Kielder Observatory was created by Charles Barclay Architects with the ambition to provide a dramatic yet sympathetic base for astronomers on the high fells overlooking Kielder Water & Forest Park. The structure resembles both a pier and a ship and is constructed mostly from timber. Charles Barclay wanted to create a building that did not carry the design features one might expected in an observatory, particularly domes, that might imply imply that this is a place for specialists only, while the facility was specifically created to encourage members of the public to become involved in the science of astronomy.
The actual design is more ambiguous, with its square turrets only revealing their purpose once the building is in use, the shutters open and the turrets rotated. In the main part of the building, the shapes of the roof and skirts have been designed to reflect the gradient of the hills that form its backdrop, and the Siberian Larch cladding to slowly change colour to silver-grey like the remains of trees that cover the surrounding landscape.
The Kielder Partnership, through their commissioning programme Art and Architecture at Kielder, developed this project to create a small observatory located in the hills surrounding Kielder village in Northumberland. The Observatory takes advantage of Kielder’s dark skies and lack of light pollution – users include specialist and amateur astronomers, researchers and small school groups.
The Kielder Observatory is in the form of an all-timber ‘land pier’, located in Kielder Water and Forest Park, where lack of light pollution make excellent observing conditions. The design was developed in collaboration with astronomer Charlie Barclay, director of the Blackett Observatory in Marlborough. Intended specifically for amateur astronomers and outreach work, the accessible pier form includes an observation deck for private telescopes at night and for looking over Kielder Forest by day. The observatory is the latest of a number of art and architecture commissions by the Kielder Partnership within the park’s dramatic landscape.
After winning the two-stage RIBA open competition in November 2005, Charles Barclay Architects have worked with the clients and the end-users, Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society, to refine the design. In particular, the slide-off roof of the Meade enclosure was changed to a second, smaller rotating turret to ensure the telescope would not be buffeted by winds in the very exposed location. The building was completed in May 2008 and cost £450,000, including site preparation and telescopes.
The elevated structure touches the ground lightly; the timber structure and cladding serves as reminder of the Forest’s economic role and relates to the simple, home-made plywood observatories built by amateurs in their back gardens. By day, the building is mysterious and formal in its forest setting; when opened up for observing, the rotated turrets and opened shutters make it expressive and dynamic.
The stepped form of the building allows both telescopes to be orientated towards the southern sky without obstructing each other’s sight lines. A cantilevered roof shelters the entrance porch to the top-lit warm room and attached small turret; double doors lead to the observation deck and a ramp descending to the large turret, where a circular ramp ascends again to the elegant Pulsar telescope, the pier ‘destination’. The sequence of architectural spaces allows visitors to be divided in to groups for observing and explanatory talks.
The observatory is self-powered, using a 2.5kW wind turbine, roof-mounted photovoltaics and a battery storage system. It has a composting WC, a kitchenette, red lighting system and a micro-wave connection will give access to the internet.
Charles Barclay Architects:
The commission was won by Charles Barclay Architects in an open competition organised by the Kielder Partnership and the RIBA in 2005. It is the latest in a series of small-scale works of art and architecture commissioned by the Kielder Partnership for the Kielder Water and Forest Park with the express brief of creating unique relationships with the landscape.
The observatory is an all-timber structure in form of a land pier standing above the rough landscape of Black Fell above Kielder Water. Designed primarily for use by amateurs and for outreach work, the observatory will also be used for serious research, taking advantage of Kielder’s dark night skies. It has a warm room attached to a small rotating turret with a computer-operated Meade telescope, an open observation deck and a large turret housing a 20 inch manual telescope as the pier destination. The pier form maximises accessibility, creates a sequence of architectural events and functions as viewing platform for Kielder Water and Forest Park during the daytime. It is orientated to point towards its sister project across the hillside, the Kielder Sky Space by James Turrell.
Timber was chosen as a robust, economical and appropriate material in the forest setting; it also has low specific heat thereby releasing less radiant heat at night that can cause thermal disturbance during observation. The original intention was to use locally grown timber, but the fast-growing Sitka Spruce of Kielder could not meet the demanding structural requirements. The need for high strength and durability led to the specification of North American Douglas fir sub-structure, Siberian larch cladding and European pine framing, treated by Arch Timber Protection for added life-span and fire protection. Stressed plywood skin structures using Spruce and Birch plies are used for the cantilevered large turret and the flying entrance roof. The timber structure needed to be very stable and accurately built as a platform for observation and for the rotating mechanisms, and has to resist high wind loads in the exposed location.
The observatory has a particular relationship with its forest setting. The pine trees enhance the local observing conditions by mopping up stray light pollution and making even faint and distant stars visible. The observatory functions as a belvedere during the day, providing framed views over the surrounding landscape from Deadwater Fell to Kielder Water in the distance. The floating form of the observatory pier touches the ground lightly and suggests a building that is impermanent and lightweight, a modest construction from which to witness cosmic wonders. The wooden construction holds echoes of the former industrial activity in the valley, such as the timber pit props in the local coal mines and the trestle bridges used for the railways that served them.
Likewise, the Kielder observatory is pioneering a new building form for an observatory, in clear opposition to the normal typology of the dome on a tower. The pier is both literally and figuratively accessible, helping make the observatory attractive to newcomers to astronomy, and being vessel-like, helps contain parties of school children safely on dark night time visits. Its stepped form takes advantage of the slope to allow sight lines from small turret over the roof of the large turret; the five degree slope of the warm room roof is also generated by the minimum elevation of the Meade telescope.
The low-tech timber construction is inspired by the typical plywood DIY observatories of amateur astronomers; high-tech buildings are not a requirement for star gazing. During the day it is not obviously an observatory, but transforms itself dramatically when the shutters are opened ready to observe and the turrets are rotated, forming intriguing new geometries in the architecture.
The building is entirely self-powered by means of a 2.5kW wind turbine and photo-voltaic panels mounted on the warm room roof, with a wood-burner for heat, and a composting WC. It is expected to have a life-span of at least twenty five years. Project value £450,000, including renewables and telescopes. The structural engineers were Michael Hadi Associates, the quantity surveyors Burke, Hunter, Adams and the metalwork subcontractor John Aynsley of Newcastle. The building is owned by the Forestry Commission and leased to the newly formed Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society.
- Charles Barclay Architects beat 227 other entrants to win the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) competition set up to select a design team. Since completion, Kielder Observatory has won an RIBA Award, a Civic Trust Award, a Hadrian Award, and a Wood Award.
- You can visit the Observatory at any time and walk around the decking – the spectacular views from here are best in summer while the winter nights are darker and better for star gazing. However, the turrets and astronomical equipment can only be accessed during specific events.
- The Observatory is run by the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society (KOAS) who have developed an access programme to enable people to find out more about astronomy, visit the building and use the astronomical equipment. This programme covers all levels of interest and includes both night and daytime events. Check www.kielderobservatory.org for all event listings.
Project name: Kielder Observatory
Location: Kielder Water and Forest Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE48, England, United Kingdom
Coordinates: 55.232064, -2.615851
Type: Educational Center
Specific Use of Building: Observatory Astronomical
Project Year: 2005-2208
Construction Year: 2007
Project value: £450,000
Completion Year: May 2008
Visit Kielder Observatory: here
Client / Owner / Developer: Forestry Commission
Architects: Charles Barclay Architects – 74 Josephine Avenue, London SW2 2LA, United Kingdom
Astronomy Adviser: Charles Barclay: (Blackett Observatory)
Structural Engineer: Michael Hadi Associates
Contractor: Stephen Mersh
Quantity Surveyor: Burke Hunter Adams
Text Description: © Courtesy of Charles Barclay Architects
Images: © Kielder Observatory, Charles Barclay Architects
Materials & Suplier:
Foundations: 3m-deep concrete pads
Main structure: 10 pairs of American Douglas fir columns with American Douglas fir cross beams. Galvanised steel transverse and longitudinal cross-bracing connects the steel column to steel shoes bolted deep into the concrete pads.
Substructure: European whitewood framing
Walls, cantilevered entrance canopy and Pulsar turret: Spruce and birch ply lining to form stressed skin timber panels
Cladding: Siberian larch
Timber Treatments: All timber treated to achieve Class 0 / class 1 fire resistance by Arch Timber Preservation
Timber Suppliers: All structural and wall panel timber supplied by MH Southern’ Cladding supplied by Vincent Timber; decking supplied by CTS Ltd