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Hitting the right note

Hitting the right note

The new multi-function hall in Bury St Edmund’s conceals acoustic and mechanical sophistication with a deliberately simple appearance and a palette of materials

Residents of Bury St Edmunds, in the UK, have a new facility for classical and rock concerts, weddings, antiques fairs and a range of other functions.

It will be obvious to anybody who attends several events that the hall is very flexible, since it can be configured with raked seating or an entirely flat floor. What will not be so readily apparent is that the interior of the hall, a harmonious space lined largely with American white oak (www.americanhardwood.org), is far less simple than it appears to be.

Set among the shops and flats of the Arc development, the hall had to be acoustically isolated, and also offer its visitors a good aural experience. “When you walk into the space, you have no idea how sophisticated it is,” said Jim Greaves, the partner at Hopkins Architects in charge of the project. “It feels very calm.”

Connoisseurs of concert spaces may also spot a similarity to the Snape Maltings concert hall in Aldeburgh, designed by Arup Associates in the 1960s. This is not coincidental – Snape has famously good acoustics, so echoing its form makes sense. Both have internal roofs that slope in both directions, with a relatively small flat element at the top. “It does all the acoustic reflection for us,” said Greaves.

But although Snape and Bury St Edmunds are both in the east of England, their situation could not be more different. Whereas Snape is an isolated collection of former brewery buildings, the new hall is part of the redevelopment of a market town, on the site of a former cattle market.

Hopkins designed the whole scheme, and deliberately placed the concert hall, called the Apex, between shops with flats above, so that it faced a new square. In this way, it prevents the area becoming a dead space at night, when the shops are shut.

Hopkins worked with theatre consultants Carr and Angier to work out the functionality that the auditorium needs to offer. “The business model works if there are four walls for hire,” said Greaves, “which can operate with a flat floor or a rake.” It can accommodate 1,000 standing or 500 sitting.

Structurally, it was necessary to make the enclosure very heavy, to prevent sound escaping and annoying nearby residents, particularly when the building is host to the ‘Battle of the Bands’, an annual rock concert. It therefore has a structural brickwork diaphragm wall, with a heavy concrete roof.

The bricks, which are exposed on the walls of the concert hall, are handmade Charnwood Hampshire Red. The exposed headers have a special relief pattern, a kind of multiple star effect. This is handsome but also functional – it is part of the acoustic strategy to disperse reflections.

There are two levels of balcony, made of precast concrete, which cantilever from beams concealed within the diaphragm wall, and are tied back with large steel rods, also contained within the diaphragm wall. American white oak lines the roof, and forms the floor. It is also used on the fronts of the balconies and for the seating.

It is a material with which Hopkins is familiar, having used it on the Haberdashers Hall in London and Emmanuel College theatre, Cambridge. “I like it because it has a good colour and a good grain,” says Greaves. “It’s consistent and good to work with, and you get a beautiful effect. You tend to get a feeling of quarter-sawn timber from it, even if it hasn’t actually been cut that way. And it is kiln dried, so if the joiners know what they are doing, you don’t get a lot of fluctuations in moisture content.”

On both floors and the roof, 18mm thick oak is fixed to a plywood backing of the same thickness. The acousticians at Threshold Acoustics decreed that both should be fixed resiliently so that they can absorb low frequency sound. The flat area at the top of the roof consists of a large rooflight, so when the space is used for events such as weddings, daylight can penetrate. A blind is drawn across it for performances.

This is not the only element of the design that has been affected by acoustic considerations. There are openings in the balcony fronts to permit sound to pass through and make them less reflective. And the seating, designed by Luke Hughes and manufactured by Race, is both elegant and supremely functional.

The fact that the floor can be converted from flat to raked means the raised flooring consists of ‘wagons’ – blocks with seating attached, which can be stored away beneath the flat floor.

Hughes designed the seats in a mix of solid American white oak elements and veneer. “The great thing about American white oak is that it is consistent in its colour and tone,” he said, “and there is less waste than with European oak.”

Equally important is making the seating work to a budget, and at Bury St Edmunds, money was tight. When Hughes talks about value engineering, he does not mean it in the debased sense of shaving costs and quality but of genuinely getting value for money. Part of this consists of knowing where to use solid timber and where to use veneer. But it also comes from a profound understanding of materials.

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