A team effort


Providing a wide range of health and wellbeing facilities, and passing the finish line five months ahead of schedule, a new leisure centre in Leicestershire is set to become a central part of the local community. Paolo Coyle from architects GT3 speaks to Jack Wooler on the key to the project’s success – collaboration

The Whitwick and Coalville Leisure Centre forms a new gateway for the Leicestershire town of Coalville, introducing a wealth of health and fitness resources to the area in a form sensitive to its woodland surroundings.

Developed for North West Leicestershire District Council (NWLDC) and designed by GT3 Architects, the new facility, which cost £22.5m, replaces the former outdated Hermitage Leisure Centre, and is located next to the A511 that runs east-west through Coalville.

As well as improving the wellbeing of the local residents, the centre is intended to create a new heart for the community that will enhance local connectivity, and forms a focal point for the area. In addition, the design exploited the full benefits of the site to put a connection with nature at the foreground of the project for users.

Set on a wooded site on the northern outskirts of Coalville, users approach the centre through a series of vibrant outdoor spaces – designed by landscape architects OOBE – which have been designed to be a continuation of the semi-rural surroundings. Around the centre’s exterior, exercise trails enclose a large area of grass with a mown footpath guiding visitors through. Coppiced woodland belts and swathes of wildflower planting adding ecological interest and biodiversity.

Within this substantial framing landscape, the design of the building itself takes a deep consideration of its surroundings. The external materials palette includes pre-patinated copper cladding, combined with an overhanging roof that reflects the design of the education college opposite. The forms created also include glulam timber columns alongside full-height glazing – mirroring the forest and helping open the centre up to the outside.

Heading through the centrally-positioned entrance, the new leisure centre hosts a wide range of amenities, including a 110-station state-of-the-art gym, plus two pools, three group fitness studios, a ‘Clip n’ Climb’ wall, three squash courts, an eight-court sports hall, a steam room and a spa pool. All of the internal areas have been designed with “sensitive materiality,” say the architects, which, combined with a layout closely focused around the needs of users thanks to a highly collaborative design process, amounted to a “truly landmark building that brings people together,” says GT3.

Paolo Coyle, senior architect at the practice, says that the finished result encourages “community cohesion and improved access to health and wellbeing services.” In addition, the collaborative approach taken to the project also allowed the team to achieve key milestones early, evidenced by the project being completed five months earlier than initially anticipated.

The brief

GT3 Architects is a multidisciplinary architecture practice whose services include consultation, workplace and residential design, and masterplanning. Their specialisation however is in the sport and leisure sector, and already having a strong portfolio (plus relationships with relevant governing bodies such as Sport England), the practice was well placed to take full advantage of this opportunity in Coalville, and deliver the results for leisure operator Everyone Active.

The client conducted a bid process among several design firms. The successful GT3 team were appointed to undertake design, management and building procurement, which meant combining design, construction and operational aspects of the new leisure centre, with the funding provided by the council.

According to Coyle, the practice is in a continual process of reviewing its previous design projects to produce the best result possible, using its in-house R&D expertise to improve user experiences as well as its design processes. However, the practice’s first step in every project, says the architect, is to fully understand the client’s aspirations for this individual building.

The brief, initially discussed during ‘dialogues’ with the client, says Coyle, was for a strongly community-focused facility for the district, but one which would be informed by the pre-existing facility and its users. As in any project of this type, the form needed to suit the business case as well as the needs assessment. This was soon refined during continuous engagement with the key stakeholders, with frequent ‘vision workshops’ and meetings to ensure that all parties were satisfied with progress.

Something that was clear among all parties, says Coyle, and a factor which “glued the team together,” was the opportunity that the site provided, plus the vision of an “aspirational leisure destination in a sensitive setting that encourages a connection to nature, outdoor active design, and a link back to indoor facilities.”As is common in sports and leisure however, achieving this would not be easy, and in fact multiple challenges awaited the design team through all the phases of the project.

Collaborating on site constraints

One of the largest barriers the team faced were the constraints of the site itself, in fact caused by its abundant biodiversity, which also meant issues to address around the site’s infrastructure. One of the most prominent of these issues was the Grace Dieu Brook which runs around the site perimeter, which naturally constrained movement and created an obstacle that had to be retained.

Alongside this constraint, a pre-existing underground sewer was running diagonally across the site, with overhead power cables also running across this axis. Both of these would require relocating, with the power cables needing to be buried underground around the site perimeter, avoiding the mature trees while traversing challenging topography and restricting site access around the brook.

The architects were well-equipped for the challenge however, as Coyle explains, with the key to the remediation of these constraints lying in the strong collaboration between all parties in the project, including the design team, planning, the operator (Everyone Active) and the project’s ultimate client, NWLDC.

According to the architect, the practice fostered “an honest and open relationship throughout the process, with regular communication enabling deadlines to be met and design and site issues remediated at pace.” The team had a “really positive relationship,” he enthuses.

With this collaboration at the core, the architect says that the project programme was “appropriately” set out based around these sites and building complexities, with the risks each proposed being considered constantly. One key risk to be mitigated was delays, given the possibility of further increases in the costs of materials in the current economic context.

Via regular reviews of the programme, key project milestones began to be hit ahead of time, one of the earliest being the groundworks, which in turn allowed the structural package to be coordinated, procured and delivered early. This all meant the overall programme could be reduced – which helped to avoid material cost rises during the project’s construction.

“Every effort was made to reduce the programme to avoid the risk of rising material costs,” says Coyle. The team pragmatically looked at opportunities offered to store materials onsite where possible, for example, “meaning they could be procured ahead of schedule.”

“This was further enabled through working directly with the supply chain,” he continues, which was ameliorated by being “co-ordinated with the technical design, from start to finish.”

User-focused design

When it came to the final form arrived for this particular site, it was the product of the design brief, but also informed by the architects’ previous work. According to Coyle, the team employed lessons learned from both previous projects, and findings from the “contextual analysis” of the new site, again considering the engagement of stakeholders and the key outcomes that each group desired.

“Strategic design moves were tested with a people-focused approach before developing building massing options that were appropriate for the site,” says Coyle. He adds that the layout “needed to consider both access and user journeys if it was to be successful.” The sizing of the various sports spaces within the centre was partly based on “relevant guidance from bodies such as Sport England,” says the architect.

Central to this approach is the main entrance, located at the end of the main boulevard for vehicle, cycle and pedestrian access, alongside dedicated coach parking. This entrance leads users straight into the central block – or “activity wedge” as Coyle terms it – hosting a reception and cafe with views both outside and into the pool, a climbing wall and rear squash court, and a fitness suite and studios above on the first floor.  Coyle explains further that the design of the centralised circulation offered “glimpses of activity throughout,” through glazing and apertures, which had the key benefit of providing a simple and efficient wayfinding approach for the building users.

To the west is a pool block, angled towards an ‘informal’ path to Stephenson College at the opposite rear corner of the site. This designated ‘wet’ block includes an eight lane, 25 metre pool with 100 seats for small galas and training – which was a key desire for the project stakeholders – alongside an adaptable learner pool. One result of the user consultations undertaken by the architects was lowering the roof’s height to improve acoustics, reduce space heating requirements, and reduce the impact of glare – while still benefiting from south facing solar gain.

The entire block was aligned to support pool plant filtration across the site, and changing rooms including a Changing Places-registered disabled toilet. Another key response to engaging with stakeholders was making the teaching pool floor moveable, which enabled the operator to have depths of between 0-1.4 metres, facilitating a range of uses from shallow swimming for gaining confidence, to lessons and casual swimming.

Situated above the pool, the spin studios were also specifically designed to conform with the user demands which had been communicated to the design team during the consultation process. An example is that one studio has been designed as a ‘dark room’ with an immersive screen to help motivate spin class users, while the other studios can be divided into two-thirds and one-third configurations thanks to an acoustically specified moveable wall, or opened fully, with windows running down their length bringing in daylight to benefit the range of classes and users in the spaces.

Lastly, to the east of the site is the sports block. Again, this is formed in an volume that’s angled to guide users towards the Hermitage Recreation Ground as part of the site wayfinding strategy; connecting with the rear bridleway. Among the features of this block are a large eight court sports hall, which can accommodate for the wide range of sporting activities and community events desired by the client, thanks to its flexible design.

Design for performance

The practice carefully specified each internal finish of the sports spaces to support the corresponding activity likely to take place in each, such as sprung flooring to the sports hall, squash courts and studios, for example.

Beyond focusing on performance above all however, the architects made many nods to the building’s setting and context in its materiality. The pool roof, for example, is constructed of PPC aluminium, which references the nearby college’s copper cladding. Another example of this context-responsive design, say the architects, is a “rhythm of engineered timber elements across the main facade,” which has been designed to respond to the National Forest surrounding the building.

According to the architect, these referencing elements were set out during the early planning stages. On the pool block, for instance, as well as the central entrance and fitness areas, it was always clear to the designers that the building was going to require shading, and this is delivered by a canopy supported by timber posts. Similarly, on the eastern block, timber is used to visually break up the large sports hall’s mass, as all parties were keen to avoid an imposing feel, and also covers an integrated cycle shelter along the connecting ‘Hermitage’ pathway.

In a similar way, the remaining external materials were also specified in response to the site’s location and the client’s needs – in particular, the latter requiring a low maintenance material palette. Chosen by the architects from the wide choice at the local Ibstock factory, the brick specification included a 3 metre high brick plinth around the perimeter, which was chosen to provide robustness against regular daily use, and concurrent low maintenance.

In terms of the building’s energy performance, the team were well aware of the need to mitigate the commonly high energy consumption of leisure centres, and took a range of steps to remediate it as much as possible, including using passive design measures. One was orientation – with the pools for instance oriented to the south to benefit from as much solar gain as could be achieved.

BREEAM was seen as a useful tool for co-ordinating the energy aspects of the design: “BREEAM helped set targets and promoted design review throughout,” says the architect. “Beyond this, we also used all our previous experiences and best practices in an effort to reduce both embodied and operational carbon within the constraints of the overall project.”

As well as energy use, protecting ecology was another key consideration for the project team, especially given the natural environment that encompasses the site. As such, great effort was taken by GT3 to reduce any impact on the surrounding environment, as well as additional measures to help bolster it, including the planting of new trees and other plants to increase local biodiversity.

An early finish

Looking back on the project and its many successes, Coyle attributes a great deal of them to the strong collaboration between all the parties involved, characterised by constant open and honest communication, alongside a shared vision.

The architect says he is proud of the finished result, and sums up the team’s achievements: “The new Whitwick and Coalville Leisure centre provides new and enhanced facilities, opportunities for outdoor exercise, which is particularly important post-Covid. It meets modern standards and expectations when compared to the previous leisure centre which it replaces in the town.”

“The design is people-focused first and foremost,” concludes Coyle, thanks to a “flexible, universal design approach” which caters for all who will use it. He asserts that the centre “gives an opportunity for all users to meet their sporting ambitions, or simply have fun keeping fit.”