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Specifier's choice: Civic offices, Athlone, Co Westmeath

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Construction of the civic offices in Athlone, County Westmeath, designed by Keith Williams Architects, is pushing some fabrication skills to the limit, particularly in terms of precast concrete. Sutherland Lyall admires the building's progress The Irish government has been building civic offices around the country as part of a drive to modernise local democracy. It is a building programme that is symbolic of Irish success and prosperity - and also the outcome of the need for a new tier of bureaucracy generated by the EC.

The £11.3 million, 4,400m 2civic centre in Athlone, County Westmeath, is due to be completed early next year. It will be set in a new public square and will accommodate the new town library, the town council chamber, administrative offices and a one-stop-shop for council services - which it is hoped will eliminate the timehonoured custom of people being passed around a succession of officials. It is only recently that Ireland has had a system for road-taxing cars, and one of the most important uses of the new building will be as a motor tax office.

The basic external material, providing a visual nodding acquaintance with the local historic buildings, will be a pale reconstituted stone. The three-element building form largely expresses the activities it contains.

Two blocks, one squat and square, the other tall and lateral, sit either side of a top-lit four-storey-high hall, with an all-glass wall on the entrance end to the east overlooking the future central square. At ground-floor level the council 'shop' is on the north side of the entrance hall and the partly doubleheight public library on the left. Above and to the back of the latter are administrative offices and above the 'shop' is the council chamber with public balconies to the north and south. Keith Williams Architects director Richard Brown says: 'The basic aesthetic was to give the building a solidity mirroring the other public buildings in the town. These included a castle and a church in the local stone, which both have a presence. We wanted to give our building a similar gravitas.

Stone was too expensive, so we decided on precast concrete with a high level of finish and solidity.'

Like other such schemes, this project was advertised in the OJEC. Brown explains that the practice was appointed after a competitive interview. He says: 'What was required was an overview and a few ideas about what the building might be like. It was a team bid with Arup. Keith went over and said that we would bring something different and fresh to Athlone. We weren't necessarily expecting anything to come of it - it was a long shot because although Arup had offices there, we couldn't demonstrate that we had done any work in Ireland.

'The ultimate client is Westmeath County Council, but we have dealt day to day with Athlone Urban District Council and town clerk John Walsh. We have been given quite a free rein - more so than with a commercial professional client. Here they have been quite open to our ideas: they know broadly what they want to do and what they want to accommodate. We have had to prove the validity of what we have proposed but they have been part of a helping process rather than antagonistic.'

Contract and specification The contract was the Irish local authority form, the GDLA82, which is similar to a JCT 80 form but published by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland. The contract was a done deal, says Brown. 'There was no discussion about any other procurement route or of project or construction management.

'Unusually, they wanted the architect to be the team leader and we became responsible to the client for all the design packages.

So although we went into the bid with Arup, Athlone was insistent that we employed Arup, not them. We benefited from Arup's wide-ranging footprint because we were able to work with the London office to the end of planning; and then drafted in the local Arup Limerick team, who could bring their experience and nous to the team.

'In addition to structural engineering, Arup did the mechanical and electrical work, a little bit of fire and a little bit of acoustics. There is no bill of quantities for the M&E part of the contract and the quantity surveyor simply factors this element into the main contract - but the M&E consultant is responsible. On the money side, we were keen to have a local quantity surveyor. The appointed cost consultant, Patterson, Kempster and Shortall, from Galway, has an association with Davis Langdon & Everest and had experience on similar recent civic projects. Because the rest of the design team were hired by us we had to come up with a form of words for the relationship with these sub-consultants that gave us the kind of protection we would have had, had the client employed them separately. The quantity surveyor has an overview and gets nervous if you're spending contingencies. But the architect still has responsibility. It's an unusual position to be in.

'We used the National Building Specification. It's not as common in Ireland as in the UK, but it's not alien to them - Irish law is virtually based on UK law so the quoting of, for example, British Standards, is common. In practice, we have to accept an alternative if the main contractor comes up with a more economical way of doing something. In fact, we like to think we have held on to the aesthetic of the design - and found some solutions more satisfactory from the subcontractors' point of view.

'Within the GDLA82 contract there is a provision for nominated subcontractors, but we were a bit nervous about taking advantage of this because it looked as though we would have been responsible if they failed. But, in fact, once they have been nominated the main contractor takes them on - after he has been satisfied [about their suitability]. This was good because we could talk to them in the knowledge that they could bid for the work at tender stage. In the end, the packages we nominated were the glazing systems (because this was relatively fancy glazing) and the cladding - and the M&E packages and the lift design were tendered as separate packages.

'The main building contract had to be advertised in the OJEC - and so, too, the nominated subcontractors, because the value of their packages was more than the EC threshold. We had to go through a strict assessment regime so the process was [and appeared to be] fair. We were pleased with the response, especially for the main contract.

Successful main contract tenderer, CISK, is the biggest contractor in Ireland, with very wide experience and we very happy when it was appointed. All of the subcontracts are domestic arrangements with CISK, although we met with tenderers to see what they were proposing and tell them what we wanted.

Easy going The office uses VectorWorks 9.5 (a development of the former MiniCAD) running on Macs, and AutoCAD 2002, and offering the opportunity to import and export between the two. The architect supplied the engineer with AutoCAD-format files. Brown says:

'On a large infrastructure project it's essential that all the information is highly ordered. Here, although the building is reasonably sophisticated, there are not all that many drawings and the information exchange is between probably no more than 12 people - and at a fairly basic level.

Trying things out There was a relatively long pre-contract design process. Brown, who had taken pretender advice from Buro Happold's facades division, says: 'We wanted to make sure that the detailing and the interconnections between cladding and glazing were properly thought through, to maintain the aesthetic and ensure that the design was possible to build.'

The way to test all this was to build some full-size prototypes. He says: 'The cost of this was part of the package of works, which was justified in that they would have an aesthetic check. We were a bit sensitive about louvres. From the inside, people are only a metre away from the detail. We didn't want people in the offices to feel hemmed in and the only way to check was to do it full size. It's relatively easy to rectify things at this stage.

'Also, it was a test for materials and watertightness. There was discussion of mocking up a number of the areas of the building, but we chose the office facade, where there were bespoke details, especially the substantial louvres, triangular in section to bounce light into the building, cantilevering off the face of the building, which puncture the glazing to get back to the structural grid.'

DIFFERENT PROCESSES Richard Brown says: 'Planning has been slightly different from UK practice. I think for us it was a rather straightforward process because they were giving themselves permission to build. But there had to be public accountability. We submitted the drawings, which were put on public display and local people were given the opportunity to comment - comment, that is, not so much to make objections or appeal.

'Building control is a bit more like our building notice system. The building regulations are similar to the UK's, though odd things are slightly different. Providing you follow them it's fine. But there isn't a [preliminary] review of plans; it's done on site.

So the building control certificate is issued following a site inspection.'

Skin with a polish The Cladding package subcontractor was Techrete. Brown says: 'They are experts in precast cladding. They do a lot of work in the City of London, as well as in Dublin. Their engineering people are in the Dublin office, but they have so much work in the UK that they have a design office in Leicester. We had extensive discussions with them, so we had a good basis for a specification. The cladding tender went out in both Ireland and the UK, and although Techrete won the bid, it could have gone anywhere.'

The white polished precast-concrete columns and panels are, says Brown, almost like terrazzo (the real terrazzo flooring subcontract was won by County Derry firm Centile and Central).

'Techrete can polish very large pieces of concrete - the panels are 8m long and 3.6m wide - as big as we could make them, so we could reduce the number of joints.' The columns are structural and had to be on site early to support the in situ slabs above. Techrete had never made columns as long as this. There were discussions about joining sections together, until Techrete approached the problem from a different angle.

It thought of a way of making the columns in the yard, using circular formwork with reinforcing rods down the middle. Then there was the problem of how to polish the columns. In the end, these have been hand-polished.'

He says: 'The glazing was a bit more complicated. At one point the Irish market became overheated - especially in glazing. We were also aware that, although we hoped to use a standard system, we didn't want an offthe-shelf solution that paid no regard to what we were trying to do. At the same time, we were struggling to find contractors, so when we put out tenders in Europe, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it happened that the best tenderer, Hyndes Aluminium Systems, was based in the north. We had seen the work it had done on other projects and were happy that their approach was suitably flexible.'

Sealants have been an important issue because they are often the interface between different trades and different contracts.

Techrete uses its own favoured sealants by Adshead Ratcliffe, and the glazing contractor will use another. But, says Brown, 'each subcontractor needs to be happy that they can warrant their work. They can't be asked to warrant anything they haven't used before'.

So the sealants need to be chemically and physically compatible. One solution is to devise a recessed joint that has one subcontractor's sealant at the bottom and the other's in a top layer.

The two upper office floors have sculptured soffits. They are by Banagher Concrete and are precast units - and primary structure. Brown says: 'We have done a lot of on-site work with Arup and CISK's own concrete subcontractor to ensure the concrete doesn't need too much remedial treatment. But the precast units should be pristine.'

A light touch inside Of lighting, Brown says: 'We tend to take a detailed look at the lighting early on because it makes a huge difference. We like to pare down to a minimum, so we have a quite tight idea of what we want to see. We have had a long conversation with the lighting engineer who comes at it from a completely different angle.' There is some Spectral lighting but generally it is Erco. 'It provides high quality fittings and has a good network in Ireland, so the building owner can get replacements locally.'

Brown's team had not specified Alkor Draka's roof membrane but it was suggested by the main contractor under the NBS's 'equal or approved' provisions. Brown says: 'Alkor Draka meets all our design requirements, and has a network of installers.' He is happy about this sort of substitution as long as the product is fairly generic and has a warranty system, and the company has its own advisors who can help the contractor on appropriate detailing.

Brown specified Duravit sanitaryware 'on aesthetic grounds', named British Gypsum with an 'equal or' proviso, and named Boon Edam front and rear automatic doors as part of the glazing package. Dublin firm Barton supplied the Latchways fall-arrest system, following a tender pitch between two or three suppliers, but the Dalzell precast concrete stairs were put forward by CISK.

The fabricator for the, mostly secondary, steelwork, local firm O'Dwyers, was also CISK's choice, as were the MJ Flood internal glazed partitions.

Brown says: 'Flood has worked in the UK.

We have just been to see its London showroom and we are looking to get what we have designed.'

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