Balancing act

Creating a major new performance space to help revitalise a deprived part of south east London meant a delicate balancing act for Bennetts Associates in its adaptive reuse of five historic listed buildings, with close community involvement. Roseanne Field reports

A set of five historic former military buildings in the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, form Woolwich Works. This new cultural destination, created in what was the UK’s largest munitions factory, is a key part of a multi-million pound project hailed as important not only for preserving the history in a new use, but also for helping provide a lift for the local community. It was the “bold vision” of the Royal Borough of Greenwich (RBG), says Matthew Curtis, associate at the project’s architects Bennetts Associates, “to use arts and culture as a way to reconnect the community with the old Woolwich Arsenal site.”

The practice were appointed in late 2014 to undertake a masterplan feasibility study, which Curtis explains “examined the central group of five Grade II and Grade II* listed former buildings at the heart of the Royal Arsenal and assessed their potential suitability for the development of a new creative quarter.”

A masterplanning approach was also necessary for the “long term vision of the site,” he says, as “the ambition to create an entire district across multiple buildings is quite unique.”

Bennetts went on to win the commission to undertake the full refurbishment of two of the buildings, as well as “short-term upgrades” for the other three. “The council had a bold vision for creating a cultural district – accommodating a number of key stakeholders from performing arts to heritage organisations – and we wanted to help them realise it,” says Curtis.

Opened in September last year, the buildings provide 15,000 m2 of flexible space for performance – including music, theatre, comedy, dance, and spoken word – and events such as exhibitions, training, and education. A charity (Woolwich Creative District Trust) was set up to run the site, with the purpose of offering “hope and opportunity by enabling people to realise their creative potential.” Current resident arts groups include the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), dance company Protein, the ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra, and Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair. Theatre company Punchdrunk, assisted by Haworth Tompkins, are currently creating an “immersive theatre show” which will run across the three buildings repaired on a short-term basis, and will be “incorporating the architecture into their sets,” says Curtis.

The hope is that the new ‘district’ will attract both local and national audiences, fed by the Crossrail station set to open this year, “connecting the borough and venue to a far larger audience base,” Curtis comments. He adds that this was “one of the key enablers for the project, as the area is to be much better connected to central London.”

Design approach
The key objective for the practice when considering the design goals was maintaining a “light touch” approach. This would ensure the integrity of the buildings – which were decommissioned in the post-war period – would remain intact. He explains: “This means retaining the existing character and layout so they’re still innately recognisable – leaving all the brick uncleaned, for instance. He adds: “Heritage was prioritised in any intervention we were undertaking; ultimately it’s still obvious these buildings were once factories.” This approach also helped given the £35m budget, which Curtis describes as “tight” when spread across five substantial listed buildings.

Although Bennetts Associates have had previous experience on similar cultural projects – such as the conversion of an Art Deco cinema into a new cultural centre in Chester, this project presented particular challenges they hadn’t encountered previously. “The unique thing about Woolwich Works is the extreme adaptation of the buildings,” Curtis says. “Their new life as performance spaces is a significant departure from the original use as a munitions factory.”

The buildings that remained (following the early demolition of some structures from the post-war years) were in good condition, as Curtis explains: “Their historic architectural quality was still good, and through the restoration we were able to reveal their inherent qualities.” This was the focus for the entire project, with the design approach “developed to temper the environment of the found space,” rather than transform it, says the architect. “The factories, for example, have been stripped back to reveal sensitively restored roof trusses and brickwork which celebrates the history of the buildings.”

This approach also kept the interventions within the limitations dictated by the buildings’ listed status. As part of ensuring they respected the historic features and characteristics, the architects liaised closely with the council’s planning officers, Historic England, and conservation architect Consarc.

Throughout the design process the practice also worked closely with the client, who had in turn sought “specialist help to advise on briefing potential future users and the need for flexibility,” Curtis explains. The team assisted the client in trying to ensure that tenants of Woolwich would be appropriate for the buildings as they were, rather than those who would seek to alter them. “The project team helped identify the types of uses and tenants that would work well with the existing buildings, rather than undertaking significant works to the buildings to accommodate the requirements of less naturally aligned uses,” says Curtis.

Performance upgrades
One of the biggest challenges when considering the end use was ensuring the necessary thermal and acoustic insulation standards were met, without detracting from the buildings’ characteristics. “The nature of the large buildings lend themselves to performance spaces, but we had to ensure high technical standards,” says Curtis. “One of the most challenging aspects was insulating the different types of existing roofs without compromising their appearance internally or externally.” Building 41 featured an ‘industrial shed’ roof and this was rebuilt to include an acoustic barrier, while older parts that had slate roofs were lined internally with insulation.

In their bid to make the most of the heritage features, the practice sought not only to highlight them as features but also to leave them entirely untouched where possible. “We took a ‘surgical’ approach to the building, only adding where absolutely necessary,” says Curtis. “Generally we were surprised at the good condition of the buildings.” From this approach, what Curtis describes as some “interesting design features” were unveiled and incorporated, such as a flight of stairs in one of the dance studios that rise steeply to fit neatly between the existing beams.

One area where repair work was required – and which became one of the “most protected elements” – was in Building 19 where a wooden cobbled floor had become waterlogged and swollen. Curtis says the construction team was “meticulous” in removing, repairing and restoring the floor.

Keeping sustainable efficiency as well as conservation at the forefront of their minds meant the practice tried to limit the amount of new materials added to the buildings. “Being as efficient as possible through design meant limiting the amount of new material used,” Curtis says. “Sustainability is a key factor in every project, but even more so in heritage and conservation work.”

Where new materials were required, they were “a nod to the materials used in the original design,” Curtis explains, and as a result, largely brick and slate. Similarly, the colour palette was also inspired by the building’s existing elements. “In every intervention, we took our cues from the industrial style of the buildings and reinterpreted them in a contemporary way.” Other necessary additions, such as toilets and other services, were “inserted within the existing structures so they disrupt the main spaces as little as possible,” Curtis explains.

Building 41 is the largest of the five and is the centrepiece of the overall Woolwich Works ‘cultural district.’ It’s home to a performance space with room for 1,200 people seated or 1,800 standing, and three smaller wings that house five studios, usable for either performing or rehearsing. There’s also an external courtyard and a cafe, bar and events space facing the river are available for hire by the public.

It was also at Building 41 that Bennetts Associates designed the only new build element of the project – a new foyer and ‘milling space’ that faces the courtyard and connects the east and west wings of the building. The practice described this as a significant intervention that was key in making sure the buildings were suitable for large scaled performances. The entrance foyer, box office, exhibition space, cafe and first floor rehearsal spaces are located in the east wing, while the west wing houses studio spaces on the first floor and ‘back of house’ provision – at ground level. The river-facing events space is within the north wing, along with office space. “It was our main chance to put in a piece of contemporary architecture that complements the other architecture,

while not imposing itself on the heritage,” Curtis says. “It becomes the fourth side of the courtyard and is a natural extension to the architectural form of the central factory space.”

The new foyer building also provides important acoustic benefits acting as a “buffer” to the largest performance space. Where possible, hidden acoustic engineering elements were also incorporated into the buildings, but their listed status made this a challenge in some areas.

The noise factor will be an ongoing consideration for the client when programming, as Woolwich Works CEO James Heaton explains: “We won’t be able to do stadium rock and roll shows,” while adding the space “naturally has an amazing room acoustic.” The venue will focus on jazz, folk, world, acoustic, and classical performances.

Building 40 (the Grade II* listed one) – is the smallest of the five, and has been restored to accommodate dance studios and the necessary support space. Buildings 17, 18, and 19 complete the ‘district,’ and are the three that have undergone short-term renovations – for theatre group Punchdrunk’s tenure.

With the impact of the project on the local community such a focus, social sustainability formed a crucial part of the thinking and planning. The client’s focus was “delivering social value,” Curtis sums up, and this has been manifested in a variety of ways. One is that the construction team’s work with the local community meant they were able to provide eight full-time apprenticeship roles, volunteer more than 400 hours for local causes, and donate over £55,000 to charities.