Meadowcroft Griffin Architects was established in 2002 by Philip Meadowcroft, a former director at Eric Parry Architects, and Ann Griffi n, who previously worked for Haworth Tompkins Architects. Based in north London, the practice has designed buildings and masterplans across all sectors in both the UK and abroad. Meadowcroft Griffin has completed three Sure Start Centres, with two more in progress; is working on a £15 million mixed-use development in Romford, Essex; and has been appointed to oversee the £85 million redevelopment of Crystal Palace in south London.
Tolladine (locally known as Tolly) is a charmless suburb just south of the centre of Worcester. Though sharing none of the issues of diversity that many of Britain's inner cities have to address, there is evidence of a community trying to get to grips with a social malaise that is all too familiar to those who live in such places.
Unemployment is high; life expectancy is lower than the norm; and many of the children lack opportunities. Most of those who are working struggle to get by on minimum-wage incomes.
A short walk from the railway station to the south of the city, the area is characterised by a loose-fit configuration of banal brick semis. There are no meaningful green spaces in the area, which is surprising given the low density of the plots and ironic given that the streets are given the names of trees, shrubs and flowers. The large expanses of tarmac linking these plots therefore become the stage upon which lives are played out.
In the middle of the estate stands the Tolladine Sure Start and Community Centre, designed by Meadowcroft Griffin Architects. This is one of three Sure Start projects the practice has completed in the past year. The centre's programme is unusual for a Sure Start project in that it brings together a wide range of community facilities in a single complex. As well as provision for a 26-place nursery and parent-training facilities, there is a dedicated youth-club space and local health services for the elderly.
Accordingly, Meadowcroft Griffin's scheme is an assemblage.
It comprises a new-build extension wrapped around three sides of a nondescript church building from the 1930s. The original volume was added to over the years and acquired a rather stunted monumental quality. More recently, with fewer people attending the church, it had been used as a community hall and suffered externally from casual vandalism.
The new proposal has been built up to the street line in order to give the centre a greater visible presence. It contrasts with the existing volume behind, using a more informal language of shallow, mono-pitch steel roofs set at angles to each other - the sloping surfaces were conceived of as a pinball machine, ensuring that footballs landing on them would roll back down to the street.
The building's presence is amplified by its use of brightly painted concrete blockwork and render, conjoined with a more provocative surface of galvanised-steel mesh.
The centre is entered through a large glazed door on the north side. Immediately one encounters the external wall of the church, lit by a generous skylight above that marks the threshold between old and new. The exposed brickwork and light quality give the feeling of an outdoor room, not unlike a courtyard in a denser part of the city. Four spaces front on to the foyer, aligned off-axis to each other. This arrangement provides for subtle sightlines between different parts of the programme, promoting awareness of other users' activities. The openings to the major rooms are lined with double doors with extended architraves, all painted a different colour - orange for the community hall, yellow for the nursery, purple for the youth space.
The nursery space is generous in volume, light and afforded views. The very civic-scaled window that terminates the space extends into the room through a cut in the ceiling, giving children a view of the sky. The middle part of the window is an insulated, timber-lined panel with a solid opening section for cross ventilation. The lower part was intended to give children a view onto the street, but sadly it has been obstructed by the thoughtless placement of stacked chairs.
An elegant iroko-framed glass screen with a slim clerestory window above fronts on to the nursery garden to the south. The screen is shaded by a modest timber canopy set at an angle to the facade to provide a sun shade and to act as a covered external play space. It has also acted as goal post for teenagers accessing the garden on late summer nights after the centre is closed, as can be seen by the muddy marks adorning it. To the left of the screen, a large blackboard shows the softer chalk marks of infants' drawings. These contrasting marks are a touchstone for the centre as whole - a combination of toughness and fragility.
The youth club space has this toughness. The uorescent light fittings are bulkier than in the rest of the building and they are the dominant source of light here. This was not intended. It was hoped that the occupancy of this space would be transparent to the outside, but the large window facing the street is now boarded up with plywood as a result of being shot at with an air rie.
Architecture should be able to cope with robust use, but cannot be expected to address malicious vandalism. The loss of this window has given the room an internal, institutionalised focus, much like any other youth club.
Public buildings in deprived areas will always attract hostility in some form or other. In this case the architect has employed both spatial and material strategies to tackle this.
It has been brave in making the building address the street rather than hide behind a fence. The building has proved vulnerable to malicious attack, but has been successful in addressing 'softer' crimes - there has been very little graffiti on the external walls.
This, I am sure, is in part due to the large openings that give the building a civic presence.
The material strategy is slightly more problematic.
The steel-mesh cladding is the most prominent of the materials used on this project. It has been employed as an extra skin and provides protection for windows to the nursery WCs and the centre's office. It is also the final layer of a thick wall build-up that is able to conceal both the drainpipes and the gutter, and helps to prevent children from climbing on to the roof of the building.
But it is this skin to the building that has proved most difficult for its users and managers to understand. One suspects it carries the unfortunate connotations of boarded-up council properties. Locals know the building as the 'cheese-grater', representing feelings of both affection and derision.
In relation to this, I mentioned to the manager of the centre that the architect had planned for the facade to become a lattice for dense plant growth. I was told that this could not happen as two members of staff suffered from hayfever. This takes issues of health and safety in the workplace to ridiculous new heights. It also makes one wonder what architecture can achieve in attempting to relieve the poverty of both people and their environment.
If projects like these are to survive, to continue to support their community, two factors are relevant. The first, continuity of funding, is in the hands of government and bureaucrats. The second, the ability of people to regard their environment with affection, is dependent on the qualities of the architecture. In dealing with difficult social problems, I believe architecture can improve the situation in increments, but if designed without thought can cause great problems. This building lies in the former category. It is a small act, one of many efforts to relieve the stress caused by poverty. I hope it succeeds.
Cost analysis refers to final account.
Costs refer to gross external floor area
SUBSTRUCTURE Demolitions £36.45/m 2Selective demolition of 1960s extensions; adaptation to original brick parapet to receive new roof;
removal of 1m level change in chapel to create new level entrance and general internal alterations Foundations/slabs £57.32/m 2Conventional mass-concrete strip foundations and ground-bearing concrete slab; below-ground sections of wall include tanking and solid insulation SUPERSTRUCTURE Roof & rooflights £147.02/m 2Composite insulated steel-profile mono-pitch roofing over timber roofs and existing concrete flat roofs, with anti-climb steel polyester powdercoated gutters and rainwater pipes; dormer window to street wing; patent-glazed rooflight with electronically operated ventilation panels and rainlight sensors; external timber play canopy structure with exposed timber roof and composite insulated steel-profile mono-pitch roofing External walls £44.98/m 2Cavity wall comprising medium-density, lowshrinkage blockwork with partial-fill insulation, with outer coating of blue tanking, overclad with rain screen of galvanished steel panels Windows & external doors £58.08/m 2Hardwood-framed windows and glazed doors;
insulated timber infill panels; high-level clerestory windows; teleflex opening mechanism Internal walls and partitions £23.48/m 2Exposed original 1930s brickwork, new load-bearing and non-load bearing blockwork; WC cubicles Internal doors £28.52/m 2Painted, solid-core, leaf-and-a-half doors with large vision panels; set flush in extended painted mdf screen surround to include signage; ironmongery INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes £60.45/m 2Original brickwork exposed by plaster removal to internal sections and graffiti removal, plasterboard;
plaster; paint; douglas fir-faced plywood; tiles Floor finishes £25.45/m 2Recycled brick screed from demolitions; linoleum;
anti-slip vinyl; carpet Ceiling finishes £6.93/m 2Plasterboard ceilings; douglas fir-faced plywood FITTINGS AND FURNISHINGS Furniture £ 2Furniture: reception counter; café servery counter;
kitchen; window seats; adult and child paint sinks;
nappy change/laundry; multi-use storage; concealed up-lighter casings; pinboard; general SERVICES Sanitary appliances £9.79/m 2Adult and child facilities; accessible WC; clinic and nappy change/shower Services equipment £126.12/m 2Boiler and manifolds; underfloor heating in separately controlled zones; thermostatic radiators;
roo-ng CovCon; WC cubicles Armitage Venesta; ooring Tarkett Sommer; retaining-wall insulation Foamglas; -t-out joinery Spicers; partial--ll cavity insulation Rockwool; expanded metal cladding Cadisch; cladding -xings Ejot UK; tanking below ground RIW; cold-applied blue membrane as zero-maintenance decorative coating behind expanded metal RIW; electrical subcontractor Dewtec;
light -ttings Thorn Line XS; mechanical subcontractor MT Heating; underoor heating Wirsbo; graf-ti removal to original brickwork Duckworth Trust; rooight The Standard Patent Glazing Company; ironmongery Westlands Ironmongery; carpet Milliken Carpets; entrance matting Burmatex Group; recessed slot drain Aco Technologies; blockwork Tarmac Topblock; DPC and weep vents Cavity Trays; wind posts Ancon; tiles Pilkington;
sanitary -ttings Twyford; shower -ttings Grohe; baby-change units Baby Point; cupboard -ttings and integrated recycle bins Hafele UK; paint sinks and -ttings Franke UK