How we did it ... Old hall refurbished as low-carbon arts space

Project: Refurbishment of a 19th century grade II listed hall as a low-carbon base for an arts group.

Background: Metal, an organisation that works in arts projects related to regeneration, sought a base in the Thames Gateway and found Chalkwell Hall in Essex, but the building needed to be transformed.

Who is behind it? Metal, architects ZEDfactory, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Arts Council England and the East of England Development Agency.

Project Aims: To provide a low-carbon headquarters for regeneration-related arts projects.

Skills involved: Architecture, building adaptation and the ability to understand the aims of an unusual arts organisation.

This time last year, Chalkwell Hall was possibly the country's most imposing garden shed. The grade II listed hall was built as a private residence around 1830 amid extensive grounds with commanding views over the Thames Estuary.

It later found itself in the midst of a suburban park in Southend-on-Sea. After serving for a while as a cafe it became almost disused, except for a section of the ground floor that accommodated park gardeners.

Arts organisation Metal found it in this sorry state while seeking a base in the Thames Gateway. The body already had a base in Liverpool but managing director Collette Bailey explains that it "wanted to be involved in the largest regeneration project in the country".

Metal was founded by Jude Kelly, artistic director at London's Southbank Centre, in 2002. Sculptor Anthony Caro and painter David Hockney are patrons. It works by exploring how artists can be catalysts for ideas and action in civic life, helping to shape healthy societies and communities, exciting places and strong economies.

ZEDfactory was commissioned for an £800,000 project to transform the listed building into a low-carbon space in which artists can work, exhibit and live. Principal Bill Dunster recollects: "There was not much more than an electricity supply in there when we arrived. It was very leaky and the basement was nicely mouldy. The ground floor had a revolting public toilet and the remains of a former zoo adjoining it." The spaces were remodelled to create a public gallery.

Dunster adds: "The idea is that the public stuff is on the ground floor, you have artists being messy in the basement, artists' living quarters on the first floor - they can stay for short periods while working - and the 'thinking' at the top." This "thinking" space uses a rooftop conservatory with estuary views in which artists can develop ideas.

The roof has two wind turbines taking advantage of a windy site and is glazed with grid-connected solar electric panels. The building uses wood-burning stoves for heat and cooking and wood pellet boilers. "There is very low energy use on the things we built, but we could not change the Georgian exterior so the new areas' low energy use compensates for that," Dunster notes.

"It was effectively a shell and we have made it as low-energy as possible. The building is a kind of performance that will run on zero or very low carbon, which shows that if we all have to live with low carbon emissions it really is no big deal."

Bailey says one reason Metal chose Southend is its active arts community. She found numerous artists and photographers, a "fantastic music scene" that dates back to the 1970s heyday of Dr Feelgood and an influx of students and academics brought in by a new university campus.

Another attraction was Southend-on-Sea Borough Council's commitment to cultural regeneration. Chief executive Rob Tinlin says: "It is very exciting to see how Metal has transformed Chalkwell Hall so effectively. The building is set to become a power house of ideas to spark off cultural opportunities throughout the community." Metal's work could see a town best known until now for the world's longest pier put at the cutting edge of urban arts.

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