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Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

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Gareth Hoskins’ last project will be a blueprint for Northern Ireland’s new health centres, says Laura Mark


In the UK a population the size of Northern Ireland’s would likely be served by just four hospitals – not the 10 the region has. A review carried our last year found that it had too many and it was not the first time this had been decided. Politicians in Northern Ireland have shied away from any recommendation that could see a hospital close in their constituency, but this attitude has stood in the way of better buildings and arguably of better care.. The review recommended that smaller local hospitals be replaced by more specialised health centres and technology hubs. At almost 8,000m², Ballymena Health Centre is the size of a small hospital and aims to act as a blueprint for future health centres across the region.

The project was one of the last to be completed by Scottish architect Gareth Hoskins before his death earlier this year. Hoskins Architects had joined forces with Keppie under Northern Ireland’s Primary Care and Infrastructure Programme. The framework called for two architects to work on every project, with one of those to be design-led and from outside Northern Ireland. The two practices worked together until planning stage, splitting their responsibilities at construction with Keppie taking on the internal spaces and Hoskins responsible for the external envelope. Situated on the site of Braid Valley Hospital, the Ballymena Health Centre attempts to bring together a variety of disparate services and unify the site, currently a mish-mash of decaying buildings, including a former workhouse which closed in 1948 and later became the main hospital building.

The building’s scale and its saw-tooth roof are the obvious features. It’s a big building with a heavy mass, which rises up from Cushendall Road to the height of the workhouse building; but against the domestic scale of the suburban houses across the road it is overbearing. Opposite the houses, the building steps down to just two storeys, but its facade – which is barely broken up by its flush windows – makes it appear much larger.

‘We were keen to have a strong presence so people would know this is a public building,’ says Hoskins director Clare Kemsley. ‘It needed a very visible entrance from the street rather than being set back.’

But, sheltered beneath a large cantilevered overhang, the entrance seems uninviting and dark – the opposite of what the architect hoped to achieve. Through this dark space the building opens up into a three-storey central atrium. The vast, light-filled hall is the first space you see as you enter the building.

Offices are wrapped around this atrium, with light flooding in from rooflights in the saw-tooth roof. Windows on to the atrium space let light into the deep office spaces. Glazed pods within these office spaces are used to house senior staff and can be rearranged if necessary.

Other functions are arranged around an internal courtyard with clinical departments including podiatry, physiotherapy, outpatients, mental health, and children’s services split across two floors. The courtyard features ramps and other elements designed for those learning to use wheelchairs and as a result it is not open to other users of the building, which seems a waste. A large pharmacy with a timber and glazed frontage addresses the entrance to the site’s car park.

Six local GP practices have moved into the building and are arranged around the atrium on the first floor, each with what the architects describe as an ‘open shop’ frontage with its own waiting room and reception off  the atrium. The consulting and examination rooms are located around the building’s perimeter and benefit from natural light without compromising privacy.

Members of the public I spoke to didn’t seem too fond of the new building, although this could be the shock of the new in an area relatively resistant to change. Their reservations aren’t just to do with the building’s appearance; some told me they found the building difficult to navigate while others reported problems with the lifts. The latter complaint was probably just a teething issue as they appeared to be functioning on my visit.

What really works is the natural light and connection to the outside. Although the atrium isn’t widely accessible it offers a huge amount of daylight and helps you to orientate yourself within the building. Views out are also carefully considered. As you travel through the scheme, key views of the surroundings are captured through large picture windows. It feels modern – there are no long, windowless corridors here.

With its large mass, it may take time for this building to be accepted by the local community but they will have to get used to it. A further two health centres based on ideas used here are planned in the coming years.

Ground floor plan

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

First floor plan

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Second floor plan

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Ballymena Health Centre by Keppie and Hoskins Architects

Source: David Cadzow

Project data

Start on site April 2015
Completion October 2015  
Gross internal floor area 7,000m²
Form of contract GC Works with Quantities
Total cost £15 million 
Lead architect Keppie Design 
Consultant architect Hoskins Architects 
Client Northern Health and Social Care Trust 
Structural engineer Waterman Group 
M&E consultant Wallace Whittle 
Quantity surveyor WH Stephens 
Landscape architects The Paul Hogarth Company 
CDM co-ordinator WH Stephens
Main contractor O’Hare & McGovern 
CAD software used Revit

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