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Amy’s House, Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

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The refurbishment and extension of a Belfast building to provide accommodation for families of children being treated for cancer has been handled with maturity, respect and care, says Laura Mark

PROJECT DATA • ARCHITECT’S VIEW • CLIENT’S VIEW • ENGINEER’S VIEW • SPECIFICATION • PLANS • SECTIONS • DETAILS 

Homes from Home are places of refuge for families whose children are suffering from cancer. Often parents and siblings will have to stay in unwelcoming and bland hotels while treatment is being received at hospitals that can as much as 90 miles from where they live. The impact of this constant travel can be exhausting, and these facilities are designed to offer a place to stay and feel at home during what is likely to be a terrible and challenging time.

Set up by charity CLIC Sargent, Homes from Home need to be within walking distance of the hospital while feeling separate and providing an escape. At Amy’s House – a five-bedroom house just a stone’s throw away from Belfast City Hospital – the hospital’s tower can be seen from just one window. It feels like a place of solace after a difficult day, but it also has the flexibility to cater for other circumstances. A student at Queen’s University is currently staying there while he receives treatment. His student accommodation wouldn’t have been clean enough, and without the Home from Home he would have had to return to his parents’ house, interrupting his studies. Staying here has allowed him to continue at university while attending the hospital, and demonstrates the space’s adaptability – the kitchen table has become a regular place for student study sessions.

Designed by local architect McGonigle McGrath, this Home from Home is the second the charity has opened in the city. The first – a smaller project in West Belfast, also by McGonigle McGrath – picked up an RIBA Regional Award in 2014. It was supposed to start after this one but was completed two years earlier because of delays in planning caused by the conservation area location of the College Gardens site.

CLIC Sargent chose the practice through a competitive interview process. It required an architect that could work on both jobs but it also had to be the right fit.

‘It’s not just about the architecture,’ says Home from Home manager Cecilia Milburn. ‘We also need architects who are personable. They have to be willing to engage and interact with those who will be using our building. We do a lot of consultation.’

McGonigle McGrath ran workshops with user groups, and when I visit the building with Milburn and practice co-founder Kieran McGonigle it is clear there is a good client relationship despite a number of challenges.

They didn’t know whether to assess the building as a house or an institution. It is neither

Planning was delayed by having to go through a consultation process with conservation and heritage experts owing to the existing house’s Grade B2-listed status, with long discussions about what could be done. The addition of a zinc mansard roof at the back was particularly tricky to get approved. It’s hard to see why – the back mews is such a mix of buildings that have developed over the years that this addition makes very little difference to the motley streetscape.

Building regulations also challenged the practice. ‘It was difficult to get them to classify the building,’ says McGonigle. ‘They didn’t know whether to assess it as a house or an institution. It is neither.’

This has resulted in some elements – such as stair nosings and manifestations on the glazing – that the architect and client would have rather have done without, but they are largely unnoticeable.

In this kind of project the spaces must be robust and, although it is primarily to be thought of as a home, there are requirements based on the nature of its use. For example, spaces have to be easy to clean, soundproof, and accessible to someone in a wheelchair. Rooms include simple built-in fittings and allow furniture to be easily moved around into different configurations, while a lift was added in the extension to ensure bedrooms on the upper floor could be used by all.

The interiors also had to be neither modern nor traditional but neutral – able to appeal to anyone regardless of taste. Although designed for children and their families, the spaces aren’t patronising. Rooms aren’t painted with cheerful bright colours but a mellow and unobtrusive calming grey.

An extension at the back has brought more light into the existing property, with lightwells adding small places of contemplation. In a building that is a temporary home they also help orientate its users.

McGonigle McGrath is known for its beautifully detailed modern homes and has adopted this quality here

The architect has kept what it could of the existing house. It has used a careful and considered approach to tackling a listed home – new additions are noticeable but subtle. You can tell where the new work begins from changes in the skirting boards, while externally the new brickwork and windows are obviously modern.

McGonigle McGrath is known in Northern Ireland for its beautifully detailed modern homes – which last year secured it a place on the RIBA House of the Year shortlist – and the practice has adopted this quality here. Although a slightly different typology, it displays the same skill in handling unusual brickwork details that can be seen in its House Rosetta, also in Belfast. Despite being for children and families, the building is handled with maturity, respect and care. The additions sit in contrast to the site’s existing listed building without clashing or detracting from it. We wait to see whether this scheme will win a regional RIBA award, but for me it definitely should.

Diagram of structural changes to building

McGonigle McGrath's Home from Home - Diagram of structural changes to building

Lower ground floor plan

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Ground floor plan

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

First floor plan

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Axonometric

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Section A-A

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Detailed section

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Detail

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

This is a detail through the external wall within the main courtyard, taken through the void between the courtyard and the basement corridor. The purpose of the void is to let natural light into the area of the basement that contains the office reception and meeting room. It was made possible by the introduction of a fire escape and refuse corridor, introduced during the design phase.

The intent was to create a simple opening placed precisely above the tall windows to the basement rooms. As the location of the void coincided with a large window to the main communal room, the balustrade design needed to be minimal and unobtrusive, but robustly detailed like the building.

The detail indicates the generally flush nature of the bespoke aluminium glazing, and the simple upper level sill detailing. Where windows were recessed into the brick skin (at all door openings) brick heads were employed to reinforce the simplicity of the openings by reduction of material. Single pieces of Mourne granite mark the thresholds. The balustrade comprises a flat bar top with fine circular rods on a base angle which fully lines the opening on all sides, all galvanised and polyester powder coated.

Kieran McGonigle, principal, McGonigle McGrath

Client’s view

CLIC Sargent’s aim with Amy’s House was to provide safe, comfortable and welcoming accommodation for young people – and their families – being treated for cancer at Belfast City Hospital and the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre. CLIC Sargent’s own research showed that young people faced an average round trip of 95 miles for treatment, one of the longest in the UK.

The charity purchased a B2-listed townhouse on College Gardens, just a five-minute walk from the hospital site. Its layout needed to be configured to provide flexible private bedroom and bathroom space for families, and good quality communal living/kitchen spaces. The intention of all 10 of our Home from Home facilities across the UK is that they should feel like a second home, not a clinical environment. On this site, we also wanted to create a separate office space for fundraising staff without compromising the privacy and atmosphere of the Home from Home.

McGonigle McGrath quickly grasped the concept of Home from Home, not least through its face-to-face engagement with young cancer patients, their families and a range of staff. It also understood the tensions between providing high-quality, low-maintenance buildings and the importance of budget to an organisation that was actively fundraising for the project.

The overall scheme successfully separates the two functions of what is a very complex building. Office staff can access their modest but light, airy space via a separate entrance off a mews to the rear of the Home from Home.

We are delighted with Amy’s House. It is a beautiful building, retaining historic character, without feeling too formal or overpowering, while the new elements of the building are complementary but distinctive from the original structure. Families comment on the high-quality finish but, more importantly, how welcome they feel in Amy’s House.

Cecilia Milburn, UK Home from Home manager, CLIC Sargent

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Architect’s view

It was intended that the integrity of the listed building was protected, with conservation of period features and details. New additions are distinct and compliment the retained elements. The massing of the added elements comprises a diminishing series of simple blocks which spiral away from the retained building. New elements have carefully proportioned openings and wall thicknesses. Detailing of the roofs in relationship to the walls is precise.

Materials are flush pointed brick, chosen to compliment the traditional stock housing brick of Belfast evident in the existing building, dark zinc roofs and wall cappings. Bespoke aluminium windows are generally flush with the outer plane of the wall, with deep set solid ventilators. 

Achieving planning permission involved consultation with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Historic Buildings Council, and several design revisions, mainly centred around external massing and positioning of the lift tower, placed to enable full access and to minimise disruption to the period building. 

Construction was challenging given the nature of the site, levels and the proximity of established neighbours. Concrete retaining structures on piles establish the levels, and new additions are of load bearing construction with partial steel frame. Roofs are flat with membrane or concrete finishes, and construction is lightweight above the historic eaves datum. 

The restrained forms sit in harmonious contrast with the strong nature of the existing townhouse, and resonate in the wider context of Belfast as a city of robust buildings. The building provides a vital contribution to the social, economic and built environments of the city. 

Kieran McGonigle, principal, McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Engineer’s view

The refurbishment and extension to the five-storey Georgian townhouse raised a number of engineering challenges.

Revit was used to model the project, allowing the demolition to be visualised. This was an invaluable tool at both the design and construction phase to fully understand the structural implication of the proposed works and the temporary works requirements. A significant element of the works consisted of constructing a large semi-basement to maximise lower ground floor accommodation. Poor ground conditions meant a piled foundation was required, and with neighbours in such close proximity, a low vibration solution was adopted with bottom-driven steel-cased mini piles. These also minimised any potential differential settlement between the buildings, which could have proved problematic with some key interfaces.  

The basement itself was constructed from an in-situ concrete retaining wall and suspended slab. The superstructure above was predominantly a loadbearing masonry building with precast concrete slabs and a timber roof. Steel was introduced where necessary to create open spaces and allow larger window openings.

Within the main superstructure the detailing was key, with brick a primary feature. We worked hard to ensure the structure was minimised and hidden from view. Brick-clad lintels were used on window openings, with larger soffits requiring brick slips.  

The finished building gives the impression of a modern robust loadbearing brick structure, complementing the Georgian townhouse.. 

Ian Douglas and David Graham, Design ID

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Project data

Start on site November 2014
Completion December 2015
Gross internal floor area 560m2 
Procurement Traditional Procurement Route by Invited Competition
Form of contract JCT Intermediate Contract 2011
Construction cost £730,000
Construction cost per m2 £1,300
Architect McGonigle McGrath
Client CLIC Sargent NI
Structural engineer Design ID
M&E consultant McGonigle McGrath
Quantity surveyor Faithful + Gould
Landscape architect Mullin Design Associates (MDA)
CDM coordinator Faithful + Gould
Main contractor Alskea Contracts
CAD software used AutoCAD LT 2015
Annual CO2 emissions 27.4 kg/m2

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Specification

New masonry walls
Wienerberger Mellowed Red Sovereign Stock outer leaf, full-fill Kingspan Springvale EcoBead Platinum insulation, dense blockwork inner leaf, plasterboard and paint finish

Copings
PPC proprietary bonded aluminium, WBP Plywood, Supalux cavity closer, Firestone EPDM single ply to inner face of parapet

Replacement rooflights
Recessed conservation rooflight by The Rooflight Company

New aluminium windows
Bespoke PPC coated aluminium window frame system by Glazing Design Systems 

Dormer roof cladding
Standing seam zinc cladding by Rheinzink 

Terrace
In-situ concrete screed laid to falls with Sika Bituseal tanking and Sika Trocal SGMA flashings. Kingspan TR26 Thermaroof PIR insulation below screed

Landscaping
In-situ concrete or light grey granite cropped setts by CED Natural Stone 

New first floor construction
Easi-joist to engineer’s specification with Gyproc Silent Board

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

Home from Home by McGonigle McGrath

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • So a brick soffit is the latest fad? - at least it diverts attention from the clumsy collision between townhouse and extension in the last image.

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