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Roseisle Distillery, Elgin, Moray, by Austin-Smith:Lord

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[STUDY + PLANS + DATA] With Roseisle Distillery, Austin-Smith:Lord has harnessed operational requirements to create a building of real architectural merit, says Felix Mara. Photography by Keith Hunter

It isn’t easy for an architect to deliver a good building. The initial design is only part of a complex equation with many variables, including cost, time constraints, statutory controls and, especially in the case of industrial buildings, operational requirements.

Roseisle Distillery in Elgin by Austin-Smith:Lord (ASL), which was completed in January 2009, has a formidable profile. Project director George Reynolds describes the project as ‘a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. It is Scotland’s first major distillery in 30 years and, with a gross internal area of 3,000m², also its largest, with a potential output of 10 million litres of malt whisky per year.

The construction cost was £40 million, including process engineering. The client, Diageo, the world’s largest drinks manufacturer, wanted the distillery to open 23 months after it appointed the design team in order to meet growing demand, and it wanted a facility that was technically advanced, highly energy-efficient and met the BREEAM Excellent standard.

Although the design was driven by the process of making whisky, and was led by a multi-disciplinary design team from AECOM, Reynolds stresses the importance of ASL’s input and the collaborative spirit of the project team. He explains that although Roseisle is a working facility that operates outside of the tourist distillery circuit, it is also a showpiece for Diageo’s clients. It is sited in a rural area where its visual and environmental impact was a major concern, so the team’s architectural vision and attention to detail were crucial.

Process requirements

According to Reynolds, there was no written brief. Diageo’s process engineers produced schedules and 3D CAD models of production plant that ASL and AECOM used to develop the design. This exchange of information between Diageo and the design team was interactive and reiterative, but the timeframe was very restricted. Initial proposals were developed over a period of only four weeks.

The layout and massing of the building express whisky-making’s three main processes: mashing, fermentation and distilling. The mashing stage takes place in the western and central volumes of the distillery. Malted barley passes through a de-stoner and a grinding mill, and then enters two 8m-diameter stainless-steel mash tuns, which mix it with water at 65C to produce wort. The liquid is fermented in 14 stainless-steel 10m-high cylinders (known as wash-backs) to produce wash, a fluid similar to weak beer.

The wash then flows into the still house at the east end of the building, which contains seven pairs of copper stills. The wash rises as it is heated by the stills, and passes through downward-sloping tubes into condensers, where it is distilled again. This completes the distillation process.

A central core accommodates control rooms, offices, staff facilities and a conference room. Although plant sizes meant that the heroic scale of Roseisle was a given, ASL articulated the whisky-making processes in the three sections of the distillery, each of which has a distinct volume and architectural language. For architectural reasons the mash house is higher than necessary: a lower roof in this central area, which projects in plan, would have looked proportionally awkward.

A key move was the decision to create what ASL project partner Iain Wylie describes as a ‘cathedral space’, in which the 8m-high stills are displayed like highly crafted sculptural objects. Visitors to Roseisle can view this space through a four-storey curtain wall as they enter the site, or through a liquid-crystal window in the conference room that can be clear or opaque.

Energy and resources

Roseisle conserves energy and resources using a number of devices. Overheating in the still house is reduced with stack-effect natural ventilation. Air is introduced at low-level and expelled at high-level, and some hot air is recovered for use in the maltings. A water-reclamation plant, built by Dalkia, aims to recycle 300,000m³ of liquid produced by the distillery as potable water, thus helping to replenish its intake.

Traditionally, distilleries sell draff, the grain left over after mashing, as cattle feed. Profits from these sales are limited by demand and the availability of alternatives, so Diageo decided to use Roseisle’s draff as biomass fuel. The energy generated by the distillery’s £14 million biomass plant (a separate project also by Dalkia) is used to generate the steam that charges the stills.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of architectural vision and attention to detail in a project like the Roseisle Distillery. The cluttered interior of Dalkia’s biomass complex reinforces this point. One senses Reynolds’ disappointment with the heavy steelwork behind the curtain wall of the still house; a curtain wall that was initially proposed as a bolt-fixed glazing system.

ASL was responsible for some of the more cosmetic design work at Roseisle, such as the oak lining and polished plaster in the conference room, and it is all very well executed. In some respects, Roseisle resembles British architect Michael Wilford’s work in the 1990s – large-scale details and the use of bold colours and finishes. In particular, the Sto headquarters building in Weizen, Germany, springs to mind. The result is a distillery that fulfils its potential as a heroic, even sublime, building type.

Project data

Location: Roseisle, Elgin, Moray
Start on site: October 2007
Completion: January 2009
Contract duration: 15 months
Gross internal floor area: 3,000m²
Form of contract: Management
Total cost: £40 million (including 14 million for Dalkia biomass plant)
Client: Diageo
Project director (Diageo): Mike Jappy
Project manager (Diageo): Neil Dicks
Site operations manager (Diageo): Gordon Winton
Architect: Austin-Smith:Lord (Glasgow)
Project partner (ASL): Iain Wylie
Project director (ASL): George McKenna Reynolds
Project architects (ASL): Dermot Smith, Bill McAnally
Lead designer: AECOM
Structural engineer: AECOM
Project regional director (AECOM): Stuart Mason
Project structural engineer (AECOM): Nathanial Buckingham
M & E consultant: AECOM
Quantity surveyor: Summers Inman (Glasgow)
Project quantity surveyor: Brian Willshire
Main contractor: Rok
Stills fabricator: Diageo Abercrombie
BREEAM rating: Excellent
Annual CO2 emissions: Not calculated

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  • Known to Diagio employees as Mordor, one distillery to rule them all........

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