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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Creating a Giant Experience

The Giant’s Causeway has attracted curious visitors from across the globe to marvel at the unique basalt columns for centuries. During the 19th Century the Giant’s Causeway electric railway / tramway opened from Portrush to Bushmills and onwards to a terminus at the Causeway Hotel. During the next one hundred years tourism at the Causeway steadily increased and in 1961 it was acquired by The National Trust.

Bushmills Tram Station (Built: 1887). Credit: www.thecausewaytram.co.uk

The Giant’s Causeway features more than 38,000 hexagonal columns of basalt formed from an ancient volcanic eruption (or by a Mr Finn McCool - depending on which version of the story you subscribe to!) some 50 to 60 million years ago. The tops of the columns (some 12 metres / 39 feet high) form stepping stones from the base of the cliff into the sea. The Causeway even has some landmark basalt formations resembling an Organ, the Giant’s Boot, the Giant’s Harp and the Chimney Stacks.




The 'Chimney Stack' and the 'Giant's Boot'. Credit: Wikipedia

So special is the Giant’s Causeway that in 1986 (two years after Moyle Council opened new visitor facilities) UNESCO declared the 230ha. site (70ha. land and 160ha. sea) as a World Heritage Site (WHS). For the next decade Moyle Council’s visitor facilities (built 1984) served the WHS whilst the National Trust maintained the Causeway site. However in the early hours of 1 May 2000 a fire caused by an electrical fault engulfed the visitor centre. Due to the sea breeze 80% of the building was damaged before the Fire Service arrived. Just at a moment in history when Northern Ireland was continuing to gain confidence it was a disastrous moment for the Giants Causeway as one of the regions leading tourist attractions. Visitors were allowed back to the Causeway just two days after the blaze and by July the site was cleared and temporary facilities installed. But a longer term solution was required…

Temporary Visitor Facilities after the fire in May 2000. Credit: The National Trust.

In April 2003, Ian Pearson, MP, Northern Ireland Office Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Angela Smith, MP, Northern Ireland Office Minister for the Environment and Heritage Service announced that an international competition to design new visitor facilities would take place and a Management Plan for the WHS would be developed. The design competition called for financially sustainable entries that could cater for an increasing number of visits to the Causeway, deliver a world-class visitor experience and be highly regarded for the quality of its architecture and exhibition design.

The Giant's Causeway is Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site.

Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Tourist Board published its Strategic Framework for Action 2004-2007 which highlighted five ‘signature’ projects that have potential to deliver international ‘stand out’ for Northern Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway / Antrim and Causeway Coast area was identified as one such project of strategic importance. At the same time the Causeway Coast and Glens Tourism Masterplan 2004-2013 found, that whilst people were not disappointed with the rock formation, many were disappointed with the visitor facilities on site. The Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site Management Plan also indentified poor visitor facilities as a pressing issue for the WHS.

UNESCO, Moyle Council, NITB and The National Trust identified
poor visitor facilities as requiring urgent attention at the WHS.

The International Design Competition was to be welcomed by many. The competition was run under the auspices of the Union of International Architects and commenced on 23 March 2005 with the publication of a Design Contest Notice in the European Journal. The competition was promoted by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and run with the agreement of all the key stakeholders including the Department of Finance and Personnel, Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), the Department of the Environment (DOE), Moyle District Council and the National Trust.


An impressive 201 competition submissions were received. Almost two thirds of the entries came from outside the UK with entries from Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Namibia and South Africa. An international jury team which included PLACE’s current temporary Director, Aidan McGrath sifted through the many entries and shortlisted six designs before selecting a world class winner. That winner was announced in October 2005 as Roisin Heneghan of Heneghan Peng Architects (Dublin).

The winning design by Heneghan Peng Architects.

“The design responded to the elemental power within the geological formation of the site with scale and grandeur. The design exuded a simple and quiet monumentality that evoked a strong sense of drama and expectation [and] succeeded in providing a solution with no visual or physical disturbance to the very important horizon line of the ridge.” 
The International Design Competition’s Jury Report (26th August 2005)


The winning design by Heneghan Peng Architects.

Heneghan Peng Architects explain that...

"...the design can be understood as two cuts into the landscape. The building cut is pulled up revealing the building and the second cut is depressed forming the car park and shielding it from the view of the approach road and coastal path. The two folds create strong lines in the landscaping, drawing all the man-made interventions together and organising the disparate requirements of the Visitor Centre into a singular intervention in the landscape. There is no longer a building and landscape but building becomes landscape and the landscape itself remains spectacular and iconic.”

The winning design by Heneghan Peng Architects.

Two years after Heneghan Peng Architects won the international design competition a competing proposal from a private developer, Seaport Investments Ltd, gained significant media attention. The publicity surrounding the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre escalated when the then Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, in an official press release, announced (in reference to the private developers visitor centre proposal) that she believed there was “considerable merit in what is proposed and I am of a mind to approve it”. Reacting to the comment by Arlene Foster the National Trust commented that such a decision by the Minister to allow private development on greenfield land close to the Causeway could immediately put the World Heritage Site status of the Giant's Causeway at risk. A few months later in January 2008 the alternative, privately developed visitor centre was refused planning permission. This provided a conclusion to the controversy and allowed the original design to proceed.

The following month in February 2008 the detailed design team came together and by June 2008 the planning application was submitted. By this stage the National Trust had taken over the role of DETI as project leader to ensure complete integration and management of the WHS. During the detailed design process some changes were made to the winning design. For example, inside the building the interior space was altered to provide a more open plan environment which allows greater flexibility over the lifetime of the building.

Credit: Heneghan Peng Architects

The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre was Northern Ireland’s first successful Article 31 planning application (major applications deemed to be of significant importance) and was approved within 7 months. Quite some achievement when you consider that the WHS site fall within, or lies adjacent to, a multitude of specially designated areas and is covered by multiple planning policies.



With planning permission secured the focus was now on finalizing the funding. In January 2010 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) approved a grant of £3m. In March 2010 the Northern Ireland Tourist Board confirmed their £9.25m contribution to the project (half the total project budget - £6.125million of which is being provided by the European Regional Development Fund under the European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland). With a further £4m from the National Trust and £2.25m from the “Giant Cause” fundraising initiative (over £850,000 raised so) the project was almost ready to go on site.

Aerial view of the enabling work to expand the car park in-front
of the Causeway Hotel. Credit: FP McCann.

To enable construction of the new visitor centre temporary tourist information and retail space was constructed within the Causeway Hotel site (construction by FP McCann and fit out by Gilbert-Ash). FP McCann also extended of the Causeway Hotel car park, altered Innisfree Farm to provide additional parking and prepared the car park at Dundarave in Bushmills to allow for a park and ride service.

Temporary facilities added to the Causeway Hotel. Credit: National Trust.

With the enabling work completed in late 2010 the construction of a new permanent Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre could commence some ten years after the previous facilities burned down on 27th January 2011. The £9.4 million contract to build the new visitor centre is being carried out by the Northern Ireland based contractor Gilbert-Ash.

June 2011. Credit: National Trust Giant's Causeway Facebook Album.

The new 1,815 sq m facility's elevations are finished in local basalt cladding and a glazed frontage offering stunning views of the surrounding coast. The grass roof over the partially sunken one story building will restore the natural ridgeline of the surrounding landscape using 2,200 m2 of ‘Roofmate SL-A’, Styrofoam and provide a wildflower meadow planted with indigenous grasses.

December 2011 during PLACE site visit. Photo by Gary Potter.

The buildings unique shapes have provided the project team with plenty of challenges. The geometric nature of the design creates difficulties and requires intensive coordination. The design has a tolerance of just 1mm so every piece of the building must be perfect to fit together!

December 2011 during PLACE site visit. Photo by Gary Potter.

The project has also adopted a high standard of sustainability and a low carbon design. In August 2011 this was rewarded when the Building Resources Establishment (BRE) awarded the building a 74.37% BREEAM rating. BREEAM measures the sustainability of new buildings, taking into consideration land use and ecology, waste, energy and pollution. Helping to secure the ‘Excellent’ rating was the buildings unique design which can harness the Earth's temperature (no need for a boiler) and draw in sunshine (less artificial lighting). The building also utilizes a ground-coupled heat exchanger which uses the ground temperature to heat and cool the visitor facility, reducing heat loss and lowering the carbon emissions of the building.

December 2011 during the PLACE site visit. Photo by Gary Potter.

The BREEAM success is also due in part to the successful use of local materials. The building is constructed with nearly 2000 tonnes of Irish basalt from a local quarry in Kilrea and local firm S McConnell & Sons prepare the stone both on site using a “hammer and pitcher” method and at their factory in Kilkeel for cuts requiring more precision.

Exhibition Overview. Credit: The National Trust.

Internally the building will provide an interpretation area, retail space, a cafe, toilets facilities and a tourist information centre. The visitor centre’s interpretation area is divided into five key areas in which visitors move through before visiting the Giant’s Causeway.

  1. Coastal Overview
  2. Formation and Shaping
  3. People and their Stories
  4. Natural Life
  5. Power of the Landscape

Exhibition Overview. Credit: The National Trust.


The outdoor visitor experience is also being upgraded and will include the upgrading of the Runkerry trail to make it more accessible.

The Outdoor Visitor Experience. Credit: The National Trust.

Improved seating and viewing points will be provided to encourage visitors to look more closely at the landscape. Seating on the lower paths will take the form of ‘cubes’ whilst the upper paths will provide more traditional style benches. All physical interventions will be carefully designed and located to ensure they are unobtrusive within the WHS.

Handheld Audio Guide Trail. Credit: The National Trust.

The National Trust will be providing a 45 minute multi-lingual hand-held audio-guide to enhance the visitor experience and explore the stories and myths and explain some of the geological features such as the ‘Giant’s Boot’ and ‘Giant’s Organ’.

The upgraded route from the Causeway to the new Visitor Centre.
January 2012. Credit: National Trust Giant's Causeway Facebook Album

The Giant’s Causeway Visitor experience is well on its way to becoming a co-ordinated high quality interpretation both within the stunning new visitor building and externally along the enhanced network of paths that explore the impressive Causeway.

December 2011 during the PLACE site visit. Photo by Gary Potter.

The new visitor facilities fulfil and surpass many of the objectives set out from the beginning of the process. The new facility will provide an impressive world class visitor experience, solve the traffic and transport issues, provide future income, promote tourism at Northern Ireland’s premier attraction and protect the setting of Northern Ireland’s only WHS.

View from the green roof of the new visitor centre.
December 2011 during the PLACE site visit. Photo by Anna Skoura.

Throughout the process the National Trust have not forgotten the local communities who live and work around the Giant’s Causeway. The National Trust are a key partner in the ‘Brighter Bushmills’ initiative which aims to improve the appearance of derelict buildings in the village and also meet with the Bushmills Traders Association and contribute to community art projects in the area.

December 2011 during the PLACE site visit. Photo by Gary Potter.

Construction continues on the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre with the main building work due for completion in April 2012. Following two months of fitting out the building should be fully completed by the end of June 2012. The National Trust had indentified Monday 2nd July as the first day open to the public but with the recent news that Royal Portrush Golf Club will host the 2012 Irish Open the team are working extra hard to open a few days ahead of schedule!

Credit: Heneghan Peng Architects

Whether the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre is open on the 28th June or the 2nd July one thing is certain… The Giant’s Causeway now has an architecturally stunning and sustainable venue that combines amazing design, innovation, precision and craftsmanship to create a building that sits (quite literally) within the beautiful landscape.

Gary Potter



PLACE Site Visit | 6 December 2011


On a blustery December day a team of PLACE staff, volunteers and associates donned some hard hats and boots to get a sneak peak of the new Causeway Visitor Centre. Project Manager, Graham Thompson presented an overview of the project and led the group around the construction site and up onto the new grass roof for some spectacular views of the Causeway area (Thanks also to Tourism Development Manager, Alexandra Mehaffy for helping to organise the day). To view some of the photos from the site visit click on the image below which will direct you to the PLACE flickr gallery:


Click on the image to view more photos from the Giant's Causeway
Visitor Centre Site Visit at the PLACE flickr gallery.

Additional Information


To view regularly updated construction photos from the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre visit The National Trust on Facebook at this link.


Client: The National Trust; Project Architect: Heneghan Peng; Project Management: Edmond Shipway; Client Advisor: Consarc; Design Support: Hamilton Architects; Planning Consultant: Turley Associates; Landscape Architect: Mitchell Associates; Landscape Assessor: Park Hood; Civil Engineer: White Young Green; Structural Engineer: ARUP; Environmental & Traffic Consultant: ARUP; Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: Bennett Robertson; Mechanical &; Electrical Contractor: Vaughan Engineering Services; Façade Engineer: Dewhurst Macfarlane; Lighting Consultant: Bartenbach LichtLabor; Legal Advice: Cleaver Fulton Rankin; Stone Mason: S McConnell & Sons; Other Contractors: Metaltech, Lisburn; Mastercraft, Dungiven; Hynd’s Architectural Systems, Belfast

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