Worcester’s Hive


Dr Kerry Rodgers considers how a splendid appearance does not always match practical usage.

In one of my more sardonic moods I have sometimes wondered if today’s architects score their latest project a success when it acquires as many brickbats as bouquets.

Certainly, a good controversy helps raise any architect’s profile. A timely example is provided by Worcester’s Public Library, aka “The Hive”.

The Hive is the product of a private finance initiative. This Australian-conceived system is aimed at facilitating funding, design and construction of major public buildings, and brings together public and private sector funding with contractors and clients.

In the case of a new library for Worcester, England, the designers Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios sat down with builders Galliford Try, the mechanical and electrical engineers Max Fordham LLP, and the clients, University of Worcester and Worcestershire County Council.

The idea was to produce an integrated public and university reference and loan library, which would also provide a central link for the county’s archaeological and archive services, as well as a “one-stop-shop” information centre for Worcestershire’s County and District Council Services.

The resulting £60 million, five-storey, 13,253sq m building-by-committee is the golden Hive. It was opened to the public — and by HM The Queen — in July 2012.

It has a somewhat asymmetrical external appearance. The roof profile with its seven cones is intended to mimic the outline of the nearby Malvern Hills. The 11,000sq m walls and roof are clad in 600 x 600mm tiles made from recycled copper. They were affixed by the same specialists who re-clad the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The environmental brief required the energy usage of The Hive come from 50% renewables, with the building future proofed against projected climatic changes.

For starters, none of the public spaces in the building have air conditioning. The large window areas are claimed to provide sufficient natural light to allow minimal low-energy electric lighting, reducing energy demands and ambient heat creation.

The seven roof-mounted cones provide roof lights, and encourage upward movement of stale air, aided by fans beneath the atrium floor.

Rainwater harvesting feeds all the building’s toilets. Vertical ash fins mounted on sound absorption blankets attached to the concrete soffits are intended to help maintain quietness levels in the study areas.

The main heating source in winter is a 550kW biomass boiler. In summer, water from the River Severn can be pumped into the basement of the building, passed across heat exchangers, and the cooled air ducted into the central atrium.

All of which sounds pretty impressive, and in June 2013 The Hive won an RIBA West Midland Architectural Award and BCI Sustainability Award. But the proof of the pudding for any building lies in how it works for its inhabitants on a day-to-day basis.

And since its opening, The Hive has been the subject of a barrage of criticism from students and academics, as well as the general public. The Hive’s Facebook page is suffused with student concerns pointing out that their previous library was far better suited to their needs.

The public’s main beef is that too much money has been spent on non-essential peripherals and not enough on books whose choice is generally considered somewhat limited. And academics find it downright difficult to undertake research in unmonitored and unrestricted open public spaces.

All the external areas, including balconies, have been closed since The Hive opened with no reasons given. A children’s outside story-island was declared unsafe shortly after opening and, although now upgraded, is opened only by special request.

A spectacular, central, all-wood staircase consisting of one continuous flight of 42 steps not only conducts the public to the various levels but provides a perfect funnel for sounds to be transmitted throughout the building.

It would seem that while Worcester Library may become cited as a wonderful example of Buckminster Fuller’s architectural synergy, as a practical working library it suffers some severe limitations.

But don’t take my word for it. 

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I am reminded of a librarian telling me once that she could easily organise the perfect library — just so long as clients were kept out 24/7.

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