stacked in front of the NTS gable. 

National Theatre Scotland images3

National Theatre Scotland images3

But, once found, it is apparent that this new structure is much more refined than its immediate neighbour. Sinusoidal aluminium panels are carefully orchestrated in horizontal bands to produce, according to Hoskins, a ‘composed and calm façade’ that ‘maintains an industrial aesthetic in keeping with the history of the site’. The exterior cladding is a considered design element, but its dull grey tone makes the finished building unnecessarily drab, particularly so within its canalside surroundings, and is underwhelming for a national theatre company.  

The building primarily faces south and fronts onto a public path alongside the canal. It sits on land owned by Scottish Canals and occupies the footprint of a derelict cash and carry warehouse. The steel portal frame structure of the warehouse was retained for the new building. This reduced its cost and the existing warehouse structure has provided large, flexible spaces required for rehearsal, set-building, storage, and costume-making. Hoskins added a secondary steel structure internally that creates an additional first floor for administration and management offices. 

National Theatre Scotland images6

National Theatre Scotland images6

Although fronting onto a public path, the building itself is not accessible to the public. The ground-floor rehearsal rooms, set-making, and support spaces are accessed from a light-filled reception lobby through secure doors. You then enter a double-height, naturally lit gathering and ‘social space’, which is also used for meetings. To the left, Rehearsal Space 1 makes effective use of the substantial span of the portal frame to set out the largest rehearsal space in Scotland, capable of recreating any of the country’s theatre stages. Through an adjoining wall there is an equally impressive technical workshop, where set designs are made. The remainder of the ground floor houses two smaller rehearsal rooms, a costume store and workshop, kitchens, toilets and a community room. 

Access to the first-floor workspace, board rooms and management offices are through the social space and there is a nicely designed staircase with a mild steel balustrade and polished stainless steel handrail. The raised floor is finished with solid timber, saved from various school gymnasia in Glasgow and specified by the architect. Although clearly a working building with utilitarian white walls, the interior is joyful and there is plenty of natural light and views to the canal from the workspaces. 

National Theatre Scotland images5

National Theatre Scotland images5

The building is air-conditioned but has a few opening windows and a small open balcony on the first floor that looks out over water. The requirement for rehearsal rooms and workshops to be situated in close proximity to offices and other workspaces meant that the building had to be heavily sound-insulated and the abundance of service pipes visible throughout the interior contributes significantly to the no-frills ambience.  

This latest addition to this district of Glasgow is demonstrably a working building which lives up to its self- billing as an ‘engine room’. Hoskins Architects has worked successfully within a limited budget to produce a building of worth. Rockvilla, the new home of the National Theatre of Scotland, will, it is to be hoped, transcend its drab exterior, get itself some creative signposting and take its place with the other major cultural institutions now located in Port Dundas. 

National Theatre Scotland images4

National Theatre Scotland images4

Architect’s view

Bringing together previously disparate departments was key to the design of Rockvilla. The decision to redevelop a previously disused industrial warehouse was in keeping with the desire for producing a ‘hard-working’ building. The new facility creates an open atmosphere, stimulating a collaborative working environment in which the theatre company can thrive. 

The retention of the existing structural frame of the warehouse generates a factory-like form, and the new sinusoidal-metal cladding enhances the industrial aesthetic, appropriate for the vision of a ‘creative factory’. The use of simple, robust and restrained materials and finishes internally (white walls and a polished concrete ground floor with exposed services and an existing and new steel structure) continues the raw aesthetic, while meeting the performance requirements of a modern theatre company. An internal double-height atrium allows light deep into the plan and creates a social space where the paths of both full-time and the large number of temporary production staff cross. Glazed internal screens reinforce the connections between departments. The first-floor open-plan office, featuring reclaimed gym hall floor, provides space for informal discussions and team working. The elevated location of the office rewards deskbound workers with panoramic views over the canal to the city centre beyond. 

In this location the National Theatre of Scotland is fuelling the regeneration of a previously neglected area, which is fast becoming the city’s cultural quarter. Considerations of the wider impact of the development led to the decision not have a physical boundary to the site, so that it becomes part of the route along the canal and provides a public access point to the canal. 

Chris Coleman-Smith, director, and Rory McCoy, associate, Hoskins Architects

Ground floor plan

Ground floor plan

First floor plan

First floor plan

Engineer’s view

Sandy Brown Associates provided acoustic consultancy services during the design stage of the Rockvilla development. 

To support the planning application and to demonstrate the suitability of the site, a comprehensive noise survey was undertaken at an early stage. Noise levels on the site were found to be reasonably high, dominated by road traffic and operations associated with the adjacent builder’s merchant. 

The main rehearsal room is naturally ventilated by means of opening windows and roof lights. Predictions of internal noise were carried out to assess the suitability of the ventilation strategy from an acoustic perspective. Noise of the same magnitude and character was then demonstrated to the client by means of a site visit to an existing space with similar conditions. 

Sound-insulating drywalls and acoustically rated doors and roof linings were specified to control sound transmission between spaces. To control costs, the provision of sound-absorbing finishes was limited to the three rehearsal spaces and the open-plan office, with a view that future fit-outs in other areas would be undertaken by the client. 

To demonstrate the need for appropriate sound-absorbent treatments in the rehearsal spaces, computer acoustic modelling was undertaken and auralisations were presented. To provide good standards of speech intelligibility, and clarity of amplified sounds in the double-height rehearsal spaces, efficient sound absorbing wall panels and ceiling treatments were specified. 

Acoustic ceiling baffles were provided in the large-volume office to control occupant noise levels and to help provide acoustic privacy.  

Gordon Dolbear, associate, Sandy Brown Associates

Section aa

Section aa

Project data

Start on site September 2012 
Completion November 2016 
Gross internal floor area 3,675m2
Form of contract Design and Build
Construction cost £4.94 million 
Construction cost per m2 £1,344
Architect Hoskins Architects 
Client National Theatre of Scotland
Structural engineer Woolgar Hunter 
M&E consultant Atelier Ten
QS Thomas & Adamson
Accoustic engineer Sandy Brown Associates
Project manager Thomas & Adamson
CDM co-ordinator Thomas & Adamson
Approved building inspector Glasgow City Council Development and Regeneration Services 
Main contractor Luddon
CAD software used Vectorworks 
Annual CO2 emissions 25.4kg/m2 (estimated)
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 39 per cent 
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% nil 
On-site energy generation 45 per cent (biomass boiler thermal energy) 
Annual mains water consumption 10.4m3/occupant
Airtightness at 50pa 10.53m3/h.m2 
Heating and hot water load 44.91kWh/m2/yr) 
Overall area-weighted U-value 0.3W/m2K

Facade detail section

Facade detail section

Detail

The façade is arranged in four bands of profiled aluminium cladding, reinforced by continuous horizontal flashing details. The horizontal bands serve to control the arrangement and composition of the external openings: windows, entrance, café doors, and first floor terrace. The material palette for the façade is minimal, comprising PPC sinusoidal aluminium cladding, both solid and perforated, and deep aluminium window reveals to the fixed windows and doors. 

The south façade is the boundary between public and private and therefore needed to be secure and robust. Large, fixed windows and doors have concealed shutters for security, while all opening windows are screened by perforated cladding. The arrangement of the perforated cladding across the front of the openable windows allows the rehearsal space to be naturally ventilated (with openable rooflights facilitating airflow) and gives views out, while retaining a degree of security and privacy and providing solar shading for these south-facing spaces. 

The perforated cladding is supported by curtain walling mullions between the tilt-and-turn window units, where modified brackets (normally used for a brise soleil) support a metal angle, to which the perforated cladding is fixed. 

During the day the building skin appears more solid, limiting views into the building. In the evening it becomes more permeable as the internal lighting makes sections of the façade glow. As well as creating a dynamic façade, this improves the overall lighting along this section of the canal, contributing to public safety and regeneration in this area. 

Rory McCoy, associate, Hoskins Architects

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