For the third of our project blogs we go to Boscombe in Bournemouth.
We were invited to take part in an informal competition with two other practices, to make proposals as to how we would approach the development of a tertiary care centre for Jesuit priests. The Orders director of property, Father Paul, himself an ordained priest, provided one of the most inspiring briefs we have ever received. Instead of a dry and technical schedule of their requirements he wrote a two page lyrical description of how they would like the place to be, who would live there and their differing needs both physical and spiritual.
The site was in the grounds of the existing redundant Victorian presbytery adjacent to the grade 2 listed local Catholic Church, a Catholic faith primary school and an Undertakers housed in a grade 2 listed Victorian lodge! Of three competitors, one was rejected early and we and the other where interviewed at the Jesuit’s Mayfair headquarters by a daunting panel made up of the senior members of the Order in the UK. Immediately after we had presented our initial thoughts on how the site might be developed and how we would respond to their brief we were invited to a follow-on meeting with Father Paul. It transpired the other candidates had approached the local planners and been told there was no way the proposed development would be approved and so had not presented any ideas at all!
Our response was that we were confident we could obtain an approval for their proposals on the site. That even if the scale of the proposed care facility was unacceptable, the site still needed to be found a new use and that we could help with that while looking for other options for locating the new House. Our thoughts on how we would respond to the brief and develop a proposal would still be valid either way. This is what the client wanted to hear and we were commissioned to develop a scheme for the Presbytery site.
Father Paul was clear that the Order did not want to look backwards with their new developments and he was keen that we should create a place of architectural significance. Our initial proposals were bold and in retrospect a little too dominant, pompously described by English Heritage as having an ‘infelicitous juxtaposition’ to it’s neighbours. We received a refusal from the planning authority, partly in response to a vociferous letter campaign against the development lead by a local Baptist minister who’s correspondence was vehemently anti-Catholic.
So started a mini religious war, with Catholic parishioners starting their own letter campaign at the ‘suggestion’ of the parish priest! Following consultation with the head of planning we were commissioned to do a complete redesign, reducing the mass by burying key elements 3.5 m below the garden level, breaking up the massing and adding more distinct elements. An extensive landscape scheme covering the whole site including the school and church was also included. A new and exhaustive design statement as well as numerous visualisation, reports, consultation meetings and prayers followed culminating in a unanimous decision at committee and a full approval.
But at what cost. There was no doubt that the new scheme was going to be significantly more expensive and difficult to build and take substantially longer. Would it justify the additional cost and effort? Serious consideration went into the decision to proceed with the project, detailed value engineering and scope reductions were costed and the cost of developing on a simpler site was also investigated by the client. The conclusion was to proceed with pretty much the original scheme. The contract was fraught with problems, sub contractor bankruptcies, supply chain problems, site quality control failures, all resulted in even further delays and compromise.
The end result, however justified the effort and the complete House once occupied proved to be a resounding success with the elderly priests. The original brief anticipated a certain level of occupancy based on the demographic of the Order. It was anticipated that there would be a natural churn of about 20% per annum. In the event no one died in the first three years and the Order had to fit out an annex in a nearby house to accommodate the overflow!
A place to come to terms with life and mortality, to make peace with their god through prayer and meditation in comfort and tranquillity.