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Scottish Seabird Centre by Simpson & Brown

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Seabirds on the islands of the Firth of Forth are preening themselves for an audience they don’t even know is there - observing them on remote cameras, controlled from the new Scottish Seabird Centre on the mainland

Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock - the islands of the Firth of Forth, steeped in mystery and intrigue, once inspired writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson. Today they provide a home for an extraordinary number of seabirds just off the East Lothian Coast, while on the coast itself the recently opened Scottish Seabird Centre allows visitors to view the island birdlife by remote-control TV cameras.

The centre had its genesis in 1992 when local businessman Bill Gardner, a seabird enthusiast and former computer graphics head at the BBC in London, used to watch the island wildlife through a telescope in his office in North Berwick.During a discussion with a friend about the limitations of this viewing method, the idea of remote-control TV cameras was first mooted. This evolved into the concept of a visitor centre where the public could view the birds on camera as if from a large bird hide. The venture received the backing of the local community and a volunteer support group helped to raise funds by donations, sponsorship and a membership scheme.

The harbour at North Berwick forms an extension to a rocky promontory which until recently contained an open-air swimming pool built in 1929. Simpson & Brown Architects, which was involved with Bill Gardner in looking for a suitable site, explored the feasibility of converting the adjacent disused 1930s harbour pavilion for the seabird centre. The pavilion was not one of the better examples of 1930s International Style and was beyond economic repair. It was decided to demolish it and employ its prominent site and panoramic views out to the islands for the new centre.

Many visitor centres are modest, almost apologetic, but the Scottish Seabird Centre is bold and confident - giving a strong new focal point to the harbour and the town. Simpson & Brown, a leading historic buildings practice, is committed to ‘simple, wholesome, new building design, fusing sound ecological principles and ethics with experience of traditional materials and techniques’.

Stewart Brown, the design partner, initially conceived a circular structure with an upper level high enough for panoramic views, sitting above a lower level ‘black box’ exhibition space. The final design, a teardrop shape, retains the essence of this concept with a circular drum of served spaces and ‘tail’ housing servant spaces.

The overall built form presents the viewer with a base and lid, or wall and roof, in equal measure.

Externally the roof floats above a horizontal ribbon of glass, boarding and a recessed terrace for telescope viewing.The sweeping curved roof aptly reflects and reveals the building’s parti - circular form with the main activities and ‘tail’ with entrance and services.

Viewed from the harbour, the building sits solidly in the sloping site, its heavy plinth prominently exposed to the north like a half-moon bastion and providing maximum contrast to the sweeping curves of the copper roof which distinguish it from its seventeenth- and eighteenth-century neighbours. The building expresses the robustness also found in vernacular types such as the byre, broch or doocot.

Brown refers to the harbour walls as providing inspiration for the battered stone walls which have been built by a local craftsman and form a rain screen around the black box functions. The beautiful reddish-brown stonework is laid in a traditional rubble pattern and forms organic links with the existing stone retaining walls and natural rocky outcrops of the shoreline.

This north-facing facade overlooks the site of the old open-air pool, now infilled to serve as a dinghy park and still prone to tidal flooding. The building’s entrance is on the landward side to the south, with the solid stone plinth progressively disappearing into the sloping site to enable access, which is to the upper level, to be at grade. This is the elevation seen first by most visitors coming through the town or parking along the promenade. A short inclined path from the road leads across Anchor Green, where the ruin of the tiny eighth-century St Andrews Church sits. The immediate landscaping employs a patchwork of materials, with its angular geometry slightly at odds with the more organic curves of the building and adjacent natural surroundings.

A conscious attempt by the architects to use the roof as an expressive element gives the building its special identity. Stewart Simpson talks of a ‘bird’s wing’ and ‘swooping curves’.The viewer can also make analogies with shells and other seacreatures. Finished in copper, which will slowly turn green, the roof plane is formed from a monopitched ribbon (like a piece of orange peel) wrapped around a recessed cupola starting high above the entrance and ending lower, on the other side of the spine wall, over the service spaces.

Splitting the roof-form protects the central cupola from the worst of the weather, provides the opportunity for clerestory lights and avoids the potential problem of internal gutters by channelling rainwater to the outside along the spine wall. One cannot help but feel that the architect’s extensive experience with historic buildings has been called into play with such a complex solution.

The flying cantilevered monopitch with exposed timber truss and circular concrete columns form an entrance canopy with the spine wall linking inside to outside and screening the service spaces behind. This dramatic flourish brings together the formal aspects of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp (1955) with, more curiously, the vocabulary of Bruce Goff ‘s Bavinger House, Oklahoma, of the same year. The entry sequence along the spine wall leads to a circular gallery, which reveals the exhibition space top-lit by a glazed cupola.The shop counter, where tickets can be bought, is to the side of this gallery with the shop and entrance occupying the same space.This arrangement leads to some congestion as the displayed items creep down towards the main entrance - a reminder of the economic importance of the shop for the viability of such an enterprise and that the footprint of the building is actually quite small.

This perception of scale is illustrated by Tom Brock, the centre’s director, who comments on the number of visitors who express surprise when they arrive at the central gallery and notice the large exhibition space opening up below them.

This central void, which at first appears to be circular, is in fact tearshaped - a form subtly echoed in the section of the nine concrete columns supporting the gallery. The upper spaces are flooded with daylight from the ‘cupola’ and the clerestory windows, exuding an air of celebration and optimism. Exposed solid timber trusses and posts not only provide rhythm and definition to the space but also serve as an ordering device for the displays. Some of the details are less assured. The glass and beech balustrade has a finish and precision which sits uncomfortably with the rustic posts around the gallery, themselves oddly juxtaposed to the concrete columns of the primary structure. Suspended light fittings, selected no doubt for their wing-like reflectors, are perhaps a little too literal.

The cafe/restaurant is a pleasant place with a good balance of comfort and utility, enjoying superb views out to the islands and back to the sandy strip of East Links Bay. The adjacent solid timber decking of the terrace hovers above the natural rocky outcrops. Its eastern orientation uses the building to provide shelter from the prevailing wind, while the angle of the pitched roof still allows for sun penetration in the afternoon.

The exhibition space below relies on artificial lighting for controlled displays except for the centrally placed model of the Bass Rock which sits below the cupola. Four stretched canvas screens, in stylised bird forms, are suspended like kites above the model to diffuse the light and partly obscure the view from non-paying visitors in the gallery above.

There are many interactive displays and the latest telemetry allows visitors to rotate, pan and zoom remote-controlled cameras on the islands to gain the best possible views of the birds without disturbing them.The images are displayed on large screens for all to enjoy.Adjacent to this, the 55-seat auditorium, which occupies the tapered space below the ‘tail’, shows a specially commissioned film of Scotland’s seabirds at regular intervals with comfortable seats and good acoustics.

Issues of sustainability were high on the architect’s agenda. Maximising the use of natural light, natural ventilation and specifying natural materials available locally were part of a design philosophy expressed by Stewart Brown from the beginning. Inevitably, compromises had to be made, often due to availability or performance requirements. Roof trusses of solid larch were preferred to laminated timber which uses formaldehyde glue and would have had to be imported from abroad. When it was found that Scottish larch was not available in large enough sections, an English source was accepted.

Support for the project was given in cash and kind by the East Lothian Council, LEEL (Lothian & Edinburgh Enterprise Ltd), Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Bank of Scotland. The Millennium Commission also provided a lottery grant.

Since its opening in May by the Prince of Wales, the number of visitors has exceeded expectations.You do not have to be a birdwatcher or an eco-tourist to enjoy the building, which serves as a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional seaside pavilion. The facility has an international, national and regional profile and its plans to extend the opening hours of the cafe/restaurant and use the auditorium as a cinema at weekends will increase its significance to locals. This is an honest building with a good heart - a small building with a big idea - where the assembled whole amounts to much more than the sum of the parts.


Contrary to the building’s architectural complexities, the structural concept is relatively straightforward. The inherently stable, cylindrical sunken reinforced concrete basement creates an ideal medium to transfer the first floor’s perimeter cantilever column reactions safely to ground.

These columns in turn provide the method of stability and support for the substantial timber trussed roof structure. The roof trusses radiate from a central circular array of timber columns tied with a timber ring beam. The entire timber structure is formed from simple joints using traditional king bolt details. The trusses are generally mono-pitch, with triangulated internal members created from large cross-sectional timber sections.

There were several challenging aspects to the project, many of which were identified during the initial design process and were catered for, as much as possible, within the architectural philosophy and the production of information and briefing for prospective contractors.

The ‘organic’ geometric form, which gives the building its character, gave the biggest headache from the buildability point of view. In this respect, virtually all the reinforcing to the extensive non-linear concrete walls were regularised and reduced in size as much as possible to create optimum installation flexibility. This problem, with the importance of the architectural detailing in the exposed roof structure, merited the entire roof design being carried out ‘in-house’ as opposed to specialist designed, in order to minimise the possibilities for construction delays due to design development. Even so, very close liaison was still necessary between the architect, engineer and contractor to set out these highly complex planes.


Costs based on tender sum


Work below the underside of the screed, including damp-proof membrane, relevant excavation and foundations

FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £136/m2 Prehydrated clay blanket tanking.Reinforced concrete with screed, board insulation

SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £32.53/m2 Reinforced concrete columns cast in-situ and timber columns

UPPER FLOORS £21.87/m2 Cast in-situ concrete with screed

ROOF £254.83/m2 Natural timber roof clad with copper; timber cupola rooflights

STAIRCASES £55.47/m2 Cast in-situ concrete with steel and glass balustrading

EXTERNAL WALLS £113.10/m2 Lower - concrete insulation and natural stone Upper - block/timber frame clad with timber

EXTERNAL WALLS £113.10/m2 Timber


INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £66.13/m2 Block and plaster; glazed timber screens

INTERNAL DOORS £17.20/m2 Timber

INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £8.15/m2 Plaster and paint

FLOOR FINISHES £54.93/m2 Marmoleum

CEILING FINISHES £19.20/m2 Plasterboard and timber


FURNITURE Separate fit out


SERVICES EQUIPMENT £40.00/m2 Standard - kitchen by separate specialist

DISPOSAL AND WATER INSTALLATIONS £0.08/m2 Disposal - cast iron and copper; water - standard.

SPACE HEATING/AIR TREATMENT £175.66/m2 Supply and extract AHU and gas-fired heating

ELECTRICAL SERVICES £106.25/m2 Specialist lighting by exhibition designer

LIFT, CONVEYOR, PROTECTIVE AND COMMUNICATION INSTALLATIONS £24.27/m2 Disabled access, stainless stell finished lift; fire and security alarm systems; ducting



PRELIMINARIES, OVERHEADS AND PROFIT £333.32/m2 Very high due to exposed site and comparative remoteness

EXTERNAL WORKS LANDSCAPING, ANCILLARY BUILDINGS £67.10/m2 Retaining walls in natural stone; timber deck/ restaurant balcony; service tracks and connections

Cost summary

Cost per m2 Per cent (£) of total

SUBSTRUCTURE 136.00 8.73


Frame 32.53 2.09

Upper floors 21.87 1.40

Roof and rooflights 254.83 16.35

Staircases 55.47 3.56

External walls 113.10 7.26

Windows and external doors 73.58 4.72

Internal walls and partitions 66.13 4.24

Internal doors 17.20 1.10

Group element total 634.71 40.72


Wall finishes 8.15 0.52

Floor finishes 54.93 3.52

Ceiling finishes 19.20 1.23

Group element total 82.28 5.27


Sanitary appliances 20.67 1.32

Services equipment 40.00 2.57

Disposal/waterinstallations 0.08 0.01

Space heating and air treatment 175.66 11.27

Electrical services 106.25 6.82

Lift, conveyor, protective and communications installations 24.27 1.56

Builders work in connection 8.40 0.54

Group element total 375.3 24.09


TOTAL 1,558.64 100.00

Costs supplied by Andrew McColl, David Adamson & Partners


CONTRACT TYPE The Scottish Building contract with Quantities




CONTRACT DURATION Tendered at 40 weeks



CLIENT The Scottish Sea Bird Centre

ARCHITECT Simpson and Brown Architects: A Stewart Brown, John Sanders, Richard Shorter, Sue Whittle, Sarah Worrell, Martin Crompton

QUANTITY SURVEYOR David Adamson & Partners


SERVICES ENGINEER Mitchell Dey Norton & Partners



EXHIBITION DESIGNER Richard Fowler Associates



CONTRACTOR Gleesons Group

SUPPLIERS Timber frame Donaldson & McConnell; insulation Warmsell, Homotherm; windows Velux, Environmental Construction Products; ironmongery Allgood, George Boyd; drystone walling N R Stonecraft; flooring Forbo Nairn; facing blockwork Forticrete; paints Keim Paints; insulation Rockwool, Rockfloor, Holotherm; flooring Forbo Nairn, Marmoleum


Simpson and Brown Architects www.simpsonandbrown.co.uk

David Adamson & Partners www.da-p.co.uk

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