Building recovery case study: Co-location in the heart of Deptford

Deptford Lounge is an award-winning community hub designed by Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE) for LB Lewisham combining a school, library, café, sports facilities, 11 artist studios, a new urban square and 38 flats. As part of the transformation of Tidemill Academy school, the project set out to maximise the impact far beyond the school gates helping improve local people’s skills and support some of the area’s most vulnerable residents with a free, welcoming space for learning and socialising. Ten years on, we take a look at how this innovative approach to co-location is relevant in Covid-19 recovery as we seek to address widening inequalities within reduced budgets. 

Image source: PTE

Background 

The project came about because Tidemill Primary school’s building was in poor condition, and the headteacher was seeking to relocate and expand. The brief was for a safe, secure building to provide a nurturing environment for students – many of whom lived in overcrowded flats with no open space.  

Nearby Giffin Square had an anti-social behaviour problem that was preventing people from benefitting from this civic space. In addition, the local library was in desperate need of refurbishment and there was a lack of affordable homes. 

PTE developed the masterplan for Deptford town centre and, with LB Lewisham, saw the potential to bring several facilities together, including new homes to help address the issues faced by deprived communities in Deptford. 

A new heart for Deptford 

The complex is situated a two-minute walk away from Deptford Station, five minutes from New Cross Station and close to multiple bus routes.  

Image source: PTE

Deptford is a culturally diverse area – 88% of Tidemill Academy’s pupils are from an ethnic minority and 65% speak English as an additional language – with 37 different languages spoken in the school. 

The ambition was to take advantage of the town centre location to create a hub for life-long learning and build connections amongst Deptford’s diverse population.  

The scheme pushed the boundaries of co-location at the time – including uses that don’t typically coexist such as housing and a primary school. Whilst this presented logistical challenges (see below), the design team recognised that to address issues such as overcrowded housing, anti-social behaviour, poor skills attainment and social isolation, a holistic approach would be key. Including a range of facilities and uses for the site attracted a mixed portfolio of funding and allowed the scheme to get off the ground.  

Maximising the flexibility of spaces to create a community asset that felt welcoming and lively at all times of the day and week was key. The school has a copper-clad ‘gold’ façade, deliberately designed to create a focal point in the town centre. The library was conceived more like a shop than a formal civic institution, with a café right by the entrance. 

Maximising mix for community benefit 

Outside of school hours spaces within the school are open for public use. These include the assembly room, rooftop ball courts and a resource centre for start-up businesses. After-school football clubs and regular courses like Arabic and Spanish classes have also been established. This allows otherwise disparate members of the community to mix and expands use of the facilities. 

The design was intended to improve the life chances of young people in the area. At the time of the development, 31% of pupils had special educational needs, and 28% were from one of the most UK’s most deprived wards. The library made it easy for children to join an activity in the library straight after school, or parents who are lacking connections in the area can use it as a space to socialise and learn before or after drop-offs. It provides a vital space for the community to come together, without having to spend money.  

“Tidemill Primary School […] is the result of a visionary concept to increase the space and resources available to new schools by sharing their facilities with the wider community and demonstrates how innovative thinking can make public spending go further in difficult times.”

World Architecture News, 2011

Safeguarding, security, and responsibility of maintenance were raised by project partners as key challenges. Security measures implemented include doors separating the school and other buildings with a key fob system and bespoke access plans for the building at different times of the day and week, allowing separation of facilities for simultaneous use by different groups. After a few years of operation, Deptford Lounge decided to take facilities management of the building in house, rather than rely on an external agency. Annette Butler, Operations Manager at Deptford Lounge says this has been a huge success – with so many users, maintenance is complex and putting it in the hands of people who know the ins and outs of the building and have good relationships with all the users has made a positive impact on efficiency and the condition of the facilities. 

The designers and end users are clear that developing a good working relationship and developing trust was essential to overcome security and logistical issues, providing the council and community with reassurance that the space could function safely. 

Co-design with the community 

PTE worked closely with local people throughout the design process, aiming to create a place that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age or ability. All services and spaces are fully accessible for wheelchair users, with user-friendly toilets and shower facilities.  

Image source: PTE

School pupils designed the playground structure, with the architects ensuring it was equally welcoming to students with special educational needs. 

“One of my favourite places is the playground ramp which the children designed themselves and literally no adult has any input whatsoever – that’s just testament to what children can do if given the opportunity and the freedom.”

Mark Elms, Headteacher at Tidemill Academy at the time of redevelopment

Impact

Flexible use of shared spaces has given everyone in the community a place to come together. Through Covid-19 it has provided a lifeline for a local cinema faced with closure. Room hire rate reductions for an Arabic school were offered in exchange for hosting a cultural day in the Lounge for the local community.  

“It’s here for everyone – educating from the young to the old. You don’t have to have money to come here. It will support you. It’s accessible, it’s open, it’s for everyone.”

Dominique Oliver, partner at PTE

Placing the library within the school saw an increase of over 100,000 visitors/year and a total of over million visitors in its first year. Income generation at Deptford Lounge (largely through room hire) has increased almost tenfold – from £20k to £180k – all money which is reinvested into the community facility. It provided events and activities reaching nearly 7,000 people in 2017 compared to just over 1000 in 2012.

Image source: PTE

Pupils now benefits from bigger and better facilities – providing a safe and high-quality environment that provides a better space for learning, creativity and more healthy lifestyles. The headteacher commented that it has ‘made an enormous impact on the quality of education our pupils receive’.

In addition, the development has improved the public realm of Giffin Square and kickstarted the development of the nearby railway arches.

Lessons learned

  • Push the boundaries of flexibility and mixed use – post-Covid we need to emphasise places and spaces that can adapt to future shocks and changes to the way we use our cities. Co-location can help to address affordability for local authorities, designers and developers, who increasingly need to do more with less.
  • You need strong leadership, confidence and a willingness to take risks – the project was made possible with inspiring and dedicated leaders from LB Lewisham and the head teacher of Tidemill Academy who supported PTE‘s ambitions. Challenges that initially appeared daunting, (security, maintenance and safety), were overcome through collaboration.
  • Engagement doesn’t stop on the opening day – over the last decade, the staff at Deptford Lounge staff have worked tirelessly in building trust with the community. The key to engagement is simple explained Annette Butler “talk to your community and ask them what they want. Small acts like greeting people in the building and making light conversation can enable us to understand people’s needs and take appropriate action.”
  • Complex problems need holistic solutions – structural inequalities are deep-rooted and cannot be solved by one development alone. But working across departments to attract the best possible mix of uses for a local community in town centre sites means there is something for everyone.

“The Deptford Lounge is a persuasive example of what can be accomplished when cash-stripped institutions share resources and architecture.”

Phineas Harper, Director, Open City/Open House 2020