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Helping groups to rediscover their buildings through design training

Posted on 13 October 2016

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

Sometimes, when a community-based organisation is looking after a building, the challenges of the everyday can be overwhelming. This is particularly true when the building must cater to a variety of different needs and users and when it is in need of refurbishment. When the heritage of the building is significant as well, this adds another layer of complexity. For those looking after historic places of worship, all of these considerations must be managed, while respecting the needs and practices of their faith community.

Last month, as part of the Empowering Design Practices (EDP) research project, we invited three community-based groups to take part in our Design Training course, to help them build skills and confidence in design, and to do some practical work exploring how design could help them make the most of the specific buildings they manage.

The groups who took part look after buildings that are home to both faith-based and community activities and services. These groups, the United Reformed Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, St. Mary’s Church, Bow in east London, and the ISRAAC Somali Community and Cultural Association in Sheffield, are all at a moment where they are looking at the potential of their building, and how it can support their vision for the future.

At the Glass-House, we have seen that exploring the design of a building, both in its present form and in imagining its future, can be a powerful tool for looking past those everyday challenges and unlocking its potential as a place that helps people thrive. The process of rediscovering what the building has to offer can also be hugely empowering for the people involved.

Within the EDP research team, we were keen to explore whether getting back to the basics of how buildings work and the design of their buildings could help groups looking after historic places of worship to think differently about them. To do this, we used our Glass-House Buildings by Design training programme, with the support of our long-time Enabler and EDP consultant, Leo Care, who hosted us at the University of Sheffield Arts Tower.

Learning from and through design
The training took the groups through an intensive hand-on series of steps, which included an introduction to design principles and processes, mapping, visioning and model-making. The training also included site visits to three local buildings that have been transformed, which were hosted by the groups that had led the refurbishment process and who now manage those buildings.

ISRAAC mapping how their building is working
Bow Church sharing information about their building

The design training offered an important space for our groups to look at their buildings through a new lens. Meeting other groups and projects faced with similar issues and challenges, and learning about some of the solutions they had found, was both encouraging and inspiring. The groups also looked at completed refurbishments with a critical eye, considering the aspects they found more or less relevant and applicable to their own buildings and communities.

Visiting St Mary’s Church and Conference Centre
At Sum Studios, a converted Victorian school

Making models of their own buildings also revealed a great deal. Our groups started to look at their buildings as a living thing. They looked at how the spaces fit together, at the different qualities of the various parts of the buildings. They considered our journey through buildings and how design can shape our experience of a place.

Modelling ideas for Stratford-upon-Avon URC
Modelling ideas for St. Mary’s Church, Bow

We tested various ideas for how they could use design to help transform their buildings. The groups found that small changes could potentially make a big difference to how a space is used, and how people relate to it. Working with the models helped the groups take a more holistic look at their buildings, and clearer visions for the future began to emerge.

At the end of the two intensive days, the groups felt buoyed by the qualities of their buildings and the potential that they could now see in them. One participant admitted that she had felt anxious and a bit reluctant to build a scale model of her church, but that doing it had helped her understand the building differently, and in a strange way, to fall back in love with it.

We look forward to seeing how these groups further develop their ideas and how design can help empower them to enhance their buildings.