In its reinvention of the library as gateway to human knowledge, Bennetts Associates has created a graciously grand yet efficiently low-energy centrepiece to a mixed-use regeneration scheme in Brighton. We took a quiet look around

Two spacious, light-filled library halls add up to a double-decker temple of learning
Two spacious, light-filled library halls add up to a double-decker temple of learning

Can the public library shake off its popular image as a musty print warehouse for bookworms in cardigans? The ubiquitous household computer, which offers a world of instant information packaged up with all the razzmatazz of an amusement arcade, certainly makes the challenge that much tougher.

Nevertheless, Brighton council, for one, has brushed aside this dowdy image. For its new central library, which opens to today, it has rediscovered – and reinvented – the heroic model of the library as a portal to the universe of human knowledge. Its architect set out to create “a building that reflected the historical role of the public library in society, with calm, lofty spaces and a sense that is an important, accessible public institution”. The practice even adopted two classic 19th century libraries in Paris – Sainte Geneviève and the Bibliothèque Nationale – as the design models.

The completed building fits the architect’s vision well and earns the nickname “temple of learning” that it has already acquired. Two of these calm, lofty spaces, one above the other, form the heart of the building. Both are spacious, double-height halls with two grand colonnades marching through them and vaulted ceilings arching overhead.

Yet as the architect is Bennetts Associates, this is anything but a classical-revival municipal building. The columns are tall, round and beefy, and the overhead vaulting consists of four sharp-edged ribs that stretch out diagonally from each column head. Both are made of unadorned insitu concrete with a smooth, blemish-free surface and a plain finish of white paint.

The double colonnade and overhead vaults create an ambience that is grand yet calm and reassuring
The double colonnade and overhead vaults create an ambience that is grand yet calm and reassuring

What really gives the halls their grandeur is that the two levels of colonnades and vaults come together as a single open-sided sculptural assembly that stands detached from the enclosing walls on all four sides. The effect of a building within a building is enhanced by daylight that radiates all around it. Daylight streams in through the south-facing window wall and down through continuous skylights above the enclosing walls on the other three sides.

These three enclosing walls have no views out, as galleries and study rooms are stacked behind them on three floors. Instead, they are lined in warm-coloured beech-faced plywood panels, reminiscent of a fine cabinet. And when the sun shines, the wood surfaces are brought to life by shifting oblique patterns of golden light and shadow.

Externally, the library faces on to a new pedestrianised civic square (see “Civic engineering”, right). It has a flat, featureless facade of tinted frameless glazing, which in daytime presents a rather blank frontage. It only comes into its own in the evening, when the two halls shine out as an alluring sculptural extension to the square.

Internally, and slightly at odds with the civic grandeur and sense of order of the architecture, the lending library is laid out and run quite informally with very few institutional overtones. As with today’s newspaper-and-coffee-selling bookshops, the layout is intended “to provide a relaxed and friendly environment, enabling customers to help themselves as much as possible”, according to senior librarian Sally McMahon.

The books are stacked in off-the-peg free-standing bookcases, which are rather pedestrian in comparison with the sculptural colonnades and vaults surrounding them. However, their haphazard arrangement, interspersed with scatterings of armchairs and coffee tables to encourage browsing, adds to the casual ambience. This is heightened by the lack of check-in counters, as library members need only swipe electronic cards to borrow books.

Given the imposing civic character of the hall, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the sculptural architectural form, the ubiquitous daylight and the exposed concrete also play a far more basic, functional role. They are all sustainable features that reduce energy consumption while keeping the interiors comfortable, and have earned the building an “excellent” BREEAM rating (see “Green and read”, above right). The building was built for the remarkably economic cost of less than £1300/m2, with the concept architect novated to the design-and-build contractor, ROK (formerly Llewelyn). How then was the inspiring light-filled grandeur of the building preserved through the inevitable value engineering of the PFI and design-and-build procurement? In answer, Rab Bennetts alludes to the building’s robust fusion of architectural form and sustainable features. “You have to take the whole thing or nothing at all,” he argues. “If you try to chip away at it, the whole low-energy package collapses.”

The Brighton library is one of those all-too-rare buildings where inspiring architecture and a practical sustainable building are truly one and the same thing.

Project team

client Brighton & Hove council
PFI provider Mill Group
regeneration masterplanner Lomax, Cassidy & Edwards
library architect Bennetts Associates
structural engineer Anthony Hunt Associates/SKM
environmental and services engineer Fulcrum Consulting
facilities manager Kier Support Services
design-and-build contractor Rok
main specialist contractors Gallagher (insitu concrete), Portal (curtain walling, roof cladding), LSC (external tiling), Vision (wind towers), Halcyon (mechanical engineering), Begley Patten (electrics)

Brighton’s bibliothèque: key regeneration criteria

  • Brighton’s £14m central library forms the centrepiece of a 1.75 ha mixed-use regeneration scheme in the town centre.

  • The entire £45m urban regeneration scheme is linked to, and provides £5m cross-subsidy for, a £25m PFI for the library and square over 25 years.

  • The urban regeneration scheme recreates the city’s historic tight-knit street pattern using undisguised modern buildings

  • The library building is imbued with civic grandeur by two spacious, light-filled halls.

  • The library is the first PFI building to achieve an “excellent” rating for energy efficiency by the BREEAM energy assessment method.

  • Innovative use of hollow floor slabs and wind towers lowers energy consumption in the library building.

Fifty years of waiting

For half a century, a 1.75 ha area in Brighton’s historic town centre had lain derelict, and plans to build a public library there had led nowhere. It was not that there was any lack of will by the local authorities concerned. They had committed themselves to developing a new library, selected a design and acquired the site. But they had to wait for a private finance initiative to deliver the library and regenerate the area.

The regeneration saga began in 1991, when East Sussex county council held a design competition for the library, which was won by its own architectural department. But the site, next to the municipal swimming pool, was in a conservation area and the scheme was panned by the city’s vociferous amenity society and the Royal Fine Art Committee. A second quasi-vernacular scheme was designed, a public inquiry held, but it was again turned down by the inspector.

In 1996, the towns of Brighton and Hove came together as a unified authority and took over the project. Two years later, it invited PFI bids for the regeneration of the whole area including the library.

One of the three shortlisted bidders was Mill Group, which specialises in mixed-use schemes combining public facilities and private accommodation and draws funding from a portfolio of investment companies. It appointed local architect Lomax, Cassidy & Edwards masterplanner, and on the advice of partner Nicholas Lomax, also brought in the London-based practice of his long-standing college chum, Rab Bennetts. Bennetts Associates was asked to focus its award-winning skills of sustainable architectural design on the library building, both because design was recognised as a critical issue in the PFI bid and because the council stipulated that the library should reach the “excellent” standard of the BREEAM energy assessment method. Fulcrum Consulting, a cutting-edge specialist in low-energy environmental engineering, was appointed services engineer.Mill Group went on to win because it submitted the lowest-cost bid and yet scored highest on nearly 100 other criteria, according to the council’s project manager, Katherine Pearce. However, the PFI contract was not awarded until after Mill Group had won detailed planning permission for the whole scheme, which director Jeremy Tilford says involved risking some £1m in fees.

In its £45m regeneration scheme for the whole site, Mill Group exceeded the number of dwellings stipulated in the council’s planning brief. But by increasing the scheme’s capacity and hence its payback, it was able to cross-subsidise the £14m library building by £5m to produce a larger, higher quality building.

As part of the £25m PFI contract, Mill Group will provide facilities management for the library over 25 years. This includes a commitment to provide all reading material and to catalogue stock.

After winning the bid, Mill Group passed on the development of the dwellings to Oracle and George Wimpey and the masterplan’s hotel to Myhotels.

Civic engineering: The masterplan

The whole 1.75 ha Jubilee Street area of Brighton is being regenerated to complete the town’s cultural quarter. In the masterplan by Lomax, Cassidy & Edwards, the town’s tight-knit historic street pattern is being reinstated, though with undisguisedly modern buildings.

Although the public library is the key building in the mixed-use scheme, it does not assume a dominant position facing outwards to Brighton town centre. Instead it faces inwards to a newly created pedestrianised civic square. In this way, both the library and the square form the heart of a new mixed-use quarter.

Circulation around the new urban quarter is by means of two narrow existing lanes, where traffic is restricted, and a network of footpaths. As the layout favours pedestrians over traffic, the buildings are mainly serviced from the edges of the site. The library building itself is fused at its back to a new strip of flats above shops, with only a narrow light well separating them.

The civic square is bounded on every side by a different use, which should keep it vibrant through daytime, evenings and weekends. Opposite the library stands a new boutique hotel, whereas alongside it runs a strip of housing and offices above shops. To the east, a two-storey extension to the library houses a cafe–restaurant as well as screening the ungainly 1970s municipal baths behind it.

The scheme manages to pack more accommodation on to the site than was stipulated in the council’s planning brief. It does so by slipping the library into the lowest level of the sloping site, which neatly conceals an extra floor fitted into it.

Green and read: A low-energy library

An innovative combination of hollow concrete floor slabs and three Arabian-inspired wind towers considerably reduces energy consumption in Brighton’s new library building. By these and other means, it is the first PFI building to win an “excellent” rating by the BRE’s energy assessment method, or BREEAM. It is, in short, the first truly green PFI building.

As designed by environmental engineer Fulcrum Consulting, the building relies passively on the natural effects of sunshine, daylight and sea breezes, as well as its heavy concrete structure, to reduce power-driven mechanical services as much as possible.

The two large library halls, which make up the bulk of the building, are remarkably free of mechanical heating or cooling, other than a strip of radiators at the foot of the front window wall. Instead, the halls draw air from the three-storey bank of minor rooms that enclose it on three sides.

In winter, hot air from gas heaters is pumped through the hollow Termodeck floors of the perimeter rooms and out into the main halls. Additional heat comes from low winter sunshine shining through the south-facing window wall.

In summer, the gas heaters and fans are turned off, and sea breezes suck cool night-time air up through the whole building and out through the three rooftop wind towers. Horizontal louvres in the south-facing window wall shut off excess sunshine, and overheated air can rise out of the way to the upper levels of the vaulted halls.

Low usage of gas and electricity should reduce the building’s total carbon dioxide emissions to just 40% of the good practice benchmark, according to Fulcum’s calcualtions. On the minus side, though, partner David Selvage argues that the PFI contract is so rigid as to militate against low energy consumption. “It focuses too much on meeting strict temperature levels, whereas people’s perceptions of comfort are based on many factors. This has resulted in us putting in more plant than we needed to,” he says.