One thing that almost all the best ideas have in common is that they were discovered by accident – and my career in observatory design is no different. It all started in 2011 when I was approached by a potential customer who was looking to buy a very serious telescope for a very specific purpose – automated variable star astronomy. Now variable star astronomy is no joke: it requires a large number of observations, followed by careful comparison of images taken to determine if the brightness of the stars has changed over time. How do you make a large number of observations when you are located somewhere like Edinburgh with unreliable British weather… and don’t like staying up all night. The answer? An automated observatory and a robotic telescope that will spring to life whenever there’s a gap in the weather!
The observatory design was done on paper – I wish I had a picture of the plans to share with you! It was the birth of a design rationale that has been the foundation of our projects ever since – though almost every aspect of it has been tweaked and improved. It remains our simplest build to date – a straightforward 7′ x 8′ roll-off-roof observatory – but also defined our approach: each observatory would be custom-designed for the user, the site and of course, their equipment.
This remains the only observatory we’ve ever built that rolls off toward another building (in this case the client’s garage) – but it’s a solution I really like. It gave us the opportunity to run the mains and data cabling in a conduit along the roll-off rail that was far neater and more straightforward (not to mention more serviceable) than burying it underground. Sadly, our client died prior to delivery of his mount, so never got to use the observatory.
Our next design broadened our scope (pardon the pun) to include a warm-room – something that would become a feature of most of our future designs. The warm room makes a lot of sense for astronomers: it provides somewhere to sit, within sight of the telescope, to keep warm whilst operating the instrument by computer – especially useful when imaging the sky. We also began designing on computer, making it much simpler to make changes and guaranteeing that in the final build, everything would fit.
The observatory, installed in Lancaster, was assembled off-site (in my rather small back garden!) and installed on-site in just two days. It rained constantly during installation – so we spent the whole time soaked to the skin, and my colleague’s wellies filled completely with water at one point! Despite the conditions, we soldiered on, and the observatory came together beautifully. The fact that it too survived the rain is testament to our choice of materials – since the beginning I have insisted that every part of the observatory is treated as if it were exposed to the weather – though we have never had any rain make it inside a finished observatory.
In the picture above, you can see one key design evolution – notice how the observatory sits on two long timbers – one running down each side. This spreads the weight across paving slabs which are situated under each upright part of the frame. The result is a very sturdy design that requires no concrete foundations (except for the telescope itself), channels vibrations away from the centre (reducing the effect of vibration on the telescope) and guarantees loads of air-flow under the observatory, preventing rot and moisture ingress: do date, none of our customers has ever installed a dehumidifier.
This new design rationale led to a couple of other interesting models:
Again – a unique set of requirements led to a very unique design: the observatory had to fit on a small patio, without damaging it (the customer’s wife had banned him from digging any part of it up!) and despite being installed near some close neighbouring properties it needed to give its owner a good view of the sky. It also needed to fit visually within their designer garden… so we added extra timbers to give it the appearance of a Japanese-style pergola. Attention to detail is what really makes this design work – simple but less obvious things like making both roofs the same pitch.
The observatory below is another one evolved from our Lancaster model – this time without the warm room, as it was designed for a school and would accommodate 12 students plus their teachers:
We’ve done some super-bespoke projects too – this one is a garage conversion. It was a big challenge: we had to dig out part of the garage floor to install a suitable concrete base for the telescope pier, and we installed a raised floor for the client to stand on – all bringing telescope and user together at just the right height to get a great view whilst allowing the roof to be closed safely over the top. The walls presented another challenge – none of them were straight – and we would later find out that the roof expands and contracts with temperature and moisture, whilst the walls didn’t…. so a little bit of fiddling with the rails was required to get everything rolling as it should.
A further evolution was that of our ‘Hillside Observatory’ – the first design to take advantage of the natural slope on which it was built, to provide additional headroom in the warm room whilst a higher floor in the observatory allowed far lower horizons than could otherwise be achieved:
This led to several designs including our largest observatory yet, installed earlier this year in North Yorkshire – a spacious workshop with an observatory attached:
Of course, there have been quite a few more that I haven’t mentioned – some with more than one telescope, others designed for advanced remote and automated operation, and one designed to work almost directly under a neighbouring streetlamp! The last one I’ll show you here is one we completed in the summer. A super-luxury design, it features leather upholstery, fridge, underfloor heating, LED lighting and a host of other features. The whole thing was built from beautiful knotty Western Red Cedar, including a generous outside deck framed by the elegant roll-off frame. If you’re wondering where the telescope is, it rises out of the upper floor on an electric pier!