Linking a housing estate in Bath with a new housing development, BDP’s new community centre and school provides a local landmark that also offers strong links back to the site’s D-Day heritage. James Parker reports
The new Community Hub designed by BDP and built at the interface between a challenged housing estate in Bath and a new housing development, is a shining example of how an enlightened client can maximise community capital, with the help of a like-minded architect. Housing association Curo is managing an ongoing regeneration project for the Foxhill estate, just to the south of the city centre, but far from the wealthy Georgian splendour Bath is famous for. As well as refurbishing houses it owns across the site by 2024, Curo is also building 700 homes at Combe Down next door. The development is on the former MOD Foxhill site where the Admiralty designed the floating Mulberry Harbours used at D-Day, with the site being somewhat cut off from the city due to its historic role. The housing association fully engaged the community, consulting them on what they would want from the refurbishments, the housing scheme masterplanned by HTA, and the new community hub, which included a new primary academy. The scheme’s name was a result of this consultation process – a resident suggested calling it Mulberry Park in order to reflect the site’s history. Project director at BDP Nick Fairham tells ADF: “We’ve never worked on a project which had so much community engagement. It was a well orchestrated piece of work, including Curo having a dedicated liaison officer who could direct us to some of the harder to reach residents.” He adds: “One of the things Curo was keen to do was to link the site better into the city – take fences down and use it to help in the regeneration of Foxhill by creating a single combined community across the new development and the estate.” The new Community Hub was also intended to provide the vital linking piece between the old and new housing, however its genesis was more pragmatic – a Section 106 agreement that required ‘social infrastructure’ to support the new development. Curo spotted this opportunity to create a shared resource for residents of Foxhill and Mulberry Park; Fairham says that Curo’s ambition to make this a significant asset – one that would “galvanise the two communities” – was evident from the outset.
Briefing & optioneering
The Section 106 agreement required a primary school, plus 100 m2 of community space. However, reports Fairham, “Curo said ‘what good is 100 m2 to anybody’ – they wanted considerably more.” Early on in the briefing process, the client built a business case including a cafe plus bookable community space, spaces for wellbeing activities, and ‘enterprise space’ as its three key components. As a result of Curo’s drive to make “a serious investment in local prosperity, the brief ended up consisting of nearer 1000 m2 of flexible accommodation for use by local groups. Fairham further explains the vision of how the centre would work in practice: “Parents could drop the kids off at school, meet up in the community cafe, do some wellbeing – e.g. ‘Yogalates, ’ singing or dancing classes – or use the employment space.” The centre proposed would offer a wide range of facilities that would not only benefit local residents’ wellness and prosperity (many classes are run by locals), but also that of the region. The client’s ambition was clear at the initial interview: “The enthusiasm that came across was fantastic, we all came away saying we really hope we win this one,” says Fairham. Following appointment, BDP explored a number of options – together with users – around the mix of spaces, on criteria of commerciality as well as community benefit. The consultation phase threw up some interesting findings: “Interestingly, things like a big fixed gym space, which we thought would be picked up on, wasn’t seen as a priority; it was more about having flexible spaces, says Fairham. The project was a single-stage design and build, with Rydon being the successful contractor. Fairham says that, at least in his BDP Bristol office, this procurement method isn’t particularly popular with builders, and the fact that there was “a lot of interest” illustrates how attractive this project was. He adds that this was also down to the “resolution of the design information.” Following Rydon’s appointment, Fairham says briefing with the client was a “pretty straightforward” process of identifying key areas of interest: “We nailed down the bits that were really important to the client and the local community, and with other buildability and construction aspects we left more flexibility for the contractor to come up with best practice.” The £9.1m build cost was set early on following optioneering, and the project coming in on budget “offered a lot of bang for buck,” says Fairham.
From early dialogue with the client, it was clear they wanted the building to have “a special character,” says Fairham. The masterplan includes an avenue which runs parallel to the site to a large green open space to the north, and the new building is a landmark for anyone travelling north-south – or east-west – across the site. During the optioneering phase, BDP developed one option called the ‘Beacon,’ which as the name suggests, stood out from the others. It took the material palette of the new Mulberry Park in terms of the brick used (albeit in a more restrained and Bath Stone-like creamy variant), and combined it with a dynamic cantilevering form which would make it a focal point. The building’s steel frame cantilevers to the side at second level, and double-cantilevers front-to-back at third. The resulting composition of stacked boxes overlapping and appearing to ‘slot’ into each other was directly inspired by the site’s heritage. “The concept is effectively a stack of Mulberry Harbours,” says Fairham, adding that the practice had “really positive feedback about it” from the local community. Planning was granted under a ‘delegated approval’ – “a rarity in Bath,” says Fairham. He says that achieving the right balance in terms of proportion, while adhering to height constraints for planning, “reinforced the stacking concept” which the architects adopted. The community centre and nursery are offset from the school by about two metres at the request of the academy that runs the school, and so the development effectively forms two separate buildings. They were designed as a unified entity by BDP however, and as such are linked by a continuation of the roof terrace that runs along the front elevation. The top storey’s cantilever extends to around 5 metres at the back, and covers a portion of a larger roof terrace, providing protected outdoor space for wellness classes. To the rear of the Community Hub is a 4G pitch, the fruit from a close relationship between the client and the nearby Combe Down rugby club, and a variety of sports activities can be viewed from the rear roof terrace. As part of the “long-life, loose-fit, simple maintenance” approach by the architects, the Hub has an exposed steel frame and exposed precast soffits, plus acoustic panels internally to increase the spaces’ usability. The soffits assist night time purging of heat, and underfloor heating throughout also helps to maximise the thermal mass of the slab. One way in which the two buildings are unified is by the use of a copper alloy cladding, which has a bronze-gold colour and is perforated in a pattern based on aerial photography of the Mulberry Harbours. It creates an attractive variation to the exterior, enclosing the cantilevered, overlapping third storey, but also the school hall – which bookends the other side of a new public space formed in front of the two buildings’ entrances. Car access does not spoil the immediate surroundings of the building; as befits its school and community role, the whole frontage has been made a pedestrian piazza, including an area where the cafe can spill out in good weather. The space is also intended to be used for local amenities like farmer’s markets or fetes, and to be a safe space for children exiting the school.
The ground floor of the Community Hub contains a cafe, as well as some bookable wellbeing space, and the nursery to the rear. A sliding/folding screen allows the downstairs to be opened up into one large area for community functions, or closed to provide an area separate from the cafe. According to Nick, it’s been well used already: “Every time I’ve been there it’s been closed and is being used for something.” The cafe area blends with a double-height volume at the centre of the building, dubbed the ‘Heart Space’ by the architects, which sits behind the front door, and provides a visual connection between the ground and first floor. Adjacent to the stairs, this volume “helps the spaces flow as a sequence, rather than just being a ground floor and then stairs, says Fairham. Up the stairs, the first floor is divided broadly in half by the double-height space. A large exposed truss carrying the main load of the storey above runs front to back and backspans across both areas. “We didn’t worry too much if a cross member went past a window or not, we kind of saw it as part of the playfulness of the interaction of the structure and the mass of the building,” says Fairham. On this floor are further wellbeing spaces – potentially for use by health professionals such as a GP, and there is a mechanically ventilated room suitable for physiotherapy (the rest of the building is naturally ventilated). A smaller balcony/roof terrace at the front provides visual connection to the pedestrianized ‘piazza,’ and offers some breakout space from the group rooms. The double-cantilevered second floor contains the ‘enterprise space’ – this is comprised of open-plan office space with a raised floor. “The intention is that over time community uses or local businesses will populate it,” says BDP’s project director. Fairham adds that this will “help to activate the space, by looking at opportunities including training.”
Flexibility of adaptability
The client was “very keen that the building chassis was as flexible as possible,” for example to cope with future demand scenarios like the enterprise zone “becoming totally oversubscribed.” However, Nick Fairham says it’s “more about flexibility of adaptability – over time, as the community changes, and what they want out of the building alters, it can be adapted to suit that changing need. He adds: “Because it’s going to be owned by the community in the future, having that flexibility to adapt to their needs is very important – it should be able to deal with most things.” The ‘loose-fit,’ easily screened-off spaces are designed to be shallow in plan so they can be naturally ventilated and lit, but “deep enough to allow some flexibility in use,” says Fairham. By the same token, the fact that the vast majority of spaces aren’t highly serviced means their function can easily be switched if required. The flexibility of the building in terms of being able to use outdoor areas as well as indoors is “already being shown” a few months since opening, says its architect. The school is something of an unknown quantity, as it serves the new Mulberry Park development and demand is as yet uncertain (it will be taking in one initial year group only). In terms of design, it also has “large, flexible volumes,” says Fairham, as befits the unknown nature of how it may need to adapt. The designers hope that the school, although physically separated, will, like the nursery, be able to use the community spaces within the centre as needed in future.
The fact that the building has already been well adopted by a wide range of community groups and individuals, providing a diverse range of activities and clubs, is the practical evidence the building is working. In more symbolic terms, the Community Hub is an important example of a developer and architect maximising value for the local community, in a built result which offers something visually exciting as well as highly functional. According to the architect, working with Curo, an organisation whose values he says align with BDP’s, has been “really refreshing – we are based around social value, and a huge proportion of our work is around community and the public sector. There is a real ambition to make the most of opportunities like this as they come.”