The Point, designed by Groundworks Architects, provides an enterprising young team of artists and performers in Doncaster with their first building and a base from which to pursue their aim of making the arts available to the entire borough. The group, a registered charity known as Darts (short for Doncaster Community Arts) came together in 1992, working at first through outreach programmes. It can now offer a far wider range of workshops, with particular emphasis on accessibility. Recent ventures include visual/writing sessions for children with interrelational problems, music workshops for children with physical impairments, a 'quirky choir' for those who thought they could not sing, and dance classes for the over- 50s. These activities, says Duncan Robertshaw, co-founder of Darts with Elaine Hirst, complement rather than compete with Doncaster's strong tradition of amateur dramatics and operatic societies.
Groundworks Architects is a Nottingham-based practice dedicated to community and voluntary-sector projects. Given a client and architect with a shared sense of dedication to community involvement, the omens for a successful outcome to the project were encouraging. But before addressing design issues, Darts hired the Uccello Partnership, a consultancy with a wide experience of arts projects, to carry out a lottery-funded feasibility study on setting up a modest office. Uccello pushed Darts' thinking on to a far bigger scale. Darts cannot yet occupy The Point on a full-time basis, and Uccello made sure that the scheme would stand up financially, with income generated by regular tenants such as a bookshop, a cafe and office accommodation, as well as by mounting exhibitions and renting the studio and other facilities. Uccello's input was vital not only at the planning stage, but also during construction, when it acted as project manager and as the client's agent in commissioning artworks for the building.
The Point has three elements: two converted early Victorian houses, a glazed atrium link and a new-build rear extension.
The existing houses on South Parade are listed, as Steven Banks of Groundworks explains: 'Doncaster has very little heritage, and it is extremely protective of what it does have.' Planning restrictions dominated the project throughout. To complicate matters, the structure of the two houses presented circulation problems. A difference of 1m in the adjacent floor levels necessitated eight lift stops to make all areas of the building accessible to wheelchair users.
In keeping with planning-authority demands, Darts wanted to preserve the domestic scale and character of the original houses. This has produced a dramatic contrast between the new and old portions of the building. Entering through the automatic front door, you step into the skeleton of the former house, with white walls, colourful patterned linoleum flooring and a fireplace recess painted red. The bulk of the lobby floorspace is taken up by art exhibits (in May and June the space was dominated by a life-size papier-mache cow and cowboy by Philip Cox). It is a stimulating but puzzling area: only a glimpse of the bookshop through an opening in the opposite wall indicates that you should proceed. From the lobby the only available route takes you past the entry to the front office, then past the bookshop into the atrium.
The atrium link between the existing buildings and the extension is 'the crux of the whole thing,' according to Banks. It looks on to a small courtyard, a classic indoor/outdoor space that invites you to linger. A glass bridge leads to the studio on the upper level of the extension, while stairs take you down to the floor of the atrium and the cafe below the studio. The rear portion of the extension houses a double-height gallery space and a creche.
The atrium is in Planar glazing with an internal low-E coating to avoid overheating in summer; it is fitted with automated blinds and opening windows. In compliance with the dictates of English Heritage, it barely impinges on the existing building fabric. Doors open into the courtyard, formerly the garden of the larger of the two existing houses and now excavated by 1m to bring it down to the level of its neighbour. A gate in the garden wall opens to parkland. The Doncaster Museum is only a few yards away across the grass - a route soon to be defined by commissioned artworks.
The planning authority placed a height restriction on the extension and requested a pitched roof (Banks says there was even mention of 'a bow window' at one point). Hence the cafe ceiling, shallowly coffered concrete cast in metal plates, is only 3mm thick and is left exposed to gain maximum height for cafe users while still insulating noise from the studio.
The studio is fitted with lighting and sound equipment to a professional standard, and has a changing room and shower/wc attached. Seen from the rear, the extension appears as a plain brick-faced outbuilding, with regulation pitched roof, albeit at a very shallow pitch.
By observing certain criteria (such as a single doorway, and reduced cafe floor space) Groundworks ensured that the extension could be classified as an annexe and so qualify for zero vat rating. The structure exceeds current building regulations for thermal performance, giving Darts a building that is energy efficient and economical to run. Heating is by two domestic-type condensing boilers, one for the old building and one for the new. All services are monitored and controlled by a computer in the main office.
Despite the planning constraints, The Point is an invigorating building. Where the architect would have opted for muted tones, Darts insisted on warm, vibrant colours. 'It's about making a really dynamic building, a place that says it has energy and purpose,' says Robertshaw. The extension has panels of glazed blue and purple brickwork specified by the architect, the wcs have piebald rear panels and the entrance to the cafe is marked by a flamed metal wall. The studio is painted deep blue instead of the regulation black. Commissioned artworks add to the stimulating ambience - tables in the meeting room and writing room are not tables as we know them (the one in the writing room, for instance, is a weird glass cabinet of curiosities), elsewhere bell-ringing automata open doors and switch on lights.
Seventy-five per cent of the funding for The Point came from the National Lottery Fund, with the European Regional Development Fund providing the final 25 per cent. Darts and Groundworks have used the funding wisely and well.