Rievaulx Abbey Visitor Centre, Helmsley, Yorkshire

Introduction

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, on the North York Moors, are the remains of one of the great medieval abbeys of England, founded in 1132 and a powerful and spiritually renowned centre of Cistercian monasticism, with 650 monks living there in the 1160s under its famous abbot, Aeldred. In 1538 it was shut down as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries that took place under Henry VIII. The abbey became an ironworks, falling into disrepair until, in the 1770s, its picturesque ruins began to be appreciated by artists and visitors.

Since coming under the protection of English Heritage, the abbey has been carefully repaired to prevent collapse, with a small museum alongside to house the collection of antiquities associated with the site.

Simpson & Brown Architects has designed a new visitor centre for English Heritage, using timber to create its principal space, a light-filled arcaded hall of tall glulam arches, reflecting the characteristic columns and pointed arches of the Gothic ruins. The hall gives visitors a foretaste of the Abbey’s history, acts as a seating area to the café and offers a view through its glazed eastern gable wall to the abbey ruins beyond.

The building stands alongside the car park in a grove of magnificent mature trees. It partially preplaces an older, smaller and somewhat out-dated visitor centre, with the purpose of creating a new and more attractive venue for visitors, with an extended and upgraded café and shop which would encourage them to go beyond and venture into the museum and the ruins themselves. The museum has been upgraded to meet modern curatorial standards and to improve staff facilities.

The site was small and severely restricted by the need to maintain car parking space and to preserve the large mature trees which surround it; as a result it was decided to incorporate part of the older visitor centre into the new one – a decision which had a positive effect on the budget. The unobtrusive remnants of the original building, timber clad and with a low pitched roof, stand at each side of the new arcaded hall and house the original café/kitchen and the shop.

As the citation for its RIBA Award wrote: ‘A sense of rhythm, order, and simplicity of structure defines the formal arrangement of the new architectural order. The materials and detail demonstrate a quality of the craftsmanship and convey a sense of humility and calmness as if not to disturb the monastic rituals of the abbey behind’.

The new visitor centre is an amalgam of new and original buildings co-ordinated into a seamless whole and unified by a simple palette of timber and glass. The glazed gable wall of the new hall faces the car park, its arched glulam structure enclosing an ancient carved stone urn on a plinth, an invitation to visitors to discover more. The main entrance is set at the side of the hall, indicated by a timber wall with a carved sign and sheltered by an overhanging cross-laminated timber (CLT) roof canopy supported on glulam columns and partly enclosed with a slatted timber screen. Along the wall is a timber bench where visitors can sit as they rest or wait for friends. Once into the new hall, visitors can learn about its history and antiquities from illustrated panels set between the exposed columns of the glulam arches. They can pass into the shop or directly into the spacious cafe seating area beyond, to sit and eat while looking at the view; at one side the columns of two of the glulam arches have been removed to accommodate a glass screen which slides back, on fine days, giving access to a terrace for open-air eating, sheltered by the deeply overhanging roof above it.

The glulam arches are set in varying widths apart and towards the east end of the hall where the view is closest to the abbey, they are splayed to reveal what had previously been obscured views of the abbey ruins. The arches are designed to appear unconnected and free-standing, with full-height glazing set between them. In other parts of the hall, slot windows set in vertical cross-laminated (CLT) panels give views of the terrace and control direct sunlight.

Structure

The glulam arches, fabricated and erected by Cowley Timber & Partners, consist of spruce glulam columns and rafters connected by epoxy bonded-in rods and concealed steel flitch plates. They are connected together at the eaves by pairs of glulam eaves beams; the spaces between these beams act as conduits for concealed lighting and services. The arches are structurally connected at roof level by a deck of 42mm thick cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels supporting an insulated zinc sheet roof covering. A series of 42mm thick CLT panels extend at the eaves to create a deep tapered overhang to the roof; they are fixed back to the main structure with profiled steel T-brackets.

Although consistent in pitch and height, the glulam arches vary in size as they run from the west end of the building to the east. At the west end gable wall the end arches, reducing in size to 64 x 240mm, create a 1.92 metre wide narrow glazed box, a showcase for the ancient carved stone urn. The central arches of the main hall are 80 x 400mm in size and span 4.378 metres; as they near the east end gable they are set closer and splay at ever increasing angles.

The glulam arches are stained with a translucent white coating, chosen to unify the timber and the adjacent internal finishes while still allowing the natural appearance of the frame timbers to be appreciated. The CLT roof panels are exposed where possible and stained to match the glulam structure.

The external timber surfaces of the original building, previously painted orange, were repainted to blend in with the surrounding trees and natural setting.

Sustainability

As well as reducing costs, there were design and environmental benefits to retaining the original timber structure and as much of the original fabric as possible. The speed of construction was increased, fewer materials were used and transport of materials to and from the site was significantly reduced. The latter was appreciated by the local community and was viewed positively by the local authority.

The glulam structure of the new hall was formed entirely off-site and brought to site in a two-stage delivery process. Off-site fabrication solved the problems of a tight contract period and unpredictable winter weather.

Materials were selected with consideration for life span and maintenance using as many local trades as possible. The building is designed to be be repaired and adapted without difficulty and is protected from future flooding by the design and detailing of its floor slab and by the appropriate location of services. 

An early aim of the project was to exclude mechanical ventilation or air conditioning and rely on natural ventilation to all primary areas. The deep overhanging roofs above the glazed areas contribute to a comfortable and controlled internal environment. LED lighting and power saving technology is used to reduce power consumption in both visitor centre and museum. A strict brief for life cycle costings and simple future maintenance was requested by the client English Heritage and strongly influenced the design.

Awards

Wood Awards 2017 Commercial & Leisure Winner

RIBA Yorkshire Award, Winner 2017

Completion Date:

July 2016

Location:

Helmsley, Yorkshire

Architect:

Simpson & Brown Architects

Client:

English Heritage

Structural Engineer:

Dosser Group

Main Contractor/ Builder:

Simpson (York) Ltd

M and E:

SDS Engineering Consultants

Quantity Surveyor:

RNJ Partnership

Glulam and CLT Supply and Erect:

Cowley Timber & Partners

Timber Elements:

Structure, walls, roof deck, entrance canopy

Timber Species:

Scandinavian spruce

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