An Act of Faith Access to Personal Growth


A highly regarded yet modest building found in especially attractive Heathland beside Poole Harbour and East Purbeck. Unedited Version for HD Magazine March 2003

Listed amongst last years top ten buildings by two broadsheet architectural commentators one wonders why such a such a simple rural amenity should have sparked such eloquent coverage. That such a humble building designed and built as an act of faith to fulfil specific social purposes is receiving such attention is particularly encouraging. Commencing with a part-lottery funded feasibility study in 1999, Faith house is the result of a hard fought planning application and procurement with a special set of favourable circumstances. A situation where an enlightened commissioning team brief a thoughtful and receptive designer of status. Completed in the Spring of 2002 it is the latest addition to a developing partnership with Tony Fretton Architects, currently in its third phase, the construction of a neighbouring stable block studios for use primarily for residing disabled artists. The brief for Faith House was for multiple purpose space for quiet reflection and assembly to promote disability arts within the mission of the organisation. Disability arts are produced exclusively by disabled people, an artform which promotes or highlights the disabled persons perspective.

What is perhaps unique is that Faith House was instigated and commissioned by a conscientious team including carers and disabled people who had a vision for a particular development with impaired individual users in mind. Holton Lee recognises inaccessibility is a major disabling issue, and is working to create a barrier free environment. Exclusion maybe unintentional, but non-representation leads to social institutions and constructed infrastructure which tends too further undermine and isolate disabled users. Health care facilities for example are rarely designed by or for disabled users or indeed from a patient's perspective. Faith House is simply a product of an extensive union between an inspired team developing ideas within their specific ethos, together with an accommodating design consultant.

Named after the late Lady Lees, Faith House is located in 350 acres of low heathland known as Holton Lee. The rundown farm property of East Holton was given by Sir Tom and Lady Faith in 1992 and has since been used by the Post Green community who were instrumental in setting up Holton Lee. A large and richly endowed lowland nature reserve in which to let off steam, it offers shared experiences and opportunities to participate in activities. The estate is run by the East Holton Charity established upon Christian values and Faith House was designed to encourage both community and spiritual endeavours. The mission of Holton Lee is about raising morale and self esteem, particularly carers and disabled people through creativity, environmental awareness, personal growth and spirituality. A space for a rolling art programme, Faith House is mainly a conference centre for up to 50 people in conjunction with the specialist Farmhouse facilities and stay over accommodation.According to the director, Tony Heaton Faith House is and will play a pivotal role in empowering and resourcing disabled people. He sites four objectives for personal growth, the arts, empowerment, environment and spirituality which drive the programme. Through the above core values the trust is seeking to enable independence so the cultural aspects of personal growth may be encouraged. The organisation facilitates a range of mobility so a person's disability may dissolve during their stay at Holton Lee. Spatial fluidity ensures guests with mobility impairments are able to more fully participate and enjoy the experience of the buildings. Exploring the motivation and statement of intent still further, the arts are to promote creativity for all, particularly as a life enhancing force increasing awareness and self-confidence of people with disablement

Resourcing and enabling carers and disabled people who outside the decision-making loop, are routinely discriminated against and are therefore unable to achieve fulfilment or shape their own individual destiny. To achieve equal opportunities across the community means replacing barriers or hurdles with universal access. Environmental awareness suggests learning to be respectful of the natural habitat and living planet. To tread lightly on the earth managing and using natural resources more effectively. To enjoy the natural assets of the countryside and fresh air for mental and physical well being. To aid inner strength and to come to terms with individual circumstances or life threatening predicaments, they seek a non denominational spirituality. Personal growth through sharing and assisting others in order to raise belief in oneself. Spirituality through harmony with the world around us are agreeable ideals but how does it manifest itself and will such expectations or worthy assertions over laden the resulting arteface?

Reached along a linear cutting flanked by woodlands Faith House boldly appears with its porous tri-partite frontage directly ahead. Perched gently on the ridge of a sloping green verge adjacent to the original farmhouse it is approached by a diagonal ramp pathway. Beyond the ridge the organic grazing fields gradually drop away to the natural banks of Poole harbour. Set in an idyllic site of special scientific interest Faith House is positioned to engage the splendid undisturbed views of the undulating inlets. Silhouetted against the bright southern sky the portico profile offers dramatic views through the transparent screens. The framed view through the rear quiet room articulated with a cloister of distinctive tree sections is particularly poetic and draws the visitor in anticipation With its play on voids and solids the appearance of the approach cannot be matched by other aspects, which lack the drama and enticement of the principal vantage point. A short stroll around reveals the subtle sculptural asymmetry generated by over lapping two differently scaled rectangular volumes. The larger scale assembly space projecting a generous canopy supported by four posts stepping gracefully into the foreground. The generous open sun porch shelters the symmetrical ceremonial oak door way. The slender posts and elegant unpainted red cedar timber planes animate the structure and suggest agility and humility in respect to its context. The green sedum flat roof sections politely steps down over the rear lesser hall towards the original farmhouse. For a single story building it stands relatively tall, aligned with the lower roof line of the farm structure the flat roof reduces its imposition on the scenery. Its hard right-angled geometry sits squarely at the heart of the complex, its scale and bulk restrained it contrasts ambiguously in relation to the traditional styling of existing curtilage. The stepped roof, canopy, overall asymmetry and transparency however combine to allow the building to gently nestle into the ground.

At the top of the ramp and once upon the threshold the visitor is conscious of the generous proportions allocated to access and mobility. Symbolically open all hours full accessibility is clearly a priority. The overlapped volumes form a generous entrance lobby and service space with easy circulation without need for corridor links. Although movement throughout is allowed to flow freely there are separate dedicated entrances to the two main spaces. The ease of access for the servery and washrooms seem to determine the generous space allocation for the building as a whole. There are more subtle access issues such as the inclusion of two WC's, one set out for transfer with the left hand and the other arranged for right hand transfer. Not obvious to the casual observer but would determine choice for regular visitors, Likewise wheelchair space under the kitchenette sink, lever taps, with no fiddly door handles the top cupboard overhang for easy opening by holding the bottom of the door. The floor to ceiling glazing offers an abundance of natural light and for the internal spaces to traverse beyond the perimeter. The emergency doors have an extra long bolt so that the top lock can be activited from a seated position as can the exterior blinds, and lights. Once within the main conference hall visitors are aware of the large gallery area but attention is soon diverted outwards to the surrounding landscape. With the realisation that the aim of this building is to take in the ambience and vistas. Views to the farmyard detritus and general clutter are denied and it is clear ones perceptions are guided to the middle distance in order to be soothed by the natural surroundings. As well as external formal considerations the building designers emphasis appear to be directed at facilitating views and physical access to a site of outstanding beauty. The tall fenestration suggests an over-arching ambition to provide a sheltered viewing pavilion from which to borrow the scenery The adjoining meadow arrives softly at the floor of the hall providing an experience to which the wheel chair occupant may normally be restricted. The high levels of natural daylight within the exhibition space will lift morale and encourages more physiological benefits which are conducive to extraverted behaviour responses appropriate for the communication and interaction likely to occur within the assembly hall..

Bringing nature nearer to the users experience in the lesser hall is literally taken a stage further. Here this surprising interior is dominated by a ring of silver birch trunks actually encircling the occupant. A theatrical metaphor for the characteristics of local nature, the imposing installation reinforces the impression of being within the natural habitat. The enclosure provides a further layer of protection offering an opportunity for introspection and meditation. Bringing nature across the threshold in such a bold and tactile manner offers an opportunity to reconsider internal space as a continuum of landscape. As in the Japanese Teahouse tradition this form of habitation appears to promote a space in time for contemplation and reflection on the immediate environment. Whether we consider the sacred ring of trees overbearing or sacred promoting spirituality is unresolved but the sanctuary does appear to encapsulate a mediation space somewhere between the soul and the universe. Most importantly the extravert and introverted relationship between the main and lesser halls appear to offer the user a choice of nterpretation between the need for solitude and the need for communal experience. Timeless spiritual rituals within a vital building with the means to transform positively the way the visitor feels.

With the benefit of recent experience, the Trust continues to evolve re-orientating its development programme to be consistent with its mission. According to the director, "it is firmly fixed in plan to ensure all architecture at Holton Lee should be barrier free, actively address environmental issues as part of construction and future upkeep, have spiritual dimension, be beautiful, inspirational and uplifting." This construction was an act of faith negotiating the winding path between secular and spiritual in the belief a programme based on sensibilities, linking personal space to the natural habitation is likely to result in heightened self esteem and an individual sense of wellbeing

Client Holton Lee (East Holton Charity)
Location Holton Heath, Poole, Dorset
Floor Area 153 sq m
Start on Site January 2001
Completion February 2002
Architect Tony Fretton Architects
Planning Authority Purbeck District Council
Structural Engineers Price & Myers
Contractor Unicorn Construction
Cost £180k excl professional fees

Funding Foundation for The Foundation for Sports & The Arts; various Trusts The Dulverton Trust, The Headley Trust, Maurice Laing Foundation, Rufford Foundation, The Eliza Drax Bequest, The Salisbury Diocese, Esmee Fairburn Charitable Trust, and many individuals, groups and Churches


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