ABK Architects – Design Excellence

Cork City Council’s Civic Offices Building has won six major architectural prizes for John Parker of ABK Architects. The designer of the talk to Irish Building.

The people of Cork have always claimed to be justifiably proud of their city. Certainly, Corkonians can be justifiably proud of their new, prize-winning, civic centre.

Where once Cork Corpo’s departments were scattered across the city centre, all City Council services are now accessible at one central location.

An extension to the old City Hall on Anglesea Street, the new civic offices comprise 9,200m2 of office accommodation and 140 car-parking spaces, most of which are in a basement block, the building was completed in 2006 at a cost of €35m following an open competition for the design and build contract.

The winning design team was formed by ABK Architects and civil engineering consultants Homan O’Brien and Michael Punch & Partners (MPP), with the chief contractors being Wexford-based Cleary Doyle..

Previously ABK and Homan O’Brien scored joint success with their design and development of Offaly Civic Offices, winning five architectural awards in 2003, but that record has now been pipped by their achievements in Cork.

ABK was founded in London in 1961 by Peter Ahrends, Richard Burton and Paul Koralek, the same year Koralek won the competition for the ‘New Library’ at TCD. ABK opened a Dublin office in 1996, which is headed by Robert Davies and John Parker, the lead designer of the Cork Civic Offices.

The practice has a wide-ranging portfolio, as illustrated by the fact that as well as designing civic centres, Parker has also designed two houses in Killiney, Co. Dublin, that are currently on the shortlist for the British Brick Awards.

A graduate of UCD, Parker tutors in the School of Architecture and says both students and recent graduates are finding it difficult to work. His advice to them is: “Keep your nerve and, when you find work, work hard.”  He worked with a number of practices in Dublin and London before joining ABK, with whom his first major lead designer role was on the Carrickmines Croquet and Tennis Club, which was completed in 2000.

Best Building

The four-storey Cork Civic Offices building is essentially an extension to the existing City Hall on Anglesea Street, which was built in the 1930s. Composite in form and L-shaped in plan, the new building consisting of masonry and glass volumes. The facing uses Carrara marble, chosen to both the building’s civic status and to also work sympathetically with the limestone of the older City Hall building and much of Cork’s urban fabric; internally, the large surfaces are unpainted concrete, albeit concrete with a very high quality off-shutter finish and a very light colouring.

The southern-side of the building is wrapped with a double-skin glazed wall and a central atrium stretches from the ground floor to roof level, five-storeys above.

Conceived as ‘a public room for Cork’ and designed to open up the City Hall to public use, as well as containing reception facilities and public counters, the atrium serves as a new ‘grand foyer’ for the concert hall in the older building, indeed this space is of similar scale to the concert hall or even St Finbarre’s Cathedral!

At a more pedestrian level, the City Hall serves as a link between Eglington Street and Anglesea Street and the atrium’s orientation follows the line of an old public route that used to cross the site. Immediately, outside the Anglesea Street exit there is a bus shelter, which locals are describing as ‘monumental’, as it is clad in the same Carrara marble that adorns the rest of the new building. The bus-stop’s size and its positioning is an indication of the importance of accessible public transport to the life and well-being of the surrounding city.

Another dramatic space, the Stair Hall, sits between the old City Hall and the new civic offices. The Stair Hall  is seperated from the public atrium at ground floor level by an enfilade of glazed meeting rooms that mark the meeting of public and anministrative space. The primary function of this space, logically enough, is to act as the main area for vertical circulation within the building, but there are also two flying corridors at first-floor level linking the new and the old parts of Cork’s civic administration centre.

Effectively the new civic offices building clasps the projecting backstage of the City Halls, linking the old and the new structure and, Parker believes, this element of his design played a major role in his design being chosen. But in addition to its aesthetic design qualities, this building is remarkable in terms of its energy efficiency and sustainability.


Parker, aided by Homan O’Brien and MPP, has been very clever in their use of glass to reduce excess solar gain, while taking advantage of available natural light.

Solar gain is prevented in the atrium is reduced by the way the southern-facing side comprises a double-skinned glazed wall. An outer skin of etched glass hangs 1.2m off an inner double-glazed curtain walling. The double façade, designed as a buffer from wind and city noise, generates a microclimate, tempering external air and allowing staff to open perimeter windows during the coldest of months.

Where the glazed wall meets the ceiling,  the soffits have been tilted to allow deeper penetration of daylight. The atriums glazed roof also provides natural lighting, but solar gain here is curbed by a series of storey-high vertical fins on the underside of the roof that act like an horizontal bris-soleil. South-facing clerestorey windows along the side of atrium gather sunlight, which is reflected off the solid wall of the opposing service block increasing light penetration to the atrium floor.

Cooling and heating

One outstanding architectural feature of the building is its two rooftop cowls or chimneys that provide the building with wind-assisted natural ventilation. Capable of expelling 7m3 of stale air per second, the cowls rotate on a 360º axis so that their intake ducts face into the wind. The incoming fresh air is then directed, via ducts that run across the atrium, to the offices spaces on the atrium’s southern side.  The raised floor void acts as a large plenum to evenly distribute fresh air throughout the offices. If necessary, the air taken into the building can be heated via a heat exchanger that draws its energy from the waste air that is being expelled.  Should the wind pressure become too high, there are dampers on the intake ducts to prevent any adverse effect on the internal atmosphere.

Large rotating chimneys aside, this is a very airtight building. “Quite a lot of energy lost in most buildings is warm air leaking out,” says Parker. “Here very little warm air is escaping. Our air permeability rating is 3m3/(hr.m_), which is at best practice levels.

“The insulation is also of a very high standard with an R-vale of 0.18 for the walls and 1.2 for the windows.”

The building takes advantage of its location in the marshlands of the River Lee with heating and cooling are provided using ground water linked to a heat exchanger and pumped through pipes embedded in exposed concrete soffits. These, when combined with the exposed thermal mass of the building, temper the office environment during seasonal peaks and troughs. During the summer months, ground water, is pumped through these slabs, thus cooling the building, while in the winter, energy extracted from this underground source is used to heat the office space.

This produces a major saving in the buildings running costs, says Parker. “The biggest energy cost with most buildings is heating and cooling, we are using water from the River Lee for our cooling.”


The offices are designed to be as flexible as possible to allow for reconfiguration of staff and departments in the event of a city council reorganisation or where over-all staff numbers change substantially.

The building is very easy to navigate, whether as a wheelchair user or as someone who is blind or partially sighted. The approach to the civic hall is via a gently inclined forecourt and an information point in the hall quickly points visitors to the location of the council service that they require.

All public interaction takes place on the ground floor, where there is a reception desk to deal with initial queries as well as public counters for the There are 11 interview rooms located between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ spaces on this floor where queries can be deal with privately, if needed.

There are three departments housed on the second floor:  Community and Enterprise; Recreation, Amenity and Culture; Architects; and the Docklands Development Directorate. On the third floor there is: Personnel, Corporate Affairs and the city manager’s office.

Environment, Roads and Transportation, Law and Information Systems departments remain in the original City Hall building, where the offices of the Lord Mayor and of councillors also continue to operate.

Close attention has been paid to the design of signage and how users circulate through the building.  Parker chose Wayfinder Systems, a specialist consultancy based in Baldoyle, Co. Dublin, to help design the signage used throughout the building.

Established in 1977, Wayfinder Systems have an impressive client list that includes government departments, local authorities hospitals, educational facilities and large corporations.  Director Jim Reynolds says, when ‘wayfinding’, his company will follow a basic set of rules on materials, colours and typefaces, with special attention paid to sign positioning to facilitate the partially sighted, wheelchair users and Braille readers. Additionally, the company will work closely with architects to ensure that the signage system fits well with the overall design. Reynolds says: “Signs are designed to enhance the architecture and assist in the functioning of a building for all users. A well-designed sign system will convey simple information to enhance circulation, avoiding unnecessary frustration and stress affecting users’ perception of the setting and its owners.”

Certainly, Parker likes the look of his building. He says: “It is my favourite building so far. It sums up a lot of what we have been trying to achieve in terms of good design.

“I think that is one of the reasons why ABK, Homan O’Brien and MPP have worked so well together on this and other projects – we are all committed to quality and to providing the best available.

“We’re delighted we have won these awards- winning awards is very important!  They are a sign that we are progressing or that we are maintaining standards. Awards are a confirmation that after more than three or four years of effort on a project, you were right in the decisions that you made.” r

Awards won by Cork Civic Offices

Best Public Building RIAI Awards 2008

Most Sustainable Building RIAI Awards 2008

Best Accessibility RIAI Awards 2008

Winner 2007 Irish Concrete Society Sustainability Award

Winner 2007 OPUS Architecture and Construction Awards

Winner 2007 RIBA European Award