Scottish Dark Sky Observatory

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Project Data
Location Craigengillan Dalmellington East Ayrshire KA6 7PZ
Client The Dark Sky Observatory Group
Date Completed August 2011
Project Value £750,000
Architect GD Lodge Architects
Main Contractor Hope Homes (Scotland) Ltd
Funding Sources East Ayrshire Council, Ayrshire Leader, The Scottish Government, The Coalfields Regeneration Trust, The Minerals Trust, William Grant & Sons, The James Weir Foundation, The Eden Charitable Trust, The
Quantity Surveyor The Binnie McKenzie Partnership
Specialist Consultant McCaig Renewables
Gross Internal Floor Area 200sqm

Introduction

The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory (SDSO) is the first dedicated publically
accessible astronomical observatory to be built in the Galloway Forest
Dark Sky Park.

Background

The Observatory is located in the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in the heart of East Ayrshire. It is unique not only in design but also in location and purpose. The SDSO represents the first major initiative dedicated to the promotion of public understanding of astronomy and science in the Park, as well as providing a valuable educational resource for schools, colleges and Universities. It is also the first purpose built public observatory to be constructed in a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park initiative worldwide.

Since designation of the Park as a Dark Sky Park in 2009, the emergence of dark sky tourism in the surrounding areas has become an increasingly important part the local economy. This is demonstrated by the number of star gazing and astronomy related events now run by the Forestry Commission, local hotels and businesses.

This timber framed and clad observatory completes phase one of a centre of excellence for astronomy, science and the environment. Phase two will involve the development of a field centre for the Global Biosphere Partnership and accommodation for the observatory manager. The Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park is a unique setting and has been recognised as home to Scotland’s first UNESCO ‘new style’ Biosphere Reserve and hence is a sensitive greenfield location. The Observatory building demonstrates exemplary low carbon design as it is completely ‘offgrid’ to utility services and uses sustainable materials in its construction.

Approach

The observatory sits within the Craigengillan Estate on land gifted by land owner, Mark Gibson. Under his initiative, a Board of Trustees was formed to steer the project development, comprising members from community organisations, schools, businesses, East Ayrshire Council and members from the Renfrewshire Astronomical Society. Local enthusiasm and support for the project was strong from the outset and funding for the construction was raised over a period of two years through a combination of local community grant awards and private donations.

The site of the building was selected by the Astronomical Society for its largely unobstructed open views, being located on the summit of Meikle Knowe of Craighead. A key aim was that the observatory exemplifies sustainable design and construction, with the use of locally sourced timber (Scottish Larch), sustainable surface water and waste drainage systems and a photovoltaic energy generation system with battery storage, creating an ‘off-grid’ building. In a wider sustainability context, accessibility and inclusive design were also key features and all levels of the building can be accessed by those with motor difficulties. Its goals are to serve as a centre of learning for science and astronomy and to provide access to state of the art astronomical equipment for both the general public and professional astronomers, exploring the science art and nature of dark skies for all.

Process

The method of funding the project demanded that initial feasibility work be carried out in advance of finance being available for full project development, to enable the project concept to be described and presented to potential funders. This early work was carried out by Renfrewshire Astronomical Society, whose members provided a variety of diverse technical skills in an advisory capacity and helped to inform the project brief. The local community took an active part in the promotion of the idea and in the fundraising process. As advanced funding became available, GD Lodge Architects were appointed to develop the concept design from a sketch stage to a final design proposal, obtain full planning consent and building warrant approval and to act as Contract Administrators throughout the construction process. The Binnie McKenzie Partnership, Quantity Surveyors supervised the tendering process and acted as Cost Consultants throughout the build. Clancy Consulting of Ayr provided the engineering for drainage systems, superstructure design and the telescope piers.

Throughout the design development the principle of producing the building using locally sourced materials and where possible, locally procured specialist expertise and labour, was maintained. In the final product, the majority of the materials specified and the specialist design input required were indeed locally sourced and the successful contractor was Ayrshire based.

The observatory is designed to reflect traditional rural and agricultural forms, interpreted in a contemporary way. Whilst it is evocative of traditional timber buildings it is clearly identifiable as a state of the art astronomical observatory.

Result

The building comprises a traditional telescope dome with a 20” telescope, an innovative ‘roll-off-roof’ observatory with a 14” telescope, an elevated outdoor night sky observing deck, a lecture room with state of the art presentation equipment, telescope control rooms and a kitchen and associated services.

Power is generated from a 2.75kWp array of photovoltaic panels supplying direct AC current through an inverter or indirectly through 4x6V 820AH batteries for night-time operation. For security of supply during winter months and peak demand periods, a small back-up generator is also provided. The building is heated by a wood burning stove fuelled by logs harvested from the estate. All waste water from the building is treated by a septic tank, the outflow from which is purified by a reed bed treatment pond before discharging into an existing water course. All surface water is attenuated within a filter treatment trench then discharged into an existing, adjacent water course.

In Use

The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory (SDSO) was opened by First Minister Alex Salmond in August 2012 and has so far been successfully bringing people from around the country into the local area. In this way the SDSO is already contributing to the profile and the economy of an area of the country that has seen severe social and economic disadvantage in recent years. More events are planned in and around the observatory, including “Star camps”, which can attract hundreds of amateur astronomers who want to take advantage of the darkest skies in the country and use the world class equipment which the observatory offers, as well as enjoying the outstanding environment in which it sits.

The SDSO also provides an educational resource for school children, the general public, colleges and universities and will conduct valuable astronomical research and training for the next generation of professional astronomers.

Key Lessons

The involvement of the local community in the early stages of the project’s development and in the fundraising process was key to the success of the SDSO. The level of support from local community groups, schools and business proved vital in convincing funders of the value of the project and also enabled advanced funding to be obtained to allow the appointment of a professional design Team to work with the Board of Trustees.

The architects worked closely with the Board on the development of the brief and also with the community grant funding organisations to clearly explain the concept of the observatory and to help with visualisations. The economic and environmental sustainability of the project was a key feature in this process and was critical to the aims of the community funding organisations who made grant awards. Throughout the development process the architect and engineer ensured that low carbon concepts remained a priority in the design, including the specification of the structure and cladding, the provision of power and heat systems and the waste disposal strategies selected. This ensured that the building performed well but also touched its environment only lightly.

This close involvement of the professional team from an early stage ensured that the ambitions of the early concepts were clearly expressed during the design development, tender and construction process and therefore fully realised on completion, adding real value to the finished product.

Further Information

Dark Sky Award 2009
Winner, Design Awards 2012
Nominated for My Place Awards 2013

The Scottish Government’s video of the opening event of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDhsJIBXyKk&list=PLCD7E0B4D8E608E00&index=11

Image Credits:

Doon Academy
GD Lodge Architects
Graham Healey
James Silvester
Robert Ince
Roger Harman Photography

Download: Scottish Dark Sky Observatory Case Study
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