Let there be light | The Burrell Collection, Glasgow - Museums Association

Let there be light | The Burrell Collection, Glasgow

A multimillion pound revamp has given this museum a sustainable future while enhancing its beauty
Ruth Gill
Glasgow Life hopes the Burrell's redevelopment will become an imprtant example of sustainable low-carbon design John McAslan and Partners/Hufton+Crow

The refurbishment of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, which opened with much anticipation in March this year, successfully overcame considerable construction challenges. Glasgow Life spent £68.25m refurbishing the much loved and once leaky Grade A-listed building, which is home of the 9,000-strong collection of William Burrell and his wife Constance. Quite rightly, considering its civic context, the redevelopment was driven by two overlapping objectives: accessibility and sustainability.

This is brave stuff. Setting these twin objectives as project drivers sounds simple enough but requires strong leadership and clear processes to make them work together as, like many things that work hand-in-hand, there are tensions behind-the-scenes. How do you create more visitor entrances while improving the building’s air tightness? How do you increase public display space and reduce carbon emissions? How can you preserve a historic Grade A-listed building and meet future building standards?

Carbon reduction in construction projects rapidly becomes a complicated and technical area, but it strikes me that the project team have diligently stuck to basic principles to shape their planning. They have focused on the principle of “fabric first”, undertaking stone repairs and replacing the majority of the cladding and glazing, achieving a 50% thermal envelope efficiency.

Next, a services and energy strategy threads its way through the building ensuring maximum performance. Interventions include air-handling controls, low-energy lighting systems and energy monitors giving automated feedback.

Finally, the Burrell’s energy is intelligently reused. The air that warms arriving visitors originates from the basement boiler room via a new refrigerant-based heat recycler, for example.

The bottom line is that there is no viable alternative option to the building’s gas-powered boilers. But the team’s pragmatic and creative development has produced some stunning sustainability results: air permeability is far better than it used to be; Glasgow Life has achieved the Breeam rating of “Very Good” (calculated by accredited assessors looking at energy, water and land use, plus the building’s ecological impact) with a provisional “Excellent” (subject to verification); and the organisation has an aspiration to halve its carbon emissions in the first operational year.


By investing in expertise and data gathering, the broad-skilled project team has reached consensus and a position of trust within these highly specialist technical areas. Intelligence gathering was also a team effort, with data sourced from cutting-edge energy modelling and occupancy profiling as well as original architectural blueprints and handwritten historic lux records – measuring light – held in the archive.

The newly refurbished Burrell Collection has increased public gallery space by about a thirdJohn McAslan and Partners/Hufton+Crow

There are two atria on the north-south axis of the building with glazed roofs and elevations that provide visual connections to the museum’s park setting. While the corridors are relatively narrow, the atria function as vertical and horizontal transition points, punctuating the visit with unexpected light and spacious moments. I watched as visitors engaged with these atria, pausing to look up and around, drawing in views of the park and sky before continuing on their way into the next gallery.

It is these spaces that demonstrate to me how the team have brought together the project’s competing priorities and requirements. The fact that it is such an understated, beautiful space – looking so seemingly simple in its execution – makes me think that it was very tricky to develop.

Look more closely and you spot the air-handling outlet quietly working at your feet circulating reused air; look up and you realise that the heat loss through the glazed roof must be dynamically managed across this glazed slice of the building; look across and you appreciate that exactly the right objects have been chosen for this bespoke display space, made beautiful in natural daylight.

Focus on: energy efficiency

The Burrell Collection is a complicated combination of light and heavyweight structural and architectural materials. In some areas it is entirely transparent, in others it is entirely opaque.

This juxtaposed materiality produces complicated interactions between the natural external climate and that of the artificially induced interior. The greater the difference between these two opposing environments, the greater the primary energy demand of the facility. For this reason, a detailed analysis of fabric was carried out, resulting in a tailored specification for each facade.

Dynamic Thermal Simulation modelling was used to calibrate the specifications of roof, wall and glass. These primary fabric elements have been refurbished, replaced, and subsequently improved, forming an energy saving on space-conditioning energy consumption of up to 50%.

The building services engineering solution includes a strategy of many modest interventions contributing to an overall improved performance. This includes waste-heat-recovery from the boiler room to the entrance; waste-heat-recovery from the cooling system into the heating system; app-based lighting controls; and variable flow conditioning systems.

A roof-mounted photovoltaic array of more than 650 metres-squared produces electricity on-site. The integration of an energy battery storage system will further enhance the availability of renewable energy.

Much of the roof and facade material has been removed and recycled. This includes stainless steel cladding, insulation, and all of the glass. Overall, 3,120 metres-squared of glass was recycled, saving an estimated 27 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of driving between Glasgow and London 118 times.

The environmental achievement of the Burrell Collection is perhaps best summarised by its Breeam certification. For a Category A-Listed building, this is quite a feat.

David Cameron is a director at Atelier Ten


In these spaces there is a powerful sense of place and setting that has been carefully curated – balancing inside with outside; foreground against background; people and objects; accessibility with sustainability.

This is an impressive project, but for me I think it’s on the crossroads of something new, marking the next generation of capital project. All too often, after the doors open to the public, accounts close and teams move on. This project has an impressive commitment to whole-life thinking; a clear understanding that the footprint of today’s decisions extends into the future, well beyond a project programme or capital budget.

A low lit gallery protects fragile paintingsJohn McAslan and Partners/Hufton+Crow

At the Burrell, maintenance contracts have been built into construction contracts, and an expensive two-year aftercare commitment is in place to monitor, review and adapt the building and its services as required. In future projects, the teams want to learn how to mainstream plans for developing social and human capital through, for instance, supporting local trades and skills development in Scotland. I’d like to think this is the start of a new way of working for Glasgow Life, and one we can learn from.

Home is where the heart is

The team has pushed the boat out in terms of interpretation, too. To recreate the home life of the Burrells, there is a film display and a new immersive space with household characters who would have busied themselves around the art-loving family, typing letters and dusting mantlepieces. Fun interactives prompt visitors to both look up and lean in.


There is a clear, strong interpretive principle of broadening intellectual accessibility but sometimes it seems to tip into the presumption that a non-expert is a child. For example, a prime object in Gallery 1 is a 15th-century wooden carving of an angel from St Michael’s Church in Aughton, Lancashire. The caption reads: “Sculptures are made with different expressions on their faces to make them seem alive. Can you copy the strange look on this angel’s face?” It’s a double whammy: suddenly I am reminded of my age while realising that I am none the wiser for it.

The light-filled atria draw the visitors to selected objects, but also represent a feat of engineering to stop heat loss and manage air flowJohn McAslan and Partners/Hufton+Crow

Sometimes on my visit I had to remind myself the project has actually happened – you see, it’s the Burrell, but not as you know it. It feels odd to confess that sometimes it’s hard to spot how tens of millions of pounds have been spent. Some of the investment is hidden right in front of your eyes – new replacement cladding and glazing for instance – but the work has been so carefully undertaken to preserve the building’s listed status the upgrade
is barely noticeable.

Even new showcases are indistinguishable from the existing listed ones. Of course, some of the investment is behind-the-scenes: new plant rooms and services that visitors just trust do their job.

It took me a while to pinpoint the key change – a subtle but tangible difference in the way the Burrell now feels. My memory before it closed is of a series of hot spaces, visitors slowly baking in the daylit galleries. I remember feeling enclosed and wanting more space, and the cafe offering little respite.

Now, the built and display environments come together to produce a different experience – it feels fresh. The glazing is cool to your touch; the additional gallery spaces look beautiful; the cafe and shop are enjoyable experiences, places where you want to hang out. The interpretative approach might not be to everyone’s satisfaction, but I think we can agree that it is quirky and light-touch, adding to this feeling that you are in a fresh and refreshing place to be.

Project data
Main funders
Glasgow City Council; National Lottery Heritage Fund; the Scottish Government; the UK Government; other trusts, foundations, grant-making bodies, corporate sponsors and individuals
John McAslan & Partners
Project management and principal design
Gardiner & Theobald
MEP and fire engineering
Atelier Ten
Breeam consultant
Atelier Ten
Structural engineering
David Narro Associates
Facade engineering
Arup Facades
Sandy Brown Associates
Exhibition design
Event Communications
Food service design
JoH Design
Main building contractor
Kier Construction Scotland
Main exhibition contractor
Beck Interiors
Display cases
All Star Joinery; Elmwood Projects
Manual interactives
Hardware supply
Ballicom International; GV MultiMedia
Catering consultant
Boyd-Thorpe Associates
Pre-construction works
Burnfield Demolition
AV integration
DJ Willrich
Stonework conservation
Graciella Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation
Digital and hybrid interactives
The ISO Organisation

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