Posted on Wednesday 9 May 2012 by Ulster Business

Causeway interview

Ulster Business gets a progress report on the soon to open Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre from project director Graham Thompson, who is confident the finished building will be delivered on time, and possibly under budget

It will be a big moment for Graham Thompson when he hands over the keys to the shiny new Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre.

The date – which is set for May 28 – will mark the end of a ten year association with the one time ‘signature project’ for the former civil servant, who first got involved with the Causeway while employed at the Assembly.

But the project director for a building that is expected to enhance the visitor experience to Northern Ireland’s World Heritage site and boost tourism, is confident that it will exceed all expectations when it is handed over to the National Trust’s operations team.

“It is unique, bespoke and has been immensely challenging,” Thompson told Ulster Business. “But it looks like we are going to be coming in under budget, which is very beneficial.”

The centre was originally due to open its doors on July 2 but is now aiming for June 25 to coincide with the Irish Open at nearby Portrush.

Thompson is non-committal on whether that will be achieved but says the interior fit-out should run smoothly because most of the internal fittings and furniture have already been fabricated off site and can be installed “like a huge, complicated, very high quality IKEA kit.”

The building itself is designed to fit into the landscape, with grass on its roof to disguise its presence. But the project manager says it will still make a strong visual impression.

“The building is designed to blend into the landscape, which doesn’t mean it is going to be an invisible building. It will be an architectural statement,” he says.

“The Causeway is a light and bright place and we do not want a dark, subterranean experience so the building is as bright as possible. We’ve done that using the maximum amount of glass, which is precision engineered in Cork, on the façade and roof. The wall panelling is steel or aluminium for maximum reflective effect, the floor is a highly polished screed concrete with speckles of basalt through it and the ceiling is a concrete ceiling that is as white as possible while still being sustainable.”

Materials have been sourced locally, with basalt used in the columns which mimic the shape of the Causeway stones quarried in Co. Derry from what geologists believe is the same lava flow that formed the Causeway and finished by McConnells stonemasons in Kilkeel. Because of the National Trust’s focus on conservation, all wooden furniture has also been sourced from sustainable sources.

“One of the great things about this contract is that more than 90% of everything is from within the island of Ireland,” adds Thompson, noting that local firms including Edmond Shipway, Gilbert-Ash, Bennett Robertson, WYG, Metaltech and Mastercraft have all played crucial roles.

To deliver the £18.5m project required funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, and through them the European Regional Development Fund.

Objectives set when that funding was provided included not only providing a world class experience and protecting the World Heritage site, but also the facilities being financially sustainable and providing a boost to the economic regeneration of the area through jobs and increased tourist spend.

Though he’s not complacent about achieving these aims, Thompson says that unlike Titanic Belfast, which needs significant visitor footfall to be viable, the Causeway will succeed because it already has huge visitor numbers anyway.

“If we’re not going to make a visitor centre work at the Causeway we’ll be doing something very wrong. I’m confident we’re doing a lot of things that are very right,” he said.

But it is not just about delivering a building, it is about delivering an experience and the new visitor site will also include state-of-the-art audiovisual and interactive elements to appeal to visitors of all ages.

The interpretive area will include models of the Causeway, specialist landscape films, scientific explanations of the geology, a focus on the heritage of local people, an exploration of the mythology and the Finn McCool story, and information on local wildlife and biodiversity. Any paid visitor to the Causeway will also get a free audio guide, narrated by actor Conleth Hill.

“It is designed to enhance the experience of visiting the Causeway. Samuel Johnson famously said it was worth seeing but not worth going to see. I totally disagree with that. But what we are doing is supporting the destination,” says Thompson.

“It is something that will be of the highest quality and which my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy. I think it will be incredible.”

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