Co-Lab. Architecture for Charities, Community and Doctor’s Surgery
In late 2014, a rare, exciting opportunity arose to help develop a new type of public building, a wellbeing centre. Great community projects are a central part of our practice’s portfolio and ambition, so we were delighted to be appointed architects to the scheme. Our resourceful clients, Exeter CVS, supported by Devon County Council, successfully applied to Public Health England for funding in early 2015, and things got real.
Wat Tyler House, central Exeter, owned by the City Council. Vast, cold, mottled with physical and psychic stains of previous occupancy: carpet warehouse; poll tax office; Citizens Advice Bureau. 1980s, post-modern in window frame colour and pseudo-classical concrete. Eleven-hundred square metres of reinforced concrete slab under a huge copper roof.
The potential for beauty, masked by dross. In particular, ad-hoc adaptations of the building over the last few decades had resulted in the great volume of the building being reduced to a series of boxes and corridors along its flanks, thwarting any sense of the real scale of the building inside. The incoherence of the internal arrangements was reminiscent of the fencing in Heavitree Park, another local authority facility bereft of managed overview.
Exeter Council for Voluntary Services (CVS) – a commissioning body for services in the voluntary, charity and “third” sector, working and managing with education, care and health providers.
Alongside the physical alterations to their building, CVS was and is undergoing organisational changes, responding to new funding structures across the entire voluntary and charity sector.
It was an interesting time for everyone..
The Client Brief
Developing the brief took consultation and discussion. The changes CVS was going through itself meant a leap of faith was required on both sides, as many briefing issues could not be settled prior to construction. We designed in response to this, including “wiggle room” wherever possible, and creating a plan overall that can adapt while retaining a clarity that will always express the “third sector” identity of the place. This building has some commercial and civic functions, but its unique, long-term role is to house projects that support people, and welcome those who join in. It is a place to ask for help, and the answer will likely be a programme to help oneself.
In summary, the main objectives for the design were:
To create a place to be shared and enjoyed by service providers and users. A building that will welcome and excite everyone, staff and visitors, with hope and expectation.
To offer connection between the agencies working in the space, while maintaining discretion or confidentiality for visitors when necessary.
The prosaic physical requirements of the project were to lift the technical, functional and environmental attributes of the building, to make it fit for purpose and adaptable. This included many detailed issues of bricks, mortar, doors, wires, windows, regulations, etc., which I won’t go in to here, because there a few things as dull as someone else’s minutiae.
The Architectural brief
Make something that is such a rich and joyous expression of all of the above, that its soul will be unmistakeable . In other words: Architecture. We got there, by following first principles
Entrance. The face the building presented to the street was, as with all public buildings, critical to its success. Massive eaves and soffits crowd the narrow pavement where the entrance: Simply moving it created a sight line through the building that now draws you in from the street, with a view all the way through the building, and gave a generous apron of surface outside the building. What was awkward and embarrassed became confident and welcoming.
Place. It’s not enough to make space, one must make place. Using the sinuous skylight to dictate the main circulation through the building, a series of places emerge, connected to each other, relative to the central gallery and route through the building. Stops on the route, islands in the stream, places.
Hierarchy. One of the most important principles in spatial arrangement, inexplicably missed in so many developments. With a grand gallery central to the building, the primary space asserts itself, and spaces sit comfortably around it. The affect is simple: you know where you are in this building.
Progression. Progression into the building was a depressing experience. A cavernous draft lobby and waiting area somehow managed to feel like a terminal destination rather than the entrance. We used the oldest trick in the book to bring people in: a relatively low ceilinged entrance lobby feeds into a double height gallery, (compression / release), then deployed varying height partitions to give glimpses all the way from end to end, with a beautiful staircase as an eye-catcher, inducing the urge to wander through the building.
Someone, 30+ years ago, designed Wat Tyler House as a confident expression of the times: civic post modernism. Somehow that grandeur was lost, and the terrible thermal performance of the fabrc, combined with hideous partitioning and horrific carpets, had conspired to destroy the ambition of the architecture. We took great pride in returning, and we hope, making this building the best it can be. The transformation has been comprehensive, brave and successful.