Aiming for the stars
The brief was to build NI’s first-of-its-kind dark sky observatory and visitor centre on a protected blanket bog in a remote forested area of designated outstanding natural beauty and environmental sensitivity. What could possibly go wrong? Not a lot, as it happens.
“There were challenges of course,” says Chris McIvor, Project Manager at Lowry Building and Civil Engineering Ltd, “but we were always confident in our ability to deliver the building to the client, Mid Ulster Council.”
The Dark Sky Park and Observatory in Davagh Forest has just been accredited as an ‘International Dark Sky Park’, only the second place on the island of Ireland – and the first in the north – to achieve that. The forest, which is in the foothill of the Sperrin Mountains outside Cookstown, is renowned for a lack of light pollution, which means the night sky is at its darkest and at its best to observe the stars.
It’s also an unspoilt landscape and all stakeholders on the project wanted to keep it that way, as much as possible.
“The site is next to a river in a very environmentally sensitive area and on top of a protected bog,” explains Chris. “We had to ensure that construction didn’t impact on the wildlife and native plant species that were growing there.
“We had to go through a three-month consultation period with NIEA before we could even get on to site. We detailed the control measures we would put in place to protect the river, wildlife and plant life and the protected blanket bog.
“For example, when we were excavating the ground works and pilings we had to have a catchment area for any washout so no contaminants would flow into the river. This meant creating screens buried into the ground.” Construction challenges The list of construction challenges was also long. “The ground works was the most challenging aspect,” says Chris. “Because of the irregular shape of the building there are very few straight lines. We had to co-ordinate closely with the steel fabricators to make sure the position of the holding down bolts in the floors were in the exact position that would allow the steel to be erected easily.
“Another big concern was the piling because we were building on a bog. We had to secure a platform before we could even start the foundations. That meant drawing in a lot of stone to create a piling platform so we could bury the piles nine meters into the ground.
Being such a bespoke building and the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, Lowry Buidling and Civil Engineering had the management expertise and specialist supply chain to achieve the completion of such a complex building in changeling surroundings. “It was our first observatory,” says Chris, “with some very specific requirements. We had to be very careful about the structure that the telescope sat upon. We installed a concrete column with heavy steel with its own separate foundation. If the building moved it wouldn’t affect the telescope trajectory as it was independently structurally supported.
“We had to make sure the position of the telescope was perfect so we worked closely with the guys who were setting up the telescope to pinpoint the best viewing angles for seeing all the right stars and planets. We had an engineer onsite most of the time to co-ordinate that.”
With a broad base of in-house technical managers including civil engineers, experts in groundworks and Chris’ architecture background the team was expertly qualified to take on this unique and technically demanding brief. “We were thrilled to get the project,” says Chris. “We’ve had great comments from both the design team and the client about the finish and the delivery. It wasn’t without its headaches, but every job comes with those.”
Client: Mid Ulster Council Main
Contractor: Lowry Building and Civil Engineering Ltd
Mechanical Contractor: Ian Short Plumbing & Heating
Electrical Contractor: Braham Electrical
Lighting was key for this standout piece of architecture…
Dark Sky Park and Observatory was a full electrical installation for Braham Electrical, but all eyes will be on the impressive lighting effects created by the intricate architectural lighting system fitted by the Warrenpoint-based contractor. “This was a high-end, bespoke architectural lighting project; there was very little standard lighting,” says Ciaran McQuaid, Director at Braham Electrical. “The role of the lighting was to enhance the unusual architectural design of the building, create a mood internally and to highlight the interactive display areas.” Braham Electrical worked closely with Lowry Building and Civil Engineering Ltd to get the project delivered successfully. “We’ve worked with Lowrys on a number of other projects and they’ve always been a fantastic company to work with,” says Ciaran. “We’re very keen to continue our partnership with them.”
RTU provides finishing touches to NI’s latest tourist attraction…
There is no doubt that 2020 has challenged us all, with the presence of Covid-19 affecting every corner of the globe. The priority at RTU remains the safety of the team, customers, suppliers and the wider community. While adhering to Government guidelines and following strict safety procedures, RTU continues to service their valued self-build and construction customers by delivering the highest quality products with personalised customer service.
Davagh Forest Observatory
A byproduct of the pandemic has been a renewed appreciation for the Province’s stunning countryside and RTU is proud to have worked with Lowry Building and Civil Engineering on the ground-breaking Dark Sky Park and Observatory set amongst the natural and unspoilt beauty of the Sperrin Mountains. With so little light pollution, the location gives visitors a unique opportunity to experience crystal clear views of star constellations and a spectacular voyage through the solar system.
RTU’s Exposa Decorative Concrete provides the finishing touches to the pathways, walkways and external spaces that blend seamlessly into the surrounding forest and scrubland. The superior technical qualities of Exposa, such as slip resistance and durability, combined with its aesthetic beauty, makes it the ideal choice for a modern visitor attraction. The selection of our Linen White colourway complements the use of local natural materials such as the wood-cladding facade, while providing a stunning visual contrast against this most dramatic landscape.
Exposa – An aesthetically pleasing, durable and slip-resistant decorative concrete, Exposa is the ultimate alternative to paving, asphalt, tarmac and loose gravel. What makes Exposa stand out from the crowd is the variety of colours on offer that allows designers and architects to be bold or subtle in their design work.
Ultraflo – Enjoy improved energy efficiency and lower running costs with underfloor heating. A key benefit of Ultraflo is minimal drying shrinkage in comparison to cement-based screeds. Minimal drying shrinkage reduces the risk of cracking and allows areas between movement joints to be dramatically increased. Ultracem – Portland cement-based, pump applied liquid floor screed that excels due to its fast-track qualities and the speed and ease of install over traditional sand:cement screeds. Ultracem is a diverse product that is compatible with all standard floor coverings, including tiles, wood, vinyl, carpet and wet areas.
Zircon – This technically designed decorative concrete delivers a sleek polished floor that can be finished with various grades of polishing to achieve the desired look for your project. Stylish, hardwearing and low-maintenance, Zircon delivers a chic and durable alternative to natural stone.
D. Roulston & Sons
With extensive experience on a diverse range of construction projects, D.Roulston & Sons were perfectly placed to carry out all the interior painting work at Dark Sky Observatory and Visitor Centre, Davagh.
The Castlederg company add this unusual and high profile project to their extensive portfolio of work already carried out in the region. Dessie Roulston says, “We were very pleased to work on this project which will showcase our services to a vast number of visitors.”
D. Roulston & Sons have an excellent working relationship with the contractor, Lowry Building & Civil Engineering Ltd. “I began my working carer back in the 1960s with Lowry’s,” says Dessie. “I started as a joiner then served my time as a painter. We have always had a very good working relationship with Lowry’s and this job was no different.”
T: +44 (0)28 8167 9250
Quinn Building Supplies
With its complex steel frame and the roof projection’s irregular geometry, a bespoke offsite-engineered timber truss solution for the Dark Sky Park and Observatory was thought to be impractical, but QBS proved otherwise.
Fearghus Quinn, Structural Engineer at QBS explains, “I-joists were originally specified, but we were able to show that it was far more practical for us to make up the whole trusses to fit offsite using our space joist system.
“We couldn’t wait until the steel was up to start measuring so we combined the BIM models from the design engineers and the structural steel fabricators and built our own model over the top. We made it all to fit offsite with minimal waste and expertly detailed in-house. “It was great working with Lowry. Using the BIM technology we were able to work collaboratively and have everything ironed out before we went to site.”