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FaulknerBrowns Architects champions heritage at Newcastle Civic Centre refurbishment

The project preserves the character of a city landmark whilst making its services more engaging and accessible to the public. Mick Jordan speaks to design lead, Steve Dickson.

15/02/2022 4 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 218

 

Our judging panel was wowed by the impressive standard of projects presented to them at the MixologyNorth21 awards – including FaulknerBrowns’ work for Newcastle Civic Centre, which scooped the Public Sector Project of the Year award.

The refurbishment looked to extend its use as a civic facility by rationalising the estate, reducing the office accommodation and bringing in the court service as a tenant. The sensitive redevelopment of the Grade II Civic Centre aimed to reduce costs, improve environmental performance and resolve circulation and security issues.

Newcastle Civic Centre is an architectural icon in the city’s urban landscape. Over the years, the building has suffered from its organisational heritage, lack of adaptability and costly historic building fabric. Faulknerbrowns’ solution has looked to sensitively resolve these issues. The big picture moves required sensitive sub-division of the buildings’ architectural blocks, creating new access points, and developing a fire strategy to enable whole blocks of the building to be allocated by partner organisations – in this case HM Courts and Tribunals Service. This approach required exacting detailing to remove and replace historic finishes, and to thread new M&E systems into the building fabric without impacting on the heritage assets. New interventions, such as the entrance, required an exceptionally light touch.

The materiality and tone of the refurbishment is sympathetic with the existing building; it is very much a modern take on the 1960s Scandinavian-inspired civic interiors. The resulting design delivers an exceptional suite of environments and rejuvenates a previously under-performing building, providing a new front door to the city.

“Newcastle City Council’s aspiration was to preserve and enhance the Grade II listed Civic Centre, which after 50 years of use had been adapted in an ad-hoc manner,” Faulknerbrowns Associate Partner, Steve Dickson, explains. “The refurbishment needed to increase spatial efficiency and improve the building’s environmental performance, while creating a more open and flexible working environment that could improve staff wellbeing and adapt to changing work patterns.

“Providing a new, more prominent public entrance was another key intervention identified by the council, to resolve security issues and house public facing functions. Our ambition was to create a centre more connected to the people it serves, whilst respecting and celebrating the existing fabric.”

Steve tells us that the project created a new workplace strategy for the Civic Centre, modernising working practices and increasing space for collaboration.

“This strategy focused on enabling blended office and home working and allowed the council to co-locate nine previously outlying functions,” he reveals. “By carefully sub-dividing the building’s architectural blocks and creating new access points and servicing systems, new tenant space was also created for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS). To create a new, engaging public entrance to the centre, the design sensitively encloses the ground floor colonnade with a frameless glass façade, to create a new function for a previously under-utilised space.

“The entrance arches provide a main reception with informal seating, a public café and new meeting pods, acting as private and group meeting rooms for council services such as weddings, births and bereavements. These pods are self-supporting structures, designed to have minimal impact on the existing building. The original character of the colonnade has been maintained, with the brick faced arches illuminated and all servicing delivered from the floor to avoid ceiling mounted additions.”

 

We’re told that sustainability was very much at the heart of the project. “The refurbishment has created a modern and effective workplace for the council, without the need to relocate or build a new facility,” Steve explains. “It ensures a sustainable future for one of the city’s most important heritage assets – by consolidating workspaces the civic centre is now able to accommodate Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) as a tenant, generating £35m in income. The refurbishment has also reduced the centre’s energy consumption by 30%, bringing the building’s EPC rating from a ‘G’ to a ‘C’.”

Steve tells us that the project is made unique by the celebration of the existing features and artworks. For example, rising metal screens, designed by Charles Sansbury as a decorative security mechanism, were retained within the entrance arches and can be raised for out-of-hours events to separate meeting spaces from the informal café area. In the refurbished Rates Hall, internal built additions have been removed to strip the space back to its original fabric and finishes, which includes two glazed murals by Victor Pasmore, marble floors and a polished Potoro marble wall facing the entrance.

“Retaining the listed building fabric was key to the refurbishment, which limited the works we could do to the exterior to improve the centre’s thermal performance,” Steve continues. “Instead, the design took a careful strip out and refit approach around the listed fabric, and operational carbon was addressed through a full refurbishment of the building services, including new mechanical ventilation and heating systems and efficient LED lighting systems. The flat roof was also utilised to install more sustainable technologies, such as PV panels and air source heat pumps.”

But why are public sector bodies – such as Steve’s client in Newcastle –  willing to invest so much into their facilities. What is the rationale? “Public sector bodies are reviewing working practices, to enable more effective property management, rationalisation of their portfolios and co-location of different directorates,” Steve explains.

“Investing in workplaces is also driven by improving wellness principles and enabling blended occupancy models with both home and office working. Providing a modern landscape supports staff retention and recruitment and enables creative working methods that can improve their efficiency.”

Describing his favourite elements of the scheme, Steve says: ‘The rhythmic brick arches within the new reception area are a standout element. The space was previously dark and unloved and the design brings new life to the arches, using elegant, bespoke lighting to celebrate their tone and texture.”

Photography: David Cadzow

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