March Library, Cambridgeshire


The architect Bernard Stilwell’s new library building in March, Cambridgeshire, has a deceptive simplicity achieved as the result of some complex thinking. Using a dramatic timber glulam structure, he has combined a number of potentially conflicting elements in a single building, giving the town a new urban space and, through careful environmental thinking, found the money for quality within a tight budget.


Project description

The building was commissioned because the existing library was too small. It was funded by combining it with the register of births, marriages and deaths, and with computer training facilities for Isle College, a local further-education college. The £1,250,000 of funds were assembled from a variety of sources, with savings achieved by proving that the building could successfully be passively ventilated.

The site, though disused, was in a prime position – near the town centre, beside the River Nene and next to a leisure centre. Stilwell’s first decision was to push the building right to one side of the site, turning its back to the leisure centre and creating a new urban space.

The building is single-storey and consists of a lofty wedge-shaped public library area encompassed on three sides by cellular office accommodation.The long east wall of the library area is fully glazed to minimise the use of artificial light; it slopes outwards as it rises, protected by overhanging eaves to avoid glare and solar gain. Glulam beams support the sloping roof and are supported in turn by a row of canted glulam columns which run along the glazed east wall.


Description of construction

The structure consists of a series of 405 x 90mm glulam columns which run along the east wall at 2.1 metre centres and slope to match the inclination of the glazing. They support 405 x 90mm glulam beams which run the full width of the building, supported at the centre by cross beams which in turn are supported by four circular steel columns at 6.3 metre centres. The west wall of the building is of dark blue cavity brickwork with a 1.6 metre deep glazed clerestory running above. The ends of the glulam beams rest on a delicate steel truss which runs the full length of the clerestory.

At the eaves the column is flitched with a steel flitch plate to the glulam beam and bolted with 24mm diameter bolts. To distribute loads effectively the bolts are slotted with 70mm diameter galvanised steel washers.

A 200 x 75mm timber eaves beam runs above the eaves flitch to brace the structure and act as a trim to the glazed wall and the insulated wood-wool roof deck. The roof is covered with a WBP ply deck and terne-coated stainless steel sheet. The eaves are formed of a projecting ply box structure covered with terne-coated stainless steel and terminating in a treated softwood nosing.


Architect’s account

Stilwell chose timber for several reasons; ‘We are doing some fairly serious architectural things with severe geometry,’ he explains, ‘but when timber is used people do not feel that the shape is too harsh, and hence try to soften it up. It is something they can empathise with.’ This was not Stilwell’s only reason for selecting timber. ‘The structural sizes tend to be slightly bigger than for steel,’ he says, and in this building it is an advantage. As one looks along the length of the library, the glulam columns form an important visual element, ‘You have the feeling of internal space’ says Stilwell, ‘You get a lot of natural light, but you don’t feel that you are outside.’ With more slender steel columns, this effect would have been largely lost.

Completion Date:


Year Published:

October 2006

Building Type:



March, Cambridgeshire




Cambridgeshire County Council


Bernard Stilwell Architects LLP

Structural Engineer:

Morton & Setchell (Consulting)

Timber Elements:

Roof structure Wall structure

Timber Species:

Scandanavian whitewood Glulam

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