Sport England’s standardised design is starting a Mexican wave of achievable, accessible halls that don’t look like tin boxes. We report from the touchline at Dagenham.
How would you go about designing and building hundreds of community sports halls? The first answer that comes to mind is probably to appoint a national design-and-build contractor that’s used to churning out repetitive buildings. You may very well succeed in saving money and time, but at the cost of ending up with a rash of dreary industrial sheds sheathed in crinkly tin, supported on hefty steel portal frames and with

poky interiors cluttered up by cabling, ducting and suspended ceilings. Hardly the way to get the man on the street excited

about exercise.

The government’s sports quango has embarked on just such an exercise, procuring 200 sports halls for combined school and community use across England. But Sport England has not taken the obvious route. Instead of handing it straight to a contractor, the organisation has devised a standardised design package that it calls Optimum Sports Hall. And the first two prototypes have just been completed in Hull and Dagenham in Essex.

The sports centre in Dagenham, pictured on this page, comes across as a one-off building with no hint of the dismal mass-produced industrialised product described above. Though far from lavish, the building looks fresh, elegant and welcoming. The exterior is faced in silvery panels instead of dull profiled metal,

and the interiors are bright, spacious and enlivened by splashes

of vivid orange and turquoise. The structure has been pared

down to steel columns as slender as clothes poles. No cabling,

no ducting, and except over the main corridor, no suspended ceilings are to be seen, allowing the public spaces to rise right

up to the sloping metal-deck roof.

This refreshing impact on visitors was exactly what Sport England was aiming for. “We wanted to lift the building and make it not look like a standard sports hall,” confirms the its architect,

Paul Gibbins, who helped devise the Optimum system. Sport England deliberately appointed a team of consultants with reputations for imaginative design rather than dull standardisation. Along with Studio E Architects, appointed on the strength of its elegant pool for Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, the team comprises structural engineer Techniker, services engineer Max Fordham Associates and quantity surveyor Davis Langdon & Everest, with contractor Willmott Dixon advising on buildability.

Sport England’s development programme stems from the first of its three business objectives: to “increase participation in sport, in order to improve the health of the nation, with a focus on priority groups.” One of the main priority groups comprises residents of deprived communities, where commercial health and fitness clubs would be hard-pressed to cover their costs.

Capital costs for public sector sports halls are largely covered by National Lottery grants, which are distributed to local authorities by the New Opportunities Fund. This fund has earmarked £150m for the coming financial year to develop community sports halls. In particular, state schools are being encouraged to build such facilities for their own pupils while also opening them up to local residents.

There are several reasons why it makes sense for the government to look to off-the-peg designs for this particular initiative. For a start, with hundreds of sports halls with near-identical facilities required, it saves the time, cost and hassle of commissioning a new design team each time. Second, as the schools developing them are not professional building clients, they can see what they might end up with, and check the pricetag, without committing themselves. Third, the standard design package incorporates Sport England’s special expertise in sports facilities, which it has developed over decades. And finally, the standardising process has entailed intensive value engineering and whole-life cost analysis to keep capital and running costs down.

One part of Sport England’s experience that it will not wish to repeat is the standardised sports hall package called SASH that it produced in the 1980s. About 23 standard facilities were designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners and built by Bovis. As Paul Gibbins says, they were ugly boxes with flat roofs, which circular windows did little to improve. And capital and running costs were high, partly because of a fully ducted warm-air heating system and partly because “the Bovis sole route of procurement meant expensive overheads”.

So when the quango embarked on its second attempt at standardisation, special pains were taken to give the buildings more kerb appeal. A leisure consultant, Leisure Link, was also brought in to look at how the halls could be made more commercially successful. The consultant suggested that the proposed fitness suite be enlarged and better equipped, and a dance studio added to attract fee-paying local residents.

The standardised Optimum Sports Hall comes in three sizes ranging from 1400 m2 to 1790 m2, at a notional building cost of £1100/m2, given good ground conditions. The question arises of how far the three standard packages can be adapted to special client requirements, given that such adaptations inevitably add to the costs. After completing the prototype building in Dagenham, Andrzej Kuszell, director of Studio E Architects, thinks the

cost-effective solution would be for each standardised sports hall to be conceived as a collection of modular volumetric bays. Each bay would be standardised in dimensions, construction and materials, and serve as part of a sports hall, dance suite or changing room. The number, type and arrangement of the bays could be varied relatively simply to suit client needs or the site.

To date, only three Optimum sports halls have been or are being built – the third being currently on site in Fakenham, Norfolk. Although the standard designs with specifications and costs are already available for just £100, Sport England is not planning a general launch of the system until next year after the three prototype buildings have been properly appraised in operation.

Once the standardised system goes into full production, Paul Gibbins envisages more cost savings through subjecting the

supply chain to lean management. “If you look at standard components like the steel frame, there are benefits to be derived from having a limited number of suppliers,” he says. “You could save on the months of time and expense needed to produce production drawings. The building could even be made from a standard kit of parts, as in the CLASP modular school-building system invented in the 1950s.”

Eastern energy: Dagenham sports hall

One of three prototype sports halls based on Sport England’s Optimum system has just opened at the Robert Clack secondary school in Dagenham, Essex, at a cost of £4.1m. “There was never enough money in the pot for us to procure a building we could be proud of, until Sport England came up with the Optimum hall,” says headmaster Paul Grant. The process took seven years and involved three aborted schemes. When the Optimum package was adopted, the local council appointed the same design team for its prototype project but awarded the contract to Benson rather than Willmott Dixon after a traditional competitive tender.

The location of the school’s new sports hall, tucked away to one side of a tired collection of precast concrete school buildings and behind a high-rise housing estate, is hardly propitious. But the building itself more than makes up for that – the first view is of a silvery shed topped by a gracefully curving roof. A metal canopy supported on three delicate poles stretches out in front to welcome visitors and guide them to the glazed entrance.

Through the entrance is a spacious double-height foyer that rises up to the underside of the sloping roof. From here everything except the changing rooms and store room is on view. Along one side the main sports hall is visible through a series of glass screens, and on the other side is a dance studio, a cafe and a fitness suite. The alcove behind the reception desk is painted a glowing golden orange colour, whereas the opposite wall is in cooler turquoise.

The main challenge facing the design team was to save costs through standardisation and value engineering and at the same time to create a building that would be attractive and distinctive enough to persuade local residents to become regular members. In reconciling these two objectives, several design compromises were devised with enough imaginative to mask the cost savings.

Andrzej Kuszell, director of Studio E Architects, says his natural inclination as an architect was to provide as many windows and rooflights as possible to brighten the interiors with daylight and offer views out. Unfortunately windows had to be restricted in size and number because of their expense. So Kuszell restricted them to key areas, principally the dance studio, fitness suite, cafe and entrance hall. In particular, the dance studio and fitness suite benefit from long window walls that allow the spaces to flow outwards into the open air.

Another of Kuszell’s initial design concepts that was squashed by value-engineering was to channel daylight into the heart of the building by fitting in a clerestory window between the higher roof of the main hall and the lower roof over the rest of the building. In this case, Willmott Dixon had recommended that if the whole building were covered by one continuous roof surface of standing-seam aluminium it would save on both initial capital costs and continuing maintenance. The omission of the clerestorey window is more than compensated by the gentle slope and curve of the whole roof, and this gives an added spaciousness to all the smaller public spaces, except for the corridor, as they can expand right up to the underside of the roof.

The main sports hall, unlike the dance studio, fitness suite and cafe, has no eye-level external windows of rooflights, as these could dazzle players. It does, however, come with a glazed screen between it and the entrance hall, so that visitors can see what is on offer and spectators can view events.

The changing rooms are daylit through the only rooflights in the building. They are also robustly fitted out with locks and cubicles made of high-density laminated boards and tiled wall finishes.

The building’s structure and services also add to its appeal and cost-effectiveness. Instead of portal frames, the building is supported on slender tubular steel columns and shallow, gently curved steel roof beams without cross-bracing. This makes for a graceful lightness of touch and a lack of visual clutter that could distract sports players. Also, structural engineer Techniker has adopted the standard 6.4 m width of a badminton court as a structural grid module throughout the building, and this makes the design more adaptable.

As regards services, what is most conspicuous about them is that they are all but invisible. With no ducting, pipes, cables or even ceilings in evidence, the main public spaces can rise upward, unimpeded, to the underside of the sloping roof. Services

engineer Max Fordham Associates managed to tuck the service runs above the corridor ceiling, the main plant room above the central equipment store and the air-conditioning units in a separate external enclosure.

All the features described above come as part of the basic Optimum design package. For the Dagenham project, however, several modifications have been incorporated into the brief.

The main extra client requirements were additional changing rooms and managers’ offices to serve playing fields lying behind the school. They have been combined into a simple rectangular extension that adopts the same structural grid and appears as an integral element of the whole building. The school was also concerned about security and insisted that the reception desk be protected behind a high glass screen.

Another major design change was dictated by soft ground conditions and a high water table. This meant that the standardised specification for basic strip foundations had to be upgraded to piled foundations and precast ground beams. In addition, an existing mains electricity cable that ran straight through the site had to be diverted. This meant that the building cost more than twice the £1.5m of the theoretical generic design, ending up at a final cost of £4.1m.

Given that Dagenham’s sports hall was virtually straight off the shelf, headmaster Grant is clearly delighted both with the basic package and the bespoke service he received. “The design is very pleasing but also very practical and suits our needs,” he says. “And the project team bent over backwards to accommodate the school’s special requirements.”

Swim not sink

Procuring swimming pools is a risky business – just ask Hackney council. It had budgeted £8m for Clissold Leisure Centre but ended up with a £20m cost overrun and a pool that is now closed for emergency repairs only two years after it was built.

Sport England sought to offer clients more certainty by commissioning S&P Architects to come up with a standardised design for a swimming pool along the same lines as the Optimum sports hall. The first Optimum Pool was built in Downham Market, Norfolk – but since then none has left the drawing board.

The problem has been funding. Local authorities were expecting to part-fund Optimum Pools with lottery money from the New Opportunities Fund. Unfortunately, as the popularity of the lottery has waned there is now less NOF money available for swimming pools.

To compensate for the reduction in funding, S&P examined off-balance sheet methods of procurement and asked facility developer Alliance Leisure to join the project team. Alliance Leisure can develop, manage and operate pool buildings for a monthly fee. The attraction of this method of procurement for cash-strapped public sector clients is that a swimming pool can be acquired with no capital outlay.

S&P’s design for the swimming pool has been tweaked since the Downham Market pool was built. The final design is the result of a collaboration between S&P Architects, engineering consultant Arup, and cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest. The name has been modified, too. The concept is now called Swim25, following an injunction by Sport England preventing S&P from using the Optimum brand.

Swim25 is aimed at local authorities, trusts and education bodies.

The team behind the system says that for less than £2m it can provide a six-lane 25m indoor swimming pool, complete with changing rooms and a small spectator area. Extra facilities such as entrance lobbies and gymnasiums can be added onto the standard design for an extra cost. An initial feasibility study costing £2500 and covering ground conditions and external services costs, will establish exactly how much the pool will cost. “Certainty of costs can be offered on Swim25,” says Martin Lindus, associate director at S&P Architects.

Swim25 also comes with type approval, which means that the pool automatically meets the requirements of local authority building control, saving the client £12,000 in building control fees.

The facade of Swim25 can be altered to meet planning requirements, but other elements such as the glulam superstructure, glazed facade, filtration system and large-format slate and limestone flooring will be constant. “We have a supply chain because we don’t want uncertainty,” says Lindus. “We know the product, its availability and costs.”

Swim25 also complies with the new Disability Discrimination Act, which is due to be enforced in October. Features include lockers with disabled access, optional hydraulic platform seats and steps at the shallow end that allows ambulant disabled access.

Lindus says that the Swim25 solution was informed by the experience of the project team’s involvement in the construction of more than 100 pools. After the Clissold Leisure Centre debacle, many local authorities will want to hear reassuring details such as these.