Dedicated to helping children with special needs by improving their health and wellbeing through the power of music, this extraordinary building features natural building materials and is a study in timber craftsmanship throughout.

About this project

Sunbeams Music Centre is a unique building with a powerful story at its heart. It is dedicated to helping children with special needs, some of them desperately disabled, and improving their health and wellbeing through the power of music.

Its design is intended to embody musical qualities of rhythm, timbre, and melody within the landscape. It is built on a greenfield site with transformational therapeutic qualities overlooking Ullswater Valley near Penrith. Curved around the site’s contours, the centre has a horn-shaped floor plan, referenced by the architects as a crescendo. The architecture is intended to bring together the natural context, a contemporary vernacular, and the musical activity of the centre.

The building had to respond to three main requirements; to provide music therapy, in acoustically treated spaces specifically designed for group sessions or one on one; to cater for the administrative demand of a growing charity like Sunbeams Music Trust; to facilitate exhibitions and concerts generating funds for the programmes run by the centre.

From the outset, the project was influenced by a strong sustainable agenda to the design based on first principles; the six hundred square metre Sunbeams Music Centre is predominantly naturally ventilated, naturally lit and the heating is provided by a ground source heat pump. U-values are to passivhaus standards with a large amount of locally sourced sheep wool and carefully designed south facing elevation to limit overheating. All materials are sustainably sourced and from as local a source as possible.

External envelope materials are primarily slate stone clad spine walls with an oak façade to the main curved elevation, a series of lozenge shaped cedar shingle clad volumes all topped with an extensive green roof; many of these materials continue internally to create a rich interior texture. Radially spanning glulam beams run with a rhythm throughout the building creating the projecting eaves and entrance canopy.

Designing healthy spaces

Few examples of music therapy centres existed when the project was first discussed. Extensive research by the architects informed design choices emphasising the importance of a welcoming non-institutional environment, a building which would be healthy for the children, and one which would help them achieve a non-anxious state. Drawn from Rudolf Steiner’s approach to music therapy, high importance was given to the use of natural materials making timber a natural choice, used throughout the building for its warmth, its durability and for its value as an essential element of acoustic control in the internal spaces.

The long, low, single storey structure emerges from this landscape as three robust timber forms, facetted ‘pods’ clad with cedar shingles. They contain the important spaces of the centre – workshop/performance hall, therapy suites and meeting room. Set back between the pods are walls clad with horizontally boarded oak with doors and louvre-screened windows to smaller rooms in the centre, all looking out to the southerly views of the Lakes hills.

Services, plant, changing and shower rooms and WCs are set along the rear and a long-curved corridor, lined with a wall of local Cumbrian slate, providing access to all the main spaces. At the east end of the building is the main entrance, a lofty canopy, four metres high and supported by a glulam structure of paired columns and beams.

The draft lobby has a green planted wall, designed to help calm anxious visitors, and this leads to a generous reception space, large enough for public exhibitions and receptions, and set between the workshop/performance hall pod and the music therapy suite pod. The canted and cedar-shingle clad walls of both pods have been brought into the inside and frame the reception space. Above is an exposed glulam roof structure with steel ties which bisect a circular rooflight and a ceiling clad with exposed Siberian larch boards.

The workshop/performance hall can take an audience of up to 120 people but is also suitable for a smaller group of children, parents or musicians or dancers, who are provided with barres for practice. The internal walls of this space are lined with 15mm ply and a double layer of plasterboard, acoustic insulation and an internal cladding of 32mm thick oak boards on acoustic material fixed to battens. The oak boards vary in width and are set at 25 to 100mm intervals; the variations create diffusion to break up sound waves. The ceiling has an acoustic raft of sound-reflecting material to help deflect sound, with the glulam beam support structure visible around the edges.

On the other side a lobby leads to the pod containing two music therapy suites, specially designed for music performance or for gentle sensory stimulation. Set between them is a recording studio. The acoustic quality of these rooms has made them much in demand for hire, generating revenue for the charity. Beyond, the corridor leads to other therapy rooms, a generous meeting room, a kitchen, and offices.

The floor is a sprung timber floor; the dark oak boards are stained black to make a visual contrast with the walls so that people who are visually impaired can recognise the difference between walls and floor.

Use of Timber

Sunbeams interior. Image credit : Photo and text reproduced with kind permission of Wood for Good,

Sunbeams interior. Image credit : Photo and text reproduced with kind permission of Wood for Good,


The structure of the three faceted pods consists of a series of tapered glulam beams and steel frame, braced with cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, and lined with locally sourced sheep wool insulation. The roof structure is of glulam beams, timber joists and a highly insulated green roof system. In the other, more cellular parts of the building, the glulam beam roof structure is supported on glulam columns set within the perimeter wall. The floors – timber and polished concrete – are in dark colours to contrast with light walls.

All timber used was FSC-sourced. The pods are clad both externally and internally with 400mm Canadian western red cedar shingles, overlapping 200mm and fixed to 50 x 25mm treated softwood battens and counter battens. Rather than allowing the cedar and the adjacent oak boarding to weather to grey over time, Will was keen to use a finish which would be environmentally suitable yet would maintain the colour of both. He consulted TRADA for advice and used their recommendations: Treatex Cedar Oil for its specific UV protective qualities was used on the cedar shingles: Osmo Extra Clear finish was used on the oak.

Internally, to keep VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions to a minimum, additional fire protection qualities were achieved using HR Prof fire retardant.

Timber Elements: Structure, external and internal cladding, floor, furniture, doors, windows

Timber Species: Canadian western red cedar, European oak (French), Siberian larch, European whitewood, Finnish birch plywood


AJ Architecture Awards 2017 – Health and Wellbeing Project of the year

Civic Trust Awards – commended

LABC Awards 2017, North – Best Small Commercial Project

RICS Awards 2018, North West – project of the year

Structural Timber Awards 2017

Further information

TRADA – full case study with architectural drawings