The Observer Building

Tags: community, offices, timber, refurbishment

  • Client: White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures
  • Architect: IF_DO
  • Photography: John Cole
  • Completion: 2023
  • Value: £4m
  • Size: 4,000 m²
  • Expertise: Structures, Civils, Building Services
The Observer Building - Webb Yates Engineers
The Observer Building - Webb Yates Engineers

The Observer Building is a landmark property in Hastings. Built in 1924, the space was originally a headquarters for local newspaper the Hastings & St Leonards Observer. White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures, a locally rooted social enterprise developer, purchased the building in 2019 and set out to create a new mixed-use community facility. The structure is built into the ‘White Rock’ stone of Hastings, with the lowermost floor having a series of vaults that extend into the cliff face. It has been in a state of dereliction and decay for 34 years and is finally undergoing a community-led transformation.

The project aims to provide life-changing opportunities for local people through the conversion of a long-abandoned building to create a new piece of social infrastructure for the town. Carefully designed local procurement delivers employment and training opportunities, alongside an extensive community engagement programme. Webb Yates Engineers has completed the full structural, civil and building services engineering design for the first phase of the project, as well as concept design for the subsequent phases.

Phase 1 saw essential repairs to the fabric of the building, followed by various new interventions such as a new entrance ramp and stair to the basement levels. It also included the creation of affordable workspaces in the form of timber office 'pods', a new community café, flexible event spaces, and a gym. Opening up works and void infills were undertaken to create optimised layouts, and detailed design of the existing structure was undertaken to minimise the interventions required. Phases 2 and 3, will create 16 living rent flats, terraces and multi-use community spaces through additional refurbishment and the introduction of a two-storey lightweight timber roof extension.

In addition to fabric improvements, all new building services were introduced to bring the building in line with modern sustainability goals. Heating is provided by air source heat pumps and mechanical ventilation and heat recovery systems, alongside enhanced natural ventilation combined with night purge ventilation, minimise heating needs during the winter period and provide supplementary ventilation during summer. Mixed-mode design allows the summer to predominantly operate in a passive mode. The design also allows for potential future connection to a decentralised energy network.

Sustainable drainage systems form part of the site-wide water strategy. The existing surface water discharge rate was reduced by up to 50% with a further 40% allowance for climate change. An above ground attenuation tank was specified which was suspended from the ceiling within the basement, left exposed to serve as a feature. In addition to demonstrating the design’s sustainability commitments, this allowed for maximum use of the floor area within the basement and avoided the need to dig up the existing slab and install it below, as well as setting up the development to reuse rainwater in the near future.