Sep 25, 2017 Last Updated 11:00 PM, Sep 10, 2017

Civic engagement

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The principles that are driving many contemporary local authorities to embark on new and innovative community focused buildings are not new. As early as the Neolithic and Bronze ages, communities have endeavoured to develop sites and buildings dedicated to communal and civic gathering. Many of these buildings offer points of ceremonial and civic purpose as well as identity, inspiration and social interaction.

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The current agenda for community-focused hubs and facilities now revolves around public health services, civic administration, access to information in the form of modern libraries, and fully accessible sport and leisure facilities. Further to this, the output is a shared and collective representation of many differing ethno-political and gender associated components that change from region to region, city to city, each demanding diverse and intelligent building responses.

FaulknerBrowns Architects has been developing community inspired buildings for more than 50 years, providing inspiring environments in which to learn, work and play. The social, economic and political context within which many of these facilities have been generated has changed throughout our history but the main community-driven focus of each project has remained unchanged.

Onslaught of the information age

The current context within which FaulknerBrowns is developing many of these projects has been reinforced with the onslaught of the information age according to Lee McLaughlin, Project Director at FaulknerBrowns. He says: “Instant access to digital and global information on demand has greatly changed how we respond, not only architecturally through changing building programmes and components, but also socially through the manner in which these shared spaces need to be shaped.

“On top of this we have also witnessed a key shift in economic strategy which has led many local authorities to reassess mushrooming property portfolios in favour of rationalised and streamlined estates. We continue to witness many local authorities striving to reassess and rationalise how they engage with the nature of ‘customer services’ with a number of common aspirations underpinning many of their decisions. These include improving community and social services through efficiency and accessibility; reducing operational and maintenance overheads; and creating modern and inspiring community facilities that play a leading role in their local context.”

Many of these contemporary projects fuse such ambitions with a drive to transform the organisation and the services which it delivers – pushing towards an efficient and stimulating structure, capable of new ways of working and also new ways of thinking for both community and authority, delivering a building asset for everyone to be part of and proud of.

The new facility at Walthamstow provides a stimulating and innovative community focused environment which includes a fiction and non-fiction library, public information services, public computer suite, reference library and children’s library – this is a safe, protected environment where children of all ages can discover the joy of reading, use designated computers to research homework or relax with friends and parents in the soft seating and storytelling area. The new library and community facility also contains an audio-visual library – which includes a ‘try before you buy’ area and ‘listening posts’ so that you can hear what’s new before you make your choice.

McLaughlin says: “The creation of a highly contemporary facility responded to the ambitions of the brief moving the library from being a simple book repository to a centre of knowledge. This is reflected in the library being home to KIS training and information – this is a community learning and training provider based in North London. These information sessions give details of the range of services and training provided to improve the skills and employment opportunities of local people and businesses within Haringey, Enfield, Hackney and Waltham Forest. In addition to this, the new community facility has been able to offer PCT and adult learning services to the local community. It also provides a venue for a wide calendar of community events including activities such as Tai Chi which are part of the Council’s Give it a Go programme.”

This facility is a flagship library and community centre for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The 900m² building has been dubbed one of the UK’s most innovative public libraries housing over 10,000 brand new fiction and non-fiction books. It also features dedicated spaces for quiet reading and for children’s activities, as well as a new teenage area with computer games and chill-out space.

McLaughlin explains: “One of the most innovative aspects of the library is the Work Zone, which sees London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham partnering with Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, Job Centre Plus and Westfield London to provide a recruitment service for retailers to fill their jobs locally. Borough residents can benefit from work specific training such as food hygiene, plus gain advice on interview techniques and help with the initial childcare costs for local residents who secure jobs at Westfield London.”

The new building recorded an incredible 700% increase in membership compared to the previous year. Such was its success that the Council applied for £15,000 of emergency funding to provide an additional 20,000 books. The library has been designed to support the guidance defined in DCMS’s publication Framework for the Future: Libraries, Learning and Information in the Next Decade as well as CABE’s publication Better Public Libraries which uses one of FaulknerBrowns’ library designs as best practice. A great achievement for the practice.

According to McLaughlin: “Community hubs are about providing the right ‘tools’ for work, learning, social support and play, wrapped up in an architecture that fits with the local context, setting out to inspire and above all, unite the community.”

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