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Into the light

Amanda Birch

More visitors and fewer emissions add up to a sustainable business for the National Glass Centre.

The sunken entrance to the Centre.
The sunken entrance to the Centre.

Not many architects would envy Faulkner Browns Architects the task of refurbishing Sunderland’s National Glass Centre. When the building opened on the River Wear water­front in 1998 it was awarded Millennium Project status in recognition of its creativ­ity and innovative environmental approach. However over the last few years the Gollifer Langston-designed centre has struggled to attract visitors, despite its free entry, public galleries and glass-making demonstrations. The University of Sunderland, which took over management of the languishing Centre in 2010, immediately embarked on a £2.3m refurbishment programme to reinvigorate it.

‘The centre has suffered as a business and its maintenance regime hasn’t been as robust as it could have been,’ says Iain Garfield, head of estate services at the University of Sunderland. ‘It also bore significant value engineering when it was built’.

When FaulknerBrowns was ­appointed in 2011 its brief was to improve the layout, inc­rease visitor numbers and make the building more ­energy efficient. But that wasn’t easy. As you might expect, the ­National Glass Centre is a largely glazed building housing furnaces, kilns and other hot glass-making equipment. In spite of a prominent location, its partially buried downward-sloping ramped entrance isn’t particularly welcoming or obvious.

The project wasn’t just about energy-saving, but making the building a destination that works and adds value to the university campus and wider region

‘The centre is a large two-storey building and it would take a big budget to get everything right. We didn’t have that so we focused on improving the quality of the ­studio environment and the customer experience,’ says Steve Dickson, senior director at Faulkner­Browns. ‘The two-phased project wasn’t just about energy-saving, it was about making the building a destination that works and adds value to Sunderland University campus and the wider region.’

To improve energy efficiency, most arch­itects would have begun by insulating the building’s envelope to make it more thermally efficient, but the tight budget didn’t allow for this. Instead, money was spent on rationalising the interiors and services and upgrading equipment in the hot glass shop.

A glass experience: from the entrance level stair looking over the shop.
A glass experience: from the entrance level stair looking over the shop.

The first phase of work started with the lower ground floor, which contains the ­studios used by the university’s educational programmes. It includes the hot glass shop (where the glass is made), the cold glass studio and the student area for glass and ceramics, which can now accommodate 100 more students. The shop and restaurant are also here. 

There were originally two hot glass shops containing kilns, lehrs, furnaces and other equipment in opposite parts of the building. But in an inspired move, the architect relocated and amalgamated the two spaces to create one large hot glass studio by the shop. Two new large picture windows – each 2.4m tall by 5m wide – create a visual connection bet­ween the shop and the hot glass studio and enable the public to view the glass-making process.

A public viewing gallery with tiered seating within the hot glass studio now helps glass blowing demonstrations. A cold glass studio and a flame studio behind the hot glass area have are available for schools and the public.

A big chunk of the budget was invested in improving the services in the building. Originally everything, including the kilns and furnaces, was gas-fired, which was very energy intensive. By thermally modelling the building, the services engineer JH Partners was able to make significant adjustments.

At work in the cold glass studio on the ground floor.
At work in the cold glass studio on the ground floor.

‘Due to the nature of what goes on in the centre, the building consumes a huge amount of gas and electricity,’ says Craig Jordan, partner at JH Partners. ‘So I couldn’t flag it up as a carbon neutral development. But comparing it to other glass facilities, the improvements we’ve made are pretty good.’

These have involved recovering heat from the hot glass area, where the furnaces are. A new extract hood and air-handling units re-circulate heat around the building. Running the furnaces and kilns on electricity has slashed energy costs: for ­example, the original gas furnaces consumed 120kW/h, while the electric ones need just 25kW/h.

The second phase of work concentrated on the ground floor or public entrance level. The architect has reconfigured the spaces – previously a confusing series of small galleries – to create four large gallery and education spaces which are much clearer in their navigation and identity. The largest, the Temporary Gallery, is environmentally controlled, allowing the centre to display international standard exhibitions for the first time. High efficiency LED luminaires and focused spotlighting have been installed in all the spaces, including the permanent Heritage Gallery, which ­explores the history of glass in Sunderland.

Since the National Glass Centre re-opened on June 29 visitor numbers have swelled, clearly demonstrating a renewed interest in the facility. Over 28,000 people visited during July compared to 10,200 in July 2012. How­ever, it’s still too early to provide any concrete data on the energy savings made. But Garfield estimates that between £40,000 and £50,000 in energy consumption will be saved each year, while the payback period of the capital expenditure spent on the project is estimated at five to six years.

‘The sustainable element of this project wasn’t just about reducing carbon emissions,’ says Steve Dickson. ‘It was about the sustainability of the business and making the building more effective by getting more people in there. If the public don’t visit the centre then it’s a waste of a resource’.



Client University of Sunderland
Architect Faulkner Browns 
Project manager & quantity surveyor Elliott Dent 
M&E engineer JH Partners 
Structural engineer Aecom 
Exhibition designer Studio Arc 
Contractor Esh Build 



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