Transforming a former church into a welcoming community centre

Konishi Gaffney’s overhaul of the Greyfriars Charteris Centre in Edinburgh dramatically transformed the existing buildings. It created flexible events spaces and an elegant nondenominational sanctuary.

Sitting at the base of Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano, the original Greyfriars church was built in 1912. Its community outreach and enterprise centre was formed in 2016.

Although providing important space for community groups, the centre was largely underused. It suffered from poor access across multiple levels and a closed off appearance from the street. The dingy basement had metal grates over thin glass in the windows, fluorescent light strips and no disabled access.

The wide stair, built by Old School Fabrications, connects the ground floor with the refurbished basement hub. All photos © Nanne Springer.

To improve the building and make it more inclusive, the Charteris Centre decided to run a competition, inviting architectural firms to send in design proposals. Daniel Fisher, the Charteris Centre’s CEO, explains that they gave very few guidelines beyond that it should appear open and welcoming and fulfil its function of being a viable community space.

An impressive proposal

Edinburgh-based practice Konishi Gaffney Architects developed a winning proposal. They would reconfigure the main entrance to the centre and insert a timber ‘link’ building between the church and the office spaces. Creating views through the building, an open-tiered staircase and seating area were proposed to join the co-working hub in the basement to community functions above.

The judging panel was particularly impressed by how Konishi Gaffney had thought about the open central staircase and how it would bring the building together.

New timber to complement the old

The existing building already contained a large amount of timber, used for the communion and church furniture and in the paneling in the main church hall. So the extensive and carefully considered use of timber in Konishi Gaffney’s proposal was an appealing factor, says Fisher. “We liked that the design was in keeping with the material but modernizing the appearance.”

The basement coworking hub with access by lift and stairs. Drawings by Konishi Gaffney.

Design informed by making

Once they had won the competition, Konishi Gaffney reached out to local design and fabrication company Old School Fabrications to collaborate on the tiered staircase. Together, they developed detailing and a material palette of maple, walnut and birch-faced ply which was then applied to all new elements throughout the building.

Neville Rae, co-director of Old School Fabrications, explains that maple was chosen for its hardwearing qualities and attractive pinkish grain, which sit nicely with the birch ply. Walnut was selected for the nosing of the stairs – which have both a single and double step, allowing people to sit to one side whilst others walk up and down – to create an important visual contrast. A discrete sliding bifold door was included to act as a partition system, intersecting the stairs and allowing users to easily close off the basement during events.

As well as connecting the ground and basement floor, Konishi Gaffney’s ‘link’ design also brought a defined street presence and a welcoming entrance hall, providing access to all parts of the building, horizontally and vertically.

The original pine ceiling of the main hall was stripped of its dark mahogany stain using a soda blasting technique, while a six-metre-tall screen separates the hall from a new ‘all faiths and none’ sanctuary above, filling the space with dappled light.

Externally, the new link building is clad in a grid of slender weather-resistant Accoya fins, mirroring the arrangement of maple fins inside. Beneath the Accoya cladding are white terrazzo panels cast with a sculptural relief pattern developed by artist-practice Chalk Plaster.

Working collaboratively with artists and makers is an important part of Konishi Gaffney’s approach, allowing their material expertise to shape the aesthetic of the project and create a cohesive visual identity that threads throughout.

A hybrid retrofit structure

The complex structural design of the infill building required a highly bespoke approach and presented many challenges to Forshaw Gauld – the structural engineers and approved certifiers of design.

The triple-height, top-lit building, despite being only 3.5 metres wide, needed to include a lift that would connect all four-storeys on either side, and the floor of the main entrance had to be lowered to make a level access entrance from the street.

Steel spreader frames support the openings in the stone walls while cranked steel beams are used for the wide feature staircase.

The existing flank wall of the office buildings didn’t have deep enough foundations to accommodate the lowered floor level, and also needed to be thinned out to make space for the lift. The existing walls were therefore removed and replaced with a new reinforced concrete retaining wall, installed with underpinning, to form the front of the link building.

Supporting the walls

Another challenge was supporting the old stone walls to enable a widening of the openings between the bell tower, lobby and link spaces. These walls are incredibly thick, which meant that steel spreader frames were required to support the structure above and distribute loads back into the wall below.

Engineer Mike Gauld explains that this, in effect, means that “the wall below doesn’t know that the wall above has been removed, as the load path is unchanged.”

Using timber wherever possible

In amongst the major steel work and reinforced concrete, a considerable amount of timber was used in the secondary structure for the project, for partitions, floor joists and beams, dropped ceilings, and the carcassing and frame of the staircase. C16 grade timber was specified as far as possible which meant that it could be UK-sourced, therefore less expensive and more sustainable.

“Timber is always our go-to material where we can use it,” Gauld emphasises, “and we always try to educate clients or architects if they have a preference to use another material where timber could be used.”

“Put simply, if you are worried about sustainability, a rule of thumb is to use timber as much as possible over other traditional construction materials.”

Trials and tribulations

The stairs are beautifully made, with an attractive shadow gap detail around the walnut nosing and no visible fixings

Like so many projects over the past few years, the construction work for the Greyfriars Charteris Centre was considerably affected by the Covid pandemic. The initial plan to close the centre for 51 weeks – with arrangements made to externally host the community groups that use the space – had to be lengthened as the construction site itself had to close for three months.

Further delays came about during the digging of the lift shaft, when instead of finding loose rubble under the link building, as they expected, the construction team hit volcanic rock. With no space for an excavator, the rock had to be broken up and removed with jackhammers.

Despite these complications, the construction work was completed within two years. And by all accounts this major intervention has completely transformed the building into a thriving and well-used community hub.

“The feedback from the public is very positive,” reports Fisher. “Everyone says that it is beautiful and so much better than before. People can tell from the street when events are happening, and they want to come inside.”

“Now everyone can access and make use of the space – which is part of our core ethos: to be a welcoming space for all.”

Illustrating the extent of the transformation, Fisher recalls how, before, taking groups on tours around the building would take him an hour and involved an outdoor detour to avoid using a dangerous staircase. These same tours now take him just 15 minutes.

Improving fabric and performance

Significant retrofit improvements were also made to the existing building, including the installation of loft and floor insulation, replacing single-glazed windows with double-glazed units, a new efficient heating system, low-energy LED lighting and a 24kW solar array on the building’s large south-facing roof.

On a like-for-like basis, the development before refurbishment was calculated to use 45.8 CO2e/m2/yr – following refurbishment, this has been significantly improved, with a 60% reduction in emissions, and is now estimated to use 18.1 CO2e/m2/yr.

*This article is taken from issue 5 of Designing Timber magazine and find a case study of it here