Shire Hall is an iconic Grade II listed Georgian building, built in 1791, in the heart of Chelmsford - a landmark at the head of the High Street. Owned by Essex County Council, it is very much a public and community asset, and housed the Magistrates Court from its origin until 2012 when Her Majesty's Court moved out of the building.
The Hall is a much-loved but complex building, with city-centre opportunities but inadequate disabled access and major maintenance and upkeep costs. The building presents massive opportunities for commercial, civic and community uses and could, in time, even provide a base for our Centre for Heritage Conservation (CHC).
In 2012, the Essex Chronicle published an article called 'What should be done with Shire Hall?'. Community consultations are continuing in 2014 on how this major public asset can meet the expectations of a discerning city without becoming a heritage burden.
The Grade II building was on the verge of becoming a 'building at risk', struggling to secure a long-term, sustainable plan for the future. Its custodians needed our help to explore the perceived value of the building by a range of user groups. Our team provided an architectural focus group, made up of surveyors and designers, to assess the building's true potential.
We found that the original 18th-century neoclassical building was remodelled with Victorian side-wings, and that further Art Deco modernisation took place in 1935. This is a reminder that no heritage asset should necessarily be preserved in aspic, but should be allowed to adapt to community values as it matures. Nonetheless, in the 21st century, the building presents several major challenges, such as equality of access and economy of energy use.
The custodians needed to consider a spectrum of building uses to identify ways to generate income as well as offering benefits to the community: allowing the building to secure its long-term sustainable future while overcoming remodelling, maintenance and ongoing operating costs.
Our team delivered an extensive feasibility study in 2011 and 2012 with proposals focusing on the hidden opportunities at Shire Hall, following three conceptual routes:
For example, the 'community hub' scheme featured a café and Tourist Information Centre; one of the criminal courts being retained for lectures and talks; and an internet hub, gallery and presentation spaces with further rooms for public meetings. The potential for Shire Hall to re-house the post office was also identified, which at the time would have reintroduced post office counters back into the city centre.
Essex County Council's Head of Asset Management and Heritage Environment Conservation team contributed to our design reviews and appreciated the outputs, as well enjoying the buzz that our university team created.