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Case study: Royal National Institute for the Blind HQ

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Watkins Gray International has for the past eight years worked with a variety of clients in different sectors to produce properly balanced solutions to client requirements. However, within this portfolio of work there is a discernible and constant theme.

We have recently completed the refurbishment and relocation of RNIB's flagship central London HQ from Great Portland Street to Judd Street, near King's Cross. The organisation provides both direct services to people who are blind or partially sighted and indirect services to support, influence and partner other organisations from the voluntary, statutory and commercial sectors.

Tilney Shane undertook the preliminary groundwork and WGI developed the brief from feasibility stage through to completion. The Judd Street building, constructed in 1910, has been completely reconfigured to improve both vertical and horizontal circulation and to create a light modern office environment.

This satisfies the RNIB's requirements for a flexible environment that could cater to the needs of a number of different users.

The aim was to not only comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 but to exceed it.

The ground floor comprises the entrance, reception, lift lobby, shop, library, resource centre, recording studios and a cafe for visitors and volunteers. The shop and the resource centre are open to the public and offer products that are designed to 'promote independence'. The rear of the ground floor mainly consists of support areas, such as low-vision therapy rooms.

Features to note The main features to note are the automatic entrance doors to the well-lit reception and the tactile flooring leading to the main reception desk. The reception desk faces the main entrance and incorporates all the DDA guidelines. The lower ground floor comprises a large conference room, which divides into three meeting rooms as the large space is used fairly infrequently. The remainder of the area consists of a staff restaurant and a meeting room suite.

The upper floors comprise open-plan office space and a small number of enclosed offices. Here the focus has been to maximise the workspace through an efficient circulation route.

All shared facilities, such as an informal meeting area, vending area, together with fax and photocopy areas, are grouped to created a central activity hub or 'heart' to each floor. Staff were initially concerned that the open-plan areas would be large open spaces, but these concerns were put to rest when it was explained that a number of the existing structural walls would be retained to divide the floors into a number of 'apartments'. This has also helped to strengthen the sense of team identity.

Wide corridors are used throughout the building to suit disabled users and also guide-dog users. The added benefit of this is that it creates light, open spaces.

Research undertaken by the RNIB has shown that people with impaired vision tend to focus on large areas of contrasting colours, particularly upper walls and ceilings, to determine the size and shape of an area.

The disorienting effect of impaired vision can be greatly reduced by the introduction of intelligent colour schemes that contrast the principal elements, such as walls, floor and ceiling surfaces.

All elements of the design incorporated the DDA guidelines. We were also advised by the JMU Access Partnership, which is part of the RNIB. The JMU has also produced many guides, most of which exceed the DDA. The Inclusive Design Guide and Colour and Contrast Guide, produced by Project Rainbow in conjunction with ICI Paints, were used throughout the project. These documents provide a palette of contrasting and complementary colours for the visually impaired. Colour, contrast and texture have been used on critical surfaces of walls, floors and ceilings to maximum effect to enhance spatial awareness, to enable the visually impaired to navigate the space, and to alert people to approaching hazards. Walkways and destination points, such as reception desks, lift entrances and the top and bottom of staircases, have been clearly defined by contrasting both colour and surface texture.

For example, on the walkways, Dalsouple round-stud rubber tiles in Cassis (deep purple), contrast with the open-plan carpet areas in apple green and also the painted wall colour of pale yellow. Stairs, handrails, sanitaryware, switches and control buttons were also selected to provide colour contrast against the background wall colour, helping the visually impaired use the building with independence and few barriers.

Retail area The ground-floor retail area has been designed to demonstrate how shops could be made more accessible through the use of space, light, colour and design. The main walkway is generous in width and curved to encourage movement through to the demonstration area. Dalsouple studded tiles have been used to contrast with the main carpet areas as an aid to way finding and to give each area a defined tactile difference.

Curved partition walls constructed using Gyproc Glassrock multiboard reinforce the feeling of a free-flowing space and are colour-contrasted against the floor and wall colours. The ceiling has been designed to have a strong visual appearance and good acoustic quality, while at the same time allowing easy access to the services above.

A number of suspended discs constructed from GRG define the circulation route from the main entrance through the retail area. The features are suspended through a square grid of accessible lay-in perforated metal ceiling tiles and are set 150mm below the main ceiling so that they appear to float.

Lighting was a major consideration within the building, as extensive light can reduce colour contrast. However, deep shadows can create an environment that is uncomfortable for visually impaired people. Suspended linear fluorescents, 'up and down' component light fittings, have been provided to the office spaces.

These create excellent direct and indirect lighting and have been installed with a sophisticated dimming control to individual fluorescent tubes within each linear fitting to allow fine-tuning of the light levels to each workstation.

Comfort cooling has been provided throughout the building. This was determined by a number of factors, particularly the risk of intrusive traffic noise through the existing windows, which could be disturbing to visually impaired people who tend to have a greater sensitivity to background noise generally, as well as affecting speech intelligibility. A cost effective installation of chilled beams has enabled ceiling height to be maximised in the office areas and, although a suspended ceiling was not required above the chilled beams, an Armstrong interlocking mineral fibre plank system has been provided for acoustic reasons. Services to the chilled beams are routed via a lowered ceiling over the corridor circulation. A perforated metal, hook-on corridor ceiling panel system was chosen for durability and ease of access. All panels hinge from a concealed grid with acoustic backing pads for sound absorption to provide access without any requirement for tools or clips.

Hardwearing finish Data and power distribution has been provided via a fully accessible Kingspan raised floor throughout the upper floors. Dalsouple studded rubber tiles were selected as being a hardwearing finish and these were bonded to the raised floor panels. To avoid damage to the finished tiles, slave panels were installed to provide a platform during the construction works. However, this added to installation time and project costs.

Dalsouple now provides a magnetic tile that allows the tile finish to be dry laid with the other finishing trades.

To allow for future flexibility, studies were undertaken to determine how cellular offices could be accommodated, if required in the future, and how these would impact on the services installations. These are in designated zones away from external walls in order to maintain natural light to the open plan areas. Chilled beams and suspended light fittings have been set out to accommodate future partition locations with the minimum disruption.

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