St Peter's Centre

Species: American white oak
Architect: Communion Design
Photography: Communion Design/Infinity Limited

Communion design bring American white oak to St. Peter’s Centre

st peter's centreIn 2009, the opportunity arose to re-order the 10th century, grade I listed church of St. Peter’s in the Golden Valley; a valley of the River Dore in western Herefordshire named for its picturesque and gently rolling countryside.

St Peter’s Church is situated at the centre of Peterchurch, a rural community in the heart of the Golden Valley populated by just 800 people. The existing church dates from the 10th century, but during the works, foundations for what was thought to be an earlier building located nearer the River Dore were discovered. The church building itself is very linear with a double chancel. These spaces are separated by magnificent arches, one of which is highly decorated with carving from the “Hereford School”, a group a 12th century master-masons who worked in the areas of Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

During the Victorian period the interior walls of the church were stripped of their lime plaster work and a new tiled floor, new heating system and organised seating arrangements with imposition of pews both in the Nave and the first chancel (crossing) were installed. Although structurally much of the building was in good repair, the internal arrangements meant that the building had limited with a lack of usable space, lighting and power installations or basic facilities.

st peter's centreThe grade I listed church required a 21st century re-order to create a sustainable multi-use community building, and Communion Design under director Alex Coppock was instructed to undertake the design and deliver the project. The design brief had to include service delivery centre for children's services through a Sure Start programme, accommodate a public lending library, and provide a community event space as well as a sacred worship space for Anglican services.

Established in 2006, Communion Design specialises in residential, ecclesiastical and community architecture. Alex Coppock said, “Communion means ‘shared vision’. Successful buildings are the result of people working together to deliver that shared vision. We work closely with our clients to deliver exactly what they need and we build strong relationships with all involved in the project. Our designs provide elegant solutions to difficult situations and we are known for 're-imagining' buildings from Grade I Listed churches to longhouses or barns.

“St. Peter’s was no different. Due to the sensitive nature of the site in both conservation and religious terms, we endeavoured to change as little as possible about the existing building and sought to reduce to an absolute minimum the facilities required to deliver the brief by ensuring they were absolutely fit for purpose.”

A wood pellet boiler, kitchen and accessible WC, stair and lift access to first floor balcony, and cleaners area were all installed. To minimize impact, all facilities were designed to be contained within freestanding timber boxes, clad in American white oak. When in use, the boxes are opened, allowing the existing spaces to be almost instantly transformed from 12th century patterns of worship to modern and contemporary uses. Once the activities are finished, the boxes are closed and the space returns to sacred silence.

st peter's centreThe timber boxes were designed as lightweight, freestanding and reversible insertions within the existing space and considerable care was taken to ensure these constructions comply with the fire regulations. Structurally, the boxes are constructed from 125x75mm softwood stud work, braced with 19mm plywood sheathing. Alex Coppock explains, “Careful detailing of the frame ensured absolute structural stability. The frame bears onto a timber soleplate, which bears directly onto the reinforced slab which prevented the need for intrusive excavations in a very archeologically sensitive site.”  The outer cladding was designed to be specific to each box. The largest and most complex is located at the West end of the chancel, which houses the kitchen, accessible WC, platform lift and plant room, and gives support to the oak staircase and first floor balcony with bridge to the new library. The cladding was formed from 20mm thick, 100mm wide American white oak boards, and the results have been exceptionally well received. Alex said, “American white oak was specified for the smoothness and straightness of its grain and the long term sustainable forestry management undertaken for US forests. We used white oak for all the vertical cladding and the bespoke furniture, and everyone is delighted with the results.”  Great care was required in the construction of the timber boxes.  Alex continued, “To achieve an elevation of uninterrupted oak boards, the setting out of the internal spaces and the placement of the opening apertures was subject to the matrix of the oak board cladding. This was particularly taxing for the integration of the platform lift door. The floors were finished with either 15mm or 22mm thick, 180mm wide engineered board, which respond well with the under floor heating loops we installed.”

Bespoke storage furniture was designed by Communion and constructed in white oak or clad in Portuguese cork, which created a display space for the children’s works within the nave of the church.

There was a strong requirement from the client that the project should be designed with a clear environmental mandate. However there are clear limitations when working with a Norman Church. The ability to be able to reduce the heat loss from the building is limited and as such the heat source for the project needed to be as low carbon as possible. From the outset it was agreed that the church should remove its oil fired boiler and replace it with a wood pellet boiler. Unlike logs or chips, pellets create much less ash waste, just 0.2%, meaning ash trays only have to be cleaned once a fortnight. The fuel is delivered directly to the boiler, which is housed in a purpose-built larch clad cabin which sits very discreetly on the edge of the church’s graveyard.

st peter's centreThe carbon reduction argument is that the carbon released in the burning of the fuel is approximately the same as the carbon absorbed by the growth of the timber. The carbon intensity ascribed to biomass by DEFRA is to take account of the processing and transportation of the fuel. The boiler is used with a large accumulator tank which acts as a ‘heat reservoir’ allowing the boiler to achieve maximum efficiency by running a complete burn cycle, ensuring that all fuel pellets are burned completely. Heat is then transferred from the Energy Cabin to the church building by means of a super insulated pipe which prevents almost any heat loss in transit. The church is then heated using under floor heating laid within a limecrete slab. The use of low level radiant floor heating allows for an efficient way of heating a high lofted space. It creates a microenvironment in the occupied areas and avoids heating the full volume which helps to reduce energy and emissions and improve comfort of the space. After a year of running it has been calculated that it has cost around £6,000 to heat the building. This compares with almost £3,000 prior to the project, however the former heating system was so ineffective the space was only used once or twice a week. The church is now a thriving community space which is intensively used every day. The children's centre actually contributes to half the building’s running cost, which equates to the church paying roughly the same amount as before but with the benefit of having warm usable, viable, sustainable space.

All works required Faculty Consent, and planning permission and listed building   consent were required for the external works. Obtaining these permissions was complicated by the fact that available grant funding for the project was time limited and Communion needed to carry out extensive consultations with statutory consultees in a very short period of time. But, all permissions were successfully gained and the grant was awarded. Work started on site on 1st June 2009 and Practical Completion issued 11th December. The Local Authority gave a grant of £255,000 towards the work and the balance of £450,000 had to be raised by the parochial church council (PCC).

The ancient Norman Church of St Peter’s has become a place which allows everyone living within the remote Golden Valley in rural Herefordshire access to an inclusive space which has become the centre piece of a thriving local community. The project is an overwhelming success with its hugely popular lending library, a Sure Start centre which is achieving its full service delivery outcomes, and more, and a church which continues to be used as a place of worship for midweek and Sunday services. The church is also being regularly hired by many community groups from Tai Chi to Voluntary Action Workers, Art Alive events, Flicks in the Sticks, children’s parties, weddings, concerts, and conferences, to name but a few.

Designed by Communion, and developed in partnership with St Peter's Church, Peterchurch PCC and Herefordshire Council, St Peter's Centre is now a truly exceptional space.