Michael Grubb Studio / Richard Elphick / Studio MB / Ad Gefrin, Wooler, Northumberland

Ad Gefrin’s design teams combined traditional techniques and sustainable design practices to bring this whisky distillery and museum to life.

Words By Emily Martin

Images By Sally Ann Norman Photography


Lighting design Michael Grubb Studio www.michaelgrubbstudio.com
Richard Elphick
Interior Design Studio MB www.studiomb.co.uk
Client  Ad Gefrin
Completion date March 2023
Size 2182 sqm

MICHAEL GRUBB STUDIO has illuminated a brand-new museum that celebrates the Northumbrian tradition for whisky: Ad Gefrin. Located near the Northumberland National Park – home to the darkest skies in the UK – the studio was tasked with illuminating the museum, visitor experience and whisky distillery, and achieved spectacular results.

Ad Gefrin’s whisky distillery is a key attraction at the site

The museum is located at the centre of the local village community in Wooler, an area steeped in Anglo-Saxon history. Michael Grubb Studio was directly appointed at the early stages of planning in 2019 by the local client to create the lighting design scheme. It was briefed to deliver a visitor experience in multiple areas including a working whisky distillery, barrel store, bistro, retail, function room, museum, and grand atrium entrance. Showcasing the Ad Gefrin brand and supporting the local community were fundamental to the brief as was using local companies and craftspeople to create a landmark and legacy that celebrated a rich ancestry for future generations to enjoy.

The Bistro is a multi-functional bar, café and restaurant which caters for visitors and locals

The new building design was led by local Northumbrian architect Richard Elphick, with exhibition design by Studio MB. Ad Gefrin’s design teams combined traditional techniques and sustainable design practices with the resulting collaboration showcasing attention to detail, using traditional and contemporary materials. The use of natural light played a vital role in the design, with large windows allowing in daylight. After dark, minimal lighting was used to extend winter use and create a warm ambience, selecting a low level of brightness to respect the dark skies. All exterior lighting was kept low level and minimal, to assist with wayfinding along key routes around the building.

Lighting is kept to a low level throughout to respect the darkness of Northumbria’s skies

The impressive, domed atrium entrance sets the tone; light encircles the space, drawing the gaze up to a copper skylight. Sophisticated, welcoming and warm lighting highlights the architectural design and fabric of the building connecting people with their surroundings. Due to its form, materials and the handcraft work involved in the design and construction of the atrium, its charm was also a challenge for Michael Grubb Studio, particularly for integrating lighting within the dome and spiral staircase. The lighting design team opted for an approach to suit the traditional construction techniques used, which required more time and consideration, but ultimately worked for this crafted, beautiful high-end space.

Visitors have the opportunity to purchase locally produced handcrafts

Melissa Byers, head of Michael Grubb’s Bournemouth Studios says: ‘The process of interrogating and challenging design often promotes innovation and benefits the end result. Typically, we could have chosen an encapsulated, acrylic, flexible linear product to suit the curvature of the dome. However, following a series of lighting tests, multiple straight shorter lengths of LED luminaires were chosen as they delivered a brighter lit effect, with a lower wattage output, whilst short lengths could individually be removed and easily upgraded or maintained over time due to the product’s design and materiality, making this approach both more effective and sustainable.’

A minimal lighting design was used in the museum, allowing discreet use of LEDs and spotlights to highlight attractions

The Bistro is a multi-functional bar, café and restaurant which caters for visitors and locals. During the day, the space is flooded with light, so it was important to select a design that had as much presence by day as it did by night. A decorative light feature was created using 270 spherical, glass globes internally illuminated by fibre optics suspended from the ceiling, a design inspired by Northumberland’s starscape. The lighting layout and installation of the optical fibres presented a challenge, due to the shallow, sloped, narrow, wooden slatted ceiling design and ductwork resulting in potentially long optical fibre runs across the ceiling. The layout and design needed to counter this to minimise excessive optical fibres lengths which can result in green discolouration to the optical fibres. Significant coordination and planning went into the design and installation approach in advance, to establish the layout with the optical fibre lengths cut by hand on-site and curated by eye to produce the final, organic arrangement.

A decorative light feature was created for the Bistro using 270 spherical, glass globes internally illuminated by fibre optics suspended from the ceiling

The lighting also needed to serve multiple functions, sometimes with challenging operational requirements, such as in the distillery: an ATEX rated, potentially explosive working environment, also experienced by visitors on tours. Functional lighting was combined with decorative lighting to create two lighting scenes to support each requirement. Directional, warm spotlights illuminate the distillery copper pot stills, enhancing the raw materials and textures, as well as highlighting interior architectural features to create a community focal point after dark visible through large arched windows from the street.

In combination with the low levels of lighting, wayfinding has been enhanced by making standout lighting design features

Adjacent to the distillery is the function room, featuring an impressive, vaulted ceiling, also visible from the street through large windows. Here, a series of large, curved, tiered copper-leafed pendants feature that make a visual connection with the copper distillery pot stills. The quantity of pendants, scale, number of tiers, orientation of the tiers and layout were all tested so to create the best visual impact experienced internally, as well as externally from the street view. The final design settled upon includes three pendants, and alongside the pot stills, they create a striking landmark viewed from the exterior that celebrates the Ad Gefrin brand.

The lighting design for the visitor experience includes a tasting room, retail space, museum and Great Hall. The lighting design within the tasting experience was kept minimal by using very, narrow beam, discretely mounted spotlights and LED light sheets to highlight the colour and qualities of the whisky, allowing the rest of the room to fall into darkness to support the 360 degree AV experience. A similar, discrete approach was also used in the Great Hall and museum to ensure that the artefacts and AV are the key focal point. Retail lighting in the shop at higher level provides a clear floor area for visitor movement and allows the space and displays to be used flexibly with feature lighting to highlight products available for sale.

Michael Grubb, founder and managing director of Michael Grubb Studio, comments: ‘There was a real investment in the local community throughout this project. The clients are a family-run business who were committed to involving and benefitting local people. This level of care can be seen throughout the details of the project and the high quality of the result, due to their craftsmanship and personal attention to detail. This is something that they really wanted the community to be proud of. The success of this project is also due to teamwork and all the pieces coming together. A good working relationship between the client, contractor, designers and engineers created a pleasant experience and a real harmony to the project.’

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