A few lines of architectural history have been written in Dartford, where Ken Shuttleworth's Make has just completed its first project - and shown how a judo dojo can fit into what appears to be a retail shed with perfect economy of form...

Smooth surfaces and sharp detailing help the square box transcend the run-of-the-mill retail-shed image

Smooth surfaces and sharp detailing help the square box transcend the run-of-the-mill retail-shed image

Credit: Will Pryce

What fantastic geometric invention could possibly emerge as the first completed project of Ken Shuttleworth's two-year-old practice, Make? A swirling, sharp-pointed skyscraper to trump Swiss Re? A globular reinterpretation of London's City Hall? Or a multicoloured polygon on sticks? Well, none of these. Make's first completed building is actually a square box just two storeys high.

Opened by Princess Anne a fortnight ago in Dartford, north Kent, this most basic of building forms serves as one of the most basic types of accommodation - a dry sports hall. Admittedly, it is devoted to one sporting activity - judo - and at Olympic standard, too. But, with a strict budget of £3.5m and an inflexible deadline of just over a year, Make resisted any temptation to radically reconfigure the hall. The building consists of a double-height space with two storeys of changing rooms and ancillary areas alongside it, and even uses standard, off-the-shelf cladding components. Yet Make has come up with an elegant refinement of this mundane building type.

This refinement is evident in a sequence of calm, clean-cut internal spaces. The large judo hall is suffused in all-round daylight and graced by natural timber linings. Elsewhere, plain white plastered walls and ceilings abound, while the normal clutter of ducting, pipe-runs, panelled suspended ceilings and vending machines has all been tucked out of sight.

Matthew White, Make's project architect, says the calm finesse is intended "to express the spirit of ‘ju-do', which translates literally as ‘gentle way'". Another key principle of judo, he adds, is to achieve maximum effect with minimum effort, neatly echoing Mies van der Rohe's design philosophy of less is more.

As well as providing a gentle but strong discipline to the whole building design, Make has incorporated oblique references to classical Japanese culture and architecture. The most obvious is the high-level cladding of translucent grp panels, which is reinforced by a latticework of slender straps and evokes classical Japanese rice-paper screens. Less obviously, Shuttleworth points out, the building's square plan is based on the one essential judo fixture - the "dojo" or square floor mat.

The building's site is far from glamorous: it is an exposed hillside overlooking a freighter-dominated stretch of the lower Thames. A large square box would stand starkly on such a bare site. So a small, elongated, single-storey block stands in front of it to serve as a visual stepping stone. The area between the two blocks will be paved and furnished with concrete seats as a semi-enclosed courtyard.

The smaller block contains overnight accommodation for 12 members of visiting teams. In an earlier feasibility study inherited by Make, this overnight accommodation had been incorporated into the main building. But the need for 24-hour access was reckoned to present security problems when the main sports accommodation was closed. So Make neatly disaggregated it as an independent, exclusively residential block.

A curtain of stainless-steel mesh lifts the front facade of the building. The mesh glistens as it drains rainwater from the roof

A curtain of stainless-steel mesh lifts the front facade of the building. The mesh glistens as it drains rainwater from the roof

Credit: Will Pryce

The boxy shape of the main two-storey block is accentuated by flat surfaces, sharp corners and inconspicuous cappings. The cladding is composite metal panelling used for retail warehouses, but of the flat instead of the more common corrugated variety. And instead of cluttering up the roof, the services plant has been neatly and conveniently housed directly behind the shower rooms.

Resistance to vandalism was an even more pressing consideration in the design of the external envelope, as the site is isolated at the edge of town. Make has swathed the lower metal cladding panels entirely in a flexible black membrane of liquid-plastic applied by brush. "It means that any vandalism can be easily touched up with another coat of liquid plastic," says White.

With the plain white surfaces and the crimson judo club sign on the front of the building, the building is dangerously close to the appearance a retail shed. This unglamorous image is counteracted by the main hall's upper cladding of creamy, translucent panelling with its latticework patterning, which glows at night when the lights are on. The front facade is lifted by areas of clear glazing and a special feature - a curtain of stainless-steel mesh that takes the place of rainwater downpipes at each corner of the building. The rainwater gushes down the curtain, and at its base it will gradually erode a concrete trough made with soft chalk excavated from the site. It is, White explains, a visual metaphor of yet another judo principle: softness overcoming hardness.

Visitors enter the building at one corner and walk along a short stretch of corridor behind clear glazing before finding themselves in the main entrance hall. This is a calm, double-height space bounded by smooth, white-plastered walls and ceilings with natural timber boarding underfoot. From behind, daylight streams in through the south-facing glazed facade and mesh curtain. More daylight pours in through tubular rooflights overhead. Straight ahead, beyond the reception desk, a clear-glazed screen reveals the judo hall itself.

As well as laying on the daylight, the clever trick in the entrance hall is that all the cheap doors, vending machines, storage racks and other paraphernalia have been shifted just out of sight on either side - another example of the less is more effect.

The judo hall itself is lifted by glare-free daylight coming in through the translucent cladding, which forms the upper-level walls on the three external sides. It is a similar size to the four badminton courts of a standard sports hall. Two Olympic-sized judo mats made of high-density polyurethane foam and measuring 28 × 16 m are supported on a sprung raised floor. Beyond that, the mats are bounded by natural timber boarding, which continues as a 3 m high dado along the three external walls. The hall is overlooked by a gallery of 18 seats. And overhead, the usual collection of steel roof beams, ventilation ducts, radiant heating panels, electric conduit and lighting has been neatly co-ordinated to reduce visual clutter.

An ingenious low-energy touch here is a continuous band of vents at skirting level. The vents supply air to the hall, and mechanical fans suck it under the raised floor, ventilating the plywood panels below the judo mats, which will soon become sweaty with use. Even the changing rooms come free of suspended ceilings, ductwork and light fittings. Here again, walls and ceilings are white plaster whereas the benches and lockers are in black-laminated particle board - both prime judo colours. Ventilation is invisibly supplied from below the seats and up through the lockers themselves.

Upstairs a social space with bar is arranged around a void above the entrance hall. A window wall provides a view south, although this is veiled by the external steel mesh curtain. In the ceiling, curious circular dimples catch the daylight from reflective tubular skylights, or "sunpipes", directly above.

Beyond the social space is a conference or aerobics room with a full-height window that gives the only unrestricted view from the building. It frames a vista stretching over the bare hillside to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, across the Thames and a herd of huge oil tankers performing slow U-turns in the estuary, all framed by two electricity pylons. It manages to make a prosaic industrial scene into something unexpectedly exciting. In turning a humdrum building type into something calm and refined, the same could be said of the judo club itself.

The hall – home to Dartford Judo Club – is graced by glare-free daylight admitted through translucent grp cladding, and by natural timber boarding to floors and lower walls

The hall – home to Dartford Judo Club – is graced by glare-free daylight admitted through translucent grp cladding, and by natural timber boarding to floors and lower walls

Credit: Will Pryce

The ancient art of chopping a budget in half – and building twice as fast

The architect’s story

Make did not make a bid through the front door for the Dartford judo club: the practice was unceremoniously hauled in at short notice to bail out a sinking ship.
With double Olympic medal winner Kate Howey as a member, Dartford is recognised as one of the UK’s top judo clubs. Dartford council offered to build new premises for it on land next to its indoors bowls club at the edge of town. Two feasibility studies were drawn up by different architects. They were costed at about £7m, well above any funding that could be found.

Then in December 2004, Make architect Matthew White received a call from Greg Attwood, who had worked with him before and was now heading the project team at Hyder Consulting, the lead consultant. “We were asked to take an existing proposal, halve the cost and deliver it complete it within a year,” recalls White. “Oh, and it must be world-class architecture, too.”

Contrary to its high-flying image, Make took the inspired if exorbitant scheme it inherited and fitted it to the standard sports hall format. “We moved the site to the other side of the bowls club and this saved £400,000 in infrastructure,” says White. “We replaced three Japanese gardens costing £1m with a paved courtyard. The design we inherited was a box within a box, so we reduced it to a single box and saved on the superfluous layer of walls and roof and extra circulation space. We also cut out the third reserve changing room and proposed two changing rooms of different sizes, each with a sign that could switch between male and female.

“Finally, we extracted the overnight accommodation from the main block, as this would make it self-sufficient in access and security. We designed it as a drawer that could be pulled out of the main building. This would then leave a slot in the main building that could be glazed over as its entrance.”

The QS’s story

Despite the drastic cost pruning, and White’s claim that the building is an essay in making the best out of retail-shed technology, the truth is that Dartford Judo Club is no
bargain-basement building. The out-turn construction cost of £3,757,000 (£2138/m2) is well above the £1332/m2 given by the Building Cost Information Service for a dry sports halls with health suite, good fittings and finishes and air-conditioning.

Jesse Norlay of the project’s quantity surveyor, Cyril Sweett, admits: “We went down the road of pretty decent quality construction, and that’s what took the money.” He cites relatively high quality but expensive materials such as Junkers hardwood sprung floors and Trespa laminated particle board for the changing room fittings.
And once the cost plan and floor area had been agreed, “we engaged in arm-wrestling to bring the architect back into line,” he adds. The single-storey accommodation block, for instance, was initially planned as an area of 80 m2, then shot up to 120 m2 before a compromise was finally reached at 85 m2.

Even so, Norlay credits White for being pragmatic. “He’s passionate about design but he is quite receptive about issues of cost. In the end he made a good impression on the council, which said it was interested in quality to achieve its mark, and Kent council chipped in an extra £250,000 to top up its original budget of £3.5m.”
The contractor’s story

When it came to the construction contract, a two-stage tender was won by Mace’s fixed-price contracting subsidiary, Como. e
e “We won the project just on staff costs, prelims, overheads and profits,” says director Paul Martin. “We started the main building contract last April and ran it by tendering each subcontracting package on a open-book basis as it came along. It was effectively construction management, but at our financial risk. Then we consolidated them all into a lump-sum contract last October, just six months before handover.”

The fast-tracking of the project relied on close co-operation between architect and contractor. This was achieved because while at Foster and Partners, White, Shuttleworth and other staff had worked closely with Mace on previous jobs including More London and the London City Hall.
The project needed large sections to be prefabricated off-site. Remarkably, given that architects have a habitual partiality for prefabrication, this initiative came from Como. “The site’s exposed, and we had a lot of break-ins,” says Martin. “So we adopted off-site fabrication, as components could be dropped in place in a day and didn’t need to be left around on site. It also saved time.”

Among the components prefabricated and slotted into place in a day were the changing room benches and lockers, made by Decra Plastics using Trespa panelling. More ambitious was the accommodation block, which was made from 10 steel-framed volumetric modules containing bedrooms, bathrooms and lobbies by Metek Building Systems of Darlington, County Durham.

White admits that volumetric prefabrication “caused quite some stress for the design team” when it wanted to adapt Metek’s standard design. “The challenge was that we were buying a standard procedure with standard products, so how could we make them specific to this project? You can’t do stuff they’re not happy doing, otherwise you’d lose their indemnity. In the end we did manage to come to a happy compromise. Special finishes, such as the glazing panels and a vandal-proof external membrane, would be carried out by other subcontractors on site.”

The modest Dartford judo club may not live up to the soaring ambitions of Shuttleworth and White. On the other hand, it is important in establishing the fledgling practice’s credentials as a pragmatic architect that can deliver to strict cost and time targets.

Dartford Dojo: key points

  • Judo club brings refinement and clean lines to sports hall building type

  • A sharply detailed square box neatly contains two storeys of sports accommodation

  • The hall gains all-round daylight through translucent grp cladding

  • Robust materials and detailing designed to resist vandalism without looking

Project team

Client: Dartford council
Architect: Make
Structural engineer: Hyder Consulting
Services engineer: Hilson Moran
Cost consultant: Cyril Sweett
Design-and-build contractor: Como


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