New floors, new stories: timber transforms a community arts space

198 CAL by night: a local community and arts centre in Brixton, South London, designed by CarverHaggard architects.

This economical retrofit and extension of an existing arts centre provides inspiring new spaces for art, education and activism. It also shows what can be done on a very limited budget – with a bit of design imagination and engineering know-how.

198 Contemporary Arts & Learning is a black-owned and led visual arts organisation situated on Brixton’s Railton Road, in southwest London. Its story began back in the 1980s, when the original founders of 198 were provided with three disused shops attached to the Hurst Street Estate, to be used as a social space for the local black community.

The timber extension allowed this much-loved local institution to significantly expand its activities; image © Francesco Russo

Some 30 years later, 198 won the freehold to the site. The building as it stood was important to 198’s community, but to grow and become self-sustaining they wanted more flexible, higher quality spaces. CarverHaggard started working closely with the stakeholders in 2015, developing the brief and design through joint workshops and live projects. The redevelopment won planning permission and GLA funding in 2018; work started on site in late 2019 after further fundraising. The building was completed in December 2020, and opened to the public in late 2021.

Building on what’s already there
The redevelopment of 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning has extended its facilities from one floor to three, with new galleries and an archive room on the ground floor, creative workspaces on the first floor, and a space for youth and community on the top floor. It’s a transformation that has allowed a community group to flourish: achieving its long-term ambitions, while preserving the building’s spirit and history.

“In contrast to the common perception that low-carbon design is a higher cost option, this project shows how efficient structural design, in appropriate materials, can deliver both lower costs and lower carbon”
Toby Maclean, Founder, TALL engineers

The key layout and structural decisions create different spatial and material qualities through the interior, avoiding conventional community centre finishes. A flexible platform for multiple activities, the design allows for potential enhancement as any additional funds become available in future.

Tripling the floor area
CarverHaggard developed a simple and cost-effective approach to the budget of just over £1m. Working closely with TALL engineers, they were able to triple the floor area of the existing building, providing around 400sqm of new-build floor area and 200sqm of refurbished floor area.

Interior gallery space at 198 CAL; image © Francesco Russo

Interior gallery space at 198 CAL; image © Francesco Russo

Keeping the concrete ground floor
The three existing single-storey concrete shop units were retained and refurbished, with two new storeys built in timber frame directly onto this existing structure. A small pre-existing single-storey extension was also replaced with a three-storey extension to house the vertical circulation, and so avoid the need to cut through existing structure. This contained a new staircase and lift wing.

Retaining the existing ground floor both minimised the environmental footprint of the new floorspace and preserved the history of the site. The ground floor was stripped back to its concrete structure, with new openings cut into the cross-walls to make an enfilade of generous galleries providing exhibition space for early-career and established artists, and a new open archive room. This space can be opened up for a larger exhibition, or split into separate units including a community gallery with a kitchen.

What’s upstairs?
The first floor is simple and robust, with industrial resin flooring and plywood joinery. Its provides affordable workspace for activists and artists, and a team of community nurses. Its large windows echo the white-painted sash windows and rendered window openings of the neighbouring houses.

“In the new building we’ve already been able to host larger touring exhibitions, provide space for our network, and increase our education programme”
Lucy Davies, 198 CAL’s Director

The second floor is set back and clad in translucent polycarbonate. Inside, the timber structure is exposed. A light-filled open plan studio looks out at trees through slender, vertically orientated window frames, providing an inspiring setting for 198’s education and outreach activities, and an events space.

A nod to the neighbouring architecture
The whole redevelopment’s style is informed by local corner buildings and public houses. The massing and materiality develop a conversation between the brutalism of the 1960s estate and the genteel brick and stucco panels of the Victorian terrace houses.

The centre provides valuable workspace for local creatives; image © Francesco Russo

The centre provides valuable workspace for local creatives; image © Francesco Russo

Operational energy
The operational carbon strategy was to upgrade or replace the worst-performing thermal elements in the existing building (the windows and doors), construct new elements to a good thermal standard, eliminate direct fossil fuel use by removing the gas boiler, and switch to electric heating. The electric heating is space-efficient, easy to control and quick to respond, which suits the varying use patterns of building. The building is naturally ventilated using generous window openings.

Keeping the embodied carbon low
The existing building was a post-war concrete pavilion structure built contemporaneously with the adjacent tower blocks. The structure comprised reinforced concrete slabs, walls and columns, apparently founded off concrete strip foundations.
It was imperative that the foundations were justified to support the extra floors, and important also that the roof did not need to be strengthened to support the new floor loads.

“We retained everything that was useful, including the existing sign and shutters, which minimised the environmental footprint of the new floorspace and preserves the history of the site.”
William Haggard, Director, CarverHaggard

The need to minimise strengthening works necessitated a lightweight structure and an iterative costing exercise with the contractor proved that timber would be cheaper than the equivalent steel solution: multiple timber studs could be used instead of steel columns.

To assess the viability of building timber framed walls directly onto the existing load-bearing concrete walls, site investigations were carried out to uncover the existing 1960s foundations. Investigation into the foundations led to the scope of strengthening works being limited to to just a single 80 x 80 new post being introduced under a cantilevered corner of the existing roof. The design showcased the capabilites of traditional timber frame (stud and joist). The use of engineered timber was limited to glulam beams that effectively acted as mini-transfer beams to support the new loads off the existing structure.

Colourful mural on side wall of 198 CAL arts space

Image © Francesco Russo

Combined with the re-use of the existing foundations across most of the site, this approach enabled a 70% saving in embodied carbon against a conventional solution, achieving an A+ rating in LETI’s Embodied Carbon Primer with under 200kg CO2e/sqm.

This article appears in Designing Timber issue 7