The move to turn existing buildings into new community spaces has increased dramatically in recent times. Veronica Simpson reports on how the latest wave have fared after the lockdowns of 2020

Words by Veronica Simpson

We humans are generally creatures who like company. As philosopher and School of Life founder Alain de Botton wrote in a recent Book of Life blog: ‘For 99% of homo sapien’s evolutionary existence… we lived in… groups of 20 or 30 people who worked together, cooked communal meals, and lived and died around each other.’ While there may be many benefits to not having to live in the pockets of your family or immediate neighbours all your life, at the start of 2020 it looked as if modern lifestyles had taken us too far in the other direction. Our intense attachment – even addiction – to social media and constant on-demand entertainment could certainly be seen as an expression of that desire for connection and belonging. Yet the ways in which that attachment spirals out of control (trolling, gambling, rising factionalism, shopping beyond our means for what we don’t need) also makes it plain that this need is not being met.

Our contemporary obsessions with finding the perfect relationship, the perfect job, the perfect life – through which social media derives so much of its traction – arises, as de Botton says, ‘out of an unquenched emotional need for nothing more esoteric than some good friends’ (although I would add freemarket capitalism and its bedfellow, consumer advertising, are also culprits). And from Helsinki to Tilburg, Copenhagen to London, we see that desire for group activities expressed in a diversity of ways. For the collectively minded Finns, we see it in the opening of the extraordinary Oodi library (see Helsinki city profile, FX July/August 2020 issue), which combines one floor of books with two floors of socialising, co-working and making spaces.

For the equally equitable Danes, we see it in the opening of Amager Bakke, a massive new playground for all ages – an artificial ski slope, which includes climbing and walking activities, wrapped around the city’s clean energy power station. In Tilburg, Holland, we see it in the LocHal library, event, work and study space, which has been creatively inserted into an old railway depot (and deservedly won 2019’s World Architecture Festival overall award).

Turbine Hall

E-werk Luckenwalde offers workshops, studio space, public exhibitions and a residential programme in an old coal power plant.

The LocHal represents one of the most encouraging aspects of the desire for shared community facilities, in that it repurposes an old, existing building. With anxieties over climate change at an all-time high, the retrofitting of existing and characterful buildings is clearly the right way to go – not only for reasons of energy and material conservation, but also because these structures can play powerfully to a local sense of identity. In the UK, in particular, older, neglected or disused buildings are enjoying a revival of life and interest, thanks to the growing need for community space.

One of the most visible beneficiaries of this – prior to the 2020 pandemic – had been the British pub, whose future in many ways was been looking pretty shaky. A late 2019 BBC Radio 4 report claimed that, since 2001, more than a quarter of the UK’s pubs had closed. ‘High taxes, high prices, supermarket competition, and even the smoking ban have all been blamed,’ according to the feature. But the emergence of the micropub and the community-owned pub has, in many areas, turned this downward trend around. Again, it’s hard to know what the picture is while pandemic restrictions are still in play, but as of March 2020 there were 500 micropubs across the UK – many of them not based in pubs at all, but converted shops or offices that offer local, often own-brewed beers and food, in an atmosphere tailored to local tastes. Meanwhile, the classic rural pub – long-time lifeblood of many a village community – has had a refresh, with the threat of closure often galvanising locals to raise funds for restoration and acquisition, to bring them under community ownership. There are now over 100 community-owned and run pubs, according to The Plunkett Foundation, which assists rural communities in rescuing business such as shops and pubs.

My own local community-owned pub – the Ivy House, in Nunhead – was one of the few local venues that seemed to be thriving, albeit with the encroachment of its tables into outdoor space, during the months in 2020 when we were allowed to socialise and drink and eat outdoors. The traditional pub typology seems to adapt pretty well to new contemporary requirements: the ‘loose fit’ combination of bar, dining area, lounge and the odd function room/s are easily adapted to facilitate an additional crèche or craft workshop, and co-working or yoga activities as tastes dictate.

Often, no design or architecture intervention other than a light refurb is required. While the historic church is another building type that has suffered decades of neglect thanks to our increasingly secular habits, new life has been breathed into churches too, with the addition of bookable social facilities, such as those conjured by Evans Vettori, a Derbyshire-based architecture practice. It recently won a Civic Trust Award as well as an ecclesiastical one for a handsome, contemporary community hall addition to a 1980s church, St Joseph’s of Derby, following the success of another community facility it built as an extension to the historic St Joseph’s in Matlock. The practice brought similar benefits when it inserted additional recreational, performance and social space into Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax, which itself is based inside a historic chapel.


The blue shade flags up the staircases and circulation elements

At The Granville, the blue shade flags up the staircases and circulation elements

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and where budgets are almost non-existent but the need is great, some really innovative community facilities have emerged, often squeezed out of existing but underutilised structures, such as The Granville, RCKa’s imaginative reworking of an old church hall, which provides recreational, food and co-working space for its South Kilburn, London, population. After careful consultation with the community, RCKa helped fine-tune the business model that would keep the whole programme ticking over, with the studio and co-working space providing a regular flow of funds that makes the more flexible community space viable. Thanks to its generous catering facilities and additional outdoor space, the community was able to create a soup kitchen during and after lockdown, and while occupants of the individual work and studio spaces had to move out, many are filtering back.

Co-working combined with networking had been a recent driver for a new breed of members clubs as well as the ever proliferating co-working hubs. Although the co-working sector has been badly hit by the pandemic, there is every chance it will return, hopefully towards the end of 2021. And some of the more successful versions were those where the target communities were forged from a shared sense of purpose and social justice rather than social kudos or cronyism.

Between 2017 and early 2020, a number of women-only members clubs emerged, offering a valuable antidote to hundreds of years of chauvinism from the previously dominant men-only members clubs. However, one of the most exciting clubs of 2019 and early 2020 was The Conduit, aimed at nurturing a community of social and environmental change-makers. And a major part of that excitement came from the license it gave its architects Feix&Merlin to interpret that socially and environmentally progressive ethos (see case study) in highly creative ways, transforming an old Mayfair office block in the process.

The Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charmThe Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charm

Sadly – thanks to restructuring in FX’s own publishing schedule – by the time this article came round for publication, the club had been forced to close, whatever early financial promise it showed made untenable by many months of lockdown. But Jonathan Hagos, co-director of Freehaus architects, said that he and his practice had been to The Conduit on several occasions, garnering inspiration – especially in the re-use of existing materials and spaces – for The Africa Centre, a cultural community project they are working on for completion in 2021. He says: ‘It was a remarkable project. It was so commendable, and there was such clarity of message, led by the design. It seemed to infuse the whole culture, affecting everyone we met there, and the way people interacted. I think that resourcefulness and intelligence will be an influence in many new retrofits over the next few years.’

The joy of retrofit, as RCKa associate, and project architect for The Granville Tony Staples says, is that it minimises risk while allowing communities to evolve in place. He derides the noughties passion for shiny, new, ‘statement’ buildings, where ‘you’ve got a big risk of spending lots of money and it not working… The beauty of The Granville is we have been able to test whether it works without spending much money.’ Perhaps, in times of scarcity and uncertainty, it is more environmentally, economically and socially intelligent to replace the chutzpah of ‘build it and they will come’ with the thrifty but creative, improvisational spirit of ‘suck it and see’.


Case Study

E-werk Luckenwalde

Art Collective Performance Electrics bought the plant in 2017

Art Collective Performance Electrics bought the plant in 2017

After serving the local community for 80 years, Luckenwalde coal power plant in East Germany was closed down shortly after the collapse of communism in the 1990s. The listed, 1913, art deco building lay unused for 30 years, but now this flagship industrial structure’s 10,000m of space over four floors has become a welcome haven for artists of all kinds who are fleeing the escalating rents of Berlin’s once affordable studios, as well as a green energy producer for the local community.

E-Werk Luckenwalde, located just 30 miles south of Berlin, offers workshops, studio space, public exhibitions and a residential programme. And it’s all thanks to artist Pablo Wendel, who set up Performance Electrics as a not-for-profit art collective, which bought the plant in 2017. It’s a neat twist for Wendel, who has made a name for producing electricity through his art – a process he calls ‘kunststrom’ (art electricity). Previous projects include generating solar energy from the light harvested from advertising hoardings.

He has described the process of restoring the building as ‘like bringing a dinosaur back to life’, and that includes refurbishing the vintage machinery. Wendel himself, plus a team of local people – some of whom had worked in the power plant – worked on the restoration, including the ancient power plant machinery, which is now burning spruce pine woodchips, a leftover product from wooden cable drums that are produced in a nearby factory, rather than coal. The charcoal that results from the burning is destined to become a soil nutrient, just one of Wendel’s many ambitious schemes to achieve total carbon neutrality. Heated waste water will go into on-site coffee-roasting and beer-brewing facilities.

Local people have a vested interest in seeing it succeed, as the population has fallen by about 6,000 since the 1990s. Helen Turner, who is co-artistic director with Wendel, has described this art/power coupling as a way ‘to implement effective socio-political change through interdisciplinary and cross-border cooperation’. Wendel has said: ‘We would like to insert artists in industry rather than being at the whim of the commercial art market.’

Retrofit3The entrance…

Although the facility had to obey lockdown restrictions in early 2020, Germany’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic – and the low cost of running the site – means that many activities were able to continue, and the centre has announced a strong programme for 2021.

Client Performance Electrics

Refurbishment Pablo Wendel and community volunteers

Area 10,000m2

Case Study

The Africa Centre

What was once a bland corporate building will be turned a characterful new home for TACWhat was once a bland corporate building will be turned a characterful new home for TAC

The Africa Centre (TAC) became, from its opening in 1964 in Covent Garden, a legendary haven for travellers and settlers from and lovers of the continent; a campaign HQ for those fighting against colonial injustices; and a place to showcase African music, culture and, above all, food, which was served from its atmospheric basement restaurant.

But TAC had long outgrown its premises when the gentrification of Covent Garden made it judicious to sell its lease on the King Street building in 2013, and find temporary premises while contemplating a new home. In 2015 it combined the proceeds of that sale with match funding from the Arts Council to buy the 1960s office building Gunpowder House in Bermondsey, south-east London. Planning permission was secured for a change of use in 2017, then TAC secured Good Growth funding from the Greater London Authority and launched a RIBA-run competition to find architects who could turn the bland corporate building into a characterful new home. Freehaus won the project in 2019. A young practice established in 2012 by Jonathan Hagos and Tom Bell, it has a track record for conservation and Passivhaus design across various scales and sectors, and also strong participatory and stakeholder engagement experience.

The client wants to have ‘the most welcoming cultural institution in LondonThe client wants to have ‘the most welcoming cultural institution in London’

What it didn’t give TAC was an off-the-peg solution, offering instead to spend time with the organisation and its supporters, thinking about what it wanted and needed. Says Hagos: ‘There had been a set of consultations with stakeholders to help establish what the values should be going forward. What is The Africa Centre for the 21st century?’ Out of that consultation came five pillars of activity: educational, social, cultural, intellectual and entrepreneurial. Says Hagos: ‘Their brief to us was to have the most welcoming cultural institution in London.’ In the end, the Freehaus proposal sees TAC as ‘an embassy of optimism’, says Hagos, with a pan-African identity, ‘rather than all 50 states having an identity within it’.

The new scheme will have a restaurant on the ground floor ‘because food is a big part of any welcome’, says Hagos. There will be a speakeasy, performance space and bar in the basement, as there was in the Covent Garden original. There will be another bar on the first floor, a gallery and exhibition space on the second floor, and a library on the third. Currently, TAC’s extensive archive is kept at London Metropolitan University. This will allow it to have all its archive material under its own roof in a dedicated learning and research space. A fourth floor will offer a broadcasting suite and meeting rooms. TAC will hang onto the two Bermondsey arches it currently occupies near to Gunpowder House, one of which will be devoted to co-working and TAC offices, and the other to live music.

While the 2020 pandemic has slowed down fundraising, the work is going ahead in 2021 on a new, phased schedule, prioritising the public-facing, income-generating aspects of the building. Co-working and educational spaces can hopefully be realised after a later fundraising initiative.

Client The Africa Centre

Architects Freehaus freehausdesign.com

Funding Still under way and includes L1.6m from the Good Growth Grant

Schedule Building work started end of 2020; phase one to complete September 2021

Case Study

The Granville

The cafe is open to the wider community as well as for resident useThe cafe is open to the wider community as well as for resident use

The clever husbandry of resources informs the design and programming of The Granville, a community, co-working and event space in South Kilburn, London, which has brought back to life a 19th-century former church hall, owned by Brent council. It opened in 2018, following two intense years of collaboration between local people, local employment and enterprise charity the South Kilburn Trust (SKT), architects RCKa, and the council, with the business case being integral to the design.

RCKa proposed turning an annexe, which links the hall with its neighbouring nursery, into a central living room and cafe for wider community as well as resident use. It stripped out interior rooms to create a big, open, first floor space, amply lit by the large original windows, with one window transformed into what is now the front door, accessed via a new staircase. This entrance now orientates the building towards the garden, which becomes a valuable additional space for events and activities during the summer. It also flags up the facility from the street, and creates an arrival sequence that delivers all visitors right into the heart of the building.

RCKa has transformed the more architecturally interesting space – the original church hall – into a two-storey studio and co-working hub, run by SKT with a range of low-cost, flexible desk and studio spaces. Says project architect Tony Staples: ‘It’s really important that SKT’s workspace has an identity. The image of the hall attracts people to want to come and use this space.’

At the public consultation for The Granville 

At the public consultation for The Granville

And the studio and desk rentals help to keep the whole facility financially viable. Accessed off the living room, by fob-operated secure door, RCKa stripped this handsome hall back to the original materials and proportions, showcasing its slender timber columns and generous windows. Painting the ceiling and walls white (the original timber roof was previously a sombre black) intensifies those qualities of space and light. Simple timber partitions are lined with fibre-cement panels on the outward-facing side, and wool acoustic panels on the inside, to soften the acoustics; these easily reconfigured partitions can also be used as pinboards. The studios are left semi-open on the first floor (they have no doors, both to sidestep fire regulation issues but also to encourage mingling), while the lower ground floor – accessed via a central timber staircase – features more discrete spaces, to address both acoustics and security: they include soundproofed recording studios for musicians and the resident K2K Radio station. Polycarbonate panels line the top part of these temporary walls, to allow daylight in. There are secure lockers for all the co-working tenants. One lift has been inserted to the right of the new entrance, which makes the whole building accessible.

While budgets for this temporary, meanwhile space were tight – there will be permanent space for the SKT in a future scheme currently evolving, under the direction of Adam Khan Architects and very much informed by The Granville experience – RCKa has still infused the scheme with moments of delight and character, such as the arrangement of graphic, linear light fixings of powder-coated blue, a blue that also flags up the staircases and circulation elements. A strong, clear palette of colours – green, orange, grey and blue – enriches The Granville’s identity and plays across signage and communications.

Client Greater London Authority (GLA), London Borough of Brent, South Kilburn Trust

Architect RCKa rcka.co.uk

Area 1,200m2 (GIA), plus garden

Total build cost L650,000

Completed 2018

Award NLA Community award, 2019

Structural engineer Conisbee

Services engineer Millieu

Graphic design Europa

Main contractor Surecast

Case Study

The Conduit

A pivotal space to help galvanise a new community of change-makers, The Conduit opened its doors in summer 2019, wearing its eco heart on its sleeve thanks to an ingenious refurbishment by architects Feix&Merlin. The six-storey building in London was originally an extension to the neoclassical hotel next door, but had been built up, stripped out and transformed into bland office space at some point in the 1980s. The Conduit’s co-founders, South African human rights lawyer Paul van Zyl (who served on the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission), Rowan Finnegan and Nick Hamilton gave Julia Feix and Tarek Merlin a free rein to infuse the building with a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charm, while pushing the envelope on sustainability. Finishes and materials from the existing building were incorporated wherever possible, from office doors reinvented as wall-panelling in a bar, to the reuse of an onyx stone reception wall as kitchen worktops. An original, elaborately inlaid wood floor was discovered on the first floor – a remnant from its days as the ballroom for the adjacent hotel – which was sanded down and buffed up to beautify an impressive, flexible, first-floor events space. This space also featured hydroponic green walls, complete with built-in intelligent water management and stable system dynamics, to improve air quality and reduce the need for artificial ventilation.

The Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charmThe Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charm

Significant structural alterations and additions were required, including installing two new goods lifts, which used regenerative braking; the energy for the ascent was harvested during descent. Feix&Merlin also constructed a new extension on the roof to create a sixth-floor lounge and bar, with a roof terrace overlooking some of London’s most expensive real estate.

Other sustainable measures included using hemp plaster on the walls – a natural and low-carbon resource – instead of traditional plaster.

The Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charmThe Conduit 

There was an impressive contemporary art collection, showcasing rising artists from all over the world, and interiors included ceramics and tapestries sourced from South African artisans. Total costs, including acquisition and construction, were estimated at £38m.

The Conduit offered a blend of contemporary comfort and old-world Mayfair charm

The Conduit

The invitation-only membership rapidly expanded from 1,500 initial members to over 3,000. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, the plan was to take back office and admin space to expand facilities for a membership of up to 7,000. Sadly, all plans were shelved by the end of summer 2020, when the club finally decided to close its doors for good. However, it still stands as a seductive, clever and ethically coherent approach to refurb for a socially driven and ambitious client.

Client The Conduit

Architecture Feix&Merlin feixandmerlin.com

Interior design consultants Russell Sage Studio and Cavendish Studios

Area 40,000 sq ft

Cost £38m

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