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Retrofirst stories: O’DonnellBrown on plans to revive a Scottish town hall

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The latest in a new AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back to life

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

With up to 40 per cent of carbon emissions coming from the construction industry, the profession needs to find ways of adapting the type of buildings it designs, and fast.

In order to tackle the climate crisis the default – and less carbon-hungry – option for any project should be to adapt and reuse an existing building, one of the key demands of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign.

With the spotlight on retrofit, our recently launched series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or demolition and to hear from the architects that designed them.

Today we hear from Sam Brown of emerging Glasgow-based O’DonnellBrown about recently submitted plans to create a new community hub and three flats in a vacant and decaying town hall on Great Cumbrae, Scotland.

Millport town hall site photo 02a

Millport town hall site photo 02a

Tell us about the project.
Built in 1878, the town hall on the Isle of Cumbrae, Ayrshire, closed its doors to public use in 2012, having played a key role in the community of Millport through a varied and wholesome life of activity. This followed a number of years of limited vision and direction to sustain the building as its original, intended use.

Sambrown o'donnellbrown

Sam Brown, director, O’Donnellbrown

Sam Brown, director, O’Donnellbrown

In 2018, a group of locals formed the friends of Millport Town Hall, in an effort to bring the building back to life as a fulcrum of the local community. We were engaged soon after the group’s formation to complete a design feasibility, working very closely with them to explore how the building could achieve their project objectives, physically, commercially and societally.

Millport is missing a civic centre – a place to gather, a place to come together. Speaking to locals, the building, even when operating primarily as a cinema which was its use for much of its life, was still thought of as the community fulcrum. Since its closure, it has become apparent how much of an active absence the building has left behind.

Our design approach looks to address this reality without bold intervention but through careful alteration and addition to provide a new civic hub the community can be proud of. Retention of the building has always been at the heart of the project. The brief allowed us to look at refitting an existing building, to complement some of its original features and to rethink, through reuse other aspects – releasing its potential.

Retention of the building has always been at the heart of the project

The new entrance provides a civic frontage, being the first part of the building visitors will encounter from the town. But it is intentionally not in competition with the scale of the original main town hall enclosure, which will sit, unaltered in proportion.

The main hall retains its front door and grand frontage, still able to be used for functions and events. Interventions do, however, not only look to create rational, working spaces for the various internal uses, but also allow for intuitive movement around the building with carefully crafted architectural moments built in.

A key feature is the staircase taking users from the new lobby area on the lower ground level, up through a triple height, top lit space to the main hall.

The developed design includes a concert venue with improved facilities centred around a spacious entrance foyer. These spaces will also be able to cater for events such as weddings and conferences. Also proposed are spaces for various uses such as a heritage centre, community hub, Men’s Shed and green rooms to support the main performance space. The building will also house three holiday let apartments.

Odb millport town hall concept section high res

Odb millport town hall concept section high res

What were the challenges of the existing building? What condition was it in?
The building is in a poor state of repair through lack of maintenance over many years. Water ingress and resulting decay to structure and building fabric will have to be tackled.

The building is poorly insulated - or uninsulated in places - with leaky construction. A close working relationship within the project team has been essential from the project’s early stages to ensure the best marriage between structural/fabric retention and how best to achieve the project objectives through architectural intervention.

Had demolition ever been considered?
The project centres around the reuse of the existing structure, to reimagine its use and identity, and essentially bring the building back to life. We have relished this challenge. As a starting point, we wanted to demolish or remove as little of the building as possible - to breathe new life into the structure whilst allowing the memories of its past to be evident and celebrated.

Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
Increased levels of insulation will improve the performance of the existing building fabric significantly and reduce energy usage. A significant amount of the building’s energy will be provided by roof mounted photovoltaic panels to help offset carbon footprint.

Where we are building new, we are using materials that have low embodied carbon where we can, for example using timber structure for the new entrance wing, and where we are replacing existing materials we will use durable materials which reduce the cost and frequency of refurbishment in the future.

Also of key note, the building is centrally located within Millport and this will encourage sustainable means of transport to the building – we anticipate that most visitors will walk, cycle or take public transport from the ferry. This will have clear indirect benefits in reducing the carbon impacts of the local community.

Odb millport town hall model 01

Odb millport town hall model 01

Are the planners supportive of the proposals?
The planners have demonstrated encouraging support for the proposals through the pre-application process.

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply to other developments?
Fundamentally, the importance of thoroughly understanding the existing fabric of a building from project inception to inform how best to achieve the scheme design ambition and objectives. Also, the importance of communication and involvement, from the very beginning with the people and community such buildings are being designed for.

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