Here at Thread we often work with community groups who are aiming to develop facilities for their local area. Getting a community led project off the ground can feel like a daunting task and will take a lot of enthusiasm, time, energy and support from a large pool of people but often we’ve found that the project can reveal and draw on a wide range of skills from the community and the achievement of developing facilities that can support your village, town or city for years to come is very rewarding.

So if you’re a community group who have got together, either to support a facility that is facing closure or with an idea for a new facility that your area is lacking or perhaps with a desire to build your own housing, how and where do you start? Here’s a few tips from us from our experience of working with community groups to develop building projects:

Grow your family

The success of community projects relies upon the support of the people around it who may support it in a number of ways, through giving time, money, skills, and enthusiasm for the idea. Often these projects evolve over a long period of time, so getting the widest amount of support from the greatest number of people, and keeping them informed of every step along the way, will help to maintain the momentum throughout the process.

Identify your project team

Within the wider family of supporters, you’ll need to find a dedicated team who will drive the project forward. They’ll need to have time and energy to spare, and perhaps individual skills to offer. Think about what your project might need – a project manager? someone with experience in building? Perhaps it’s a facility that needs someone with bespoke knowledge of a particular sport? If you’ve taken on a building owned by another party, such as the local council, involve them in the process and ask for a representative from the building owner to join the project team. Try to cover a range of skills in a project team who will be responsible for decision making. Having a dedicated, smaller project team within the wider project family will help to focus attention on developing the project and give clear lines of communication when it comes to getting others involved in the process.

How will the project be funded?

At the start of the process, you probably won’t know how much its going to cost but there’s no harm in starting to consider where the money might come from. Preparing and submitting funding bids is often a long and involved process which may have particular requirements so knowing this early is beneficial. Explore what grants are available in your local area. Speak to your local council and any relevant national funding bodies. Does your project involve local heritage? Have a look at the Heritage Lottery Funding information. Are you looking to develop arts or cultural facilities? Consider the Arts Council. Perhaps your project will improve the local environment? Look for funding streams such as Viola who support projects with an environmental focus. If you’re thinking of a co-housing scheme, look at the National Custom and Self Build portal for lots of information on routes to building your homes. Being informed early about what money may be available for your project will help to inform what the budget may be for the work, but don’t let this limit the scope of the work to start with, lots can change as the project progresses.

A proposal for a community housing scheme with a limited budget as our entry for the National Custom and Self Build Association ‘Self Build on a Shoestring’ 2014

Set your brief

Being clear about the intentions of your project is vital to ensure that when you get a design team involved they are clear about what it is you are intending to achieve. When the client is a wide reaching community group, it is common to get ideas and aspirations that may not always work together. Use the wide community knowledge to gather ideas from across the spectrum, but analyse this within the project group to focus the intentions of the project to a clear brief.

Gather your professional team

When you’ve gathered together your research and project brief, you’re going to need some professional help through the process of getting the work done. Your community may have contacts who can help you with this, or you could speak to other similar groups that have been through the process to see if they can make recommendations. An architect can help to guide you through the design process whilst also testing and expanding your brief by bringing their creativity to the groups ideas. Get in touch with a few, discuss the ideas and perhaps see if you can meet with them to ensure that they understand the intentions of the community group and are a good fit for your needs. Understand the process and how they might take you through the steps. The Royal Institute of British Architects produce a plan of work that describes the stages that would be involved from developing the brief through to construction. You could even talk to a professional body about arranging an architectural competition to explore the possibilities. Our entry for the Sessay Helms Community Hub was a shortlisted entry for a competition for architectural services run by the RIBA alongside the community group.

Our proposal for the Sessay Helms Community Hub

Starting to explore a design.

The first stages of the design process are often the most exciting and sometimes the most challenging, as ideas are tested, developed and, in some cases, discarded as the priorities of the community group evolve and become clearer. Your professional team will have their own techniques for working through this process. Here at Thread, we would guide you through the initial phases of a community led project in the following stages:

BRIEFING:

The first stage in any community led projects is to gain a full understanding of the issues from all parties involved in the project.

It may have taken a lot of work and time for the group to get into a position to be ready to start designing. The group will have a lot of knowledge about the project already that the design team may not be aware of, so share the storey of the project so far and make sure everyone involved has a voice and feels included. We see our job in this process is to listen, understand and record this information in a means that can be presented back to the group to define the parameters of the project and brief for our work going forward.

Section of a briefing document we helped to prepare for a community library project.

 

FEASIBILITY:

Once the brief is confirmed, we develop initial feasibility proposals to test and explore various ideas for the project.

Thread explore a variety of options for various elements of the brief. We present back to the community group 3 or 4 options, each of which may develop different aspects of the brief to test ideas and preconceptions about the project and add our own design flair to the spatial design.

The options may vary in scope, to demonstrate the impact of small scale alterations through to more extensive work. This may test the work within the boundaries of existing budgets or explore what may be possible if budgets and funding streams are yet to be established. Exploring different scales of work may also enable the work to be broken down into immediate ‘quick win’ projects through to long term schemes that may take longer to realise. In all cases, seeing the ‘big picture’ ensures that any initial small scale works are futureproofed to fit into the long term vision.

We keep plans and ideas in sketch form at this stage so that the client group retain ownership of the design process and continue to feel that they can input and be involved as a vital part of the design team. No single option is ever ‘the answer’ at this stage. We encourage honest feedback on the proposals – both positive and negative – to enable us and the client group to clarify the priorities in the brief before we develop the proposals further. Our feasibility work at Broomhill Library proposed a number of different options to test ideas and options for how the facilities could be developed into a thriving community hub.

One of four feasibility options prepared for the Broomhill Community Library feasibility study.

CONSULTATION:

Initial feasibility ideas are also opened up to the wider community to gain feedback on the proposals from the building users.

The success of community projects depends on the support of the community that use and, in some cases, run the facilities. We aim to ensure that the community retain ownership of the project by consulting with them at all stages and ensuring their feedback is listened to and forms as an integral part of the scheme development. We can suggest ideas for how this is best undertaken or take the client’s lead to define how the community becomes involved in the process.

Presenting ideas to the wider community to gather comments and queries.

CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT:

Once feedback is collated, the feasibility ideas are developed towards a more defined scheme of works.

We collate and digest the feedback from the initial feasibility meeting and consultation events and start to develop the initial plans into a more defined scheme.

This starts to look in greater detail at the spaces created, and how alterations may start to appear both internally and externally. We work towards a single ‘preferred’ layout at this stage, although decisions are not finalised and we continue to encourage the community group to consider how the plans are developing to ensure the spaces being created are achieving their brief.

We present the concept design back to the community group. Providing it is moving in the right direction, we also encourage involving a Quantity Surveyor at this early stage to assess the possible costs of the alterations proposed. This can then be reviewed alongside budgets, if already established, to ensure the work proposed is affordable, or allow the community group to start to consider funding streams available for the work.

We also encourage early consultation with the local planning authority, particularly in the case of existing buildings of historic value, to ensure the proposals can be supported by the local authority moving forwards.

At the end of this work we aim to provide the community group with a report that encompasses the design brief and how the feasibility and concept development aims to meet this. A cost report from a Quantity Surveyor provides information about the budget required for the work. Initial feedback from the local authority will demonstrate that the ideas could be supported through the planning process.

Beyond the feasibility study

Community projects are often long term commitments. We are happy to support the community group throughout the entire project in whatever way helps the process.

Following the feasibility study, we can continue to develop the project towards obtaining planning approval and develop the technical detail of the design as the project progresses towards construction. When on site, we can stay involved as your ‘Contract Administrator’, guiding the community group through the building process and ensuring the built project is of high quality and completed on time and on budget.

How else can we help?

As well as the architectural services that we offer, we can help you to promote your project by providing models, visuals and artists impressions to help the community visualise the end goal. We can provide information as needed for funding bids and we can also use our connections, both social and professional, to promote the project and add support throughout the design process and through to completion.

A photomontage prepared to help visualise potential

We hope this has described some of the steps towards a community building project and how you might start the design process. If you have a project in mind and would like some further advice, feel free to get in touch with us here.

 

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