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Locals plunge in to rescue Jubilee Pool – and win it the 2023 MacEwen Award

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

Local commitment and creative engineering produced a sustainable community and tourist amenity in the MacEwen Award winner – Scott Whitby Studio’s Jubilee Pool in Penzance

The day I visited Jubilee Pool in Penzance was during the extremely cold patch, the week before Christmas. On the way out of London on the train, inches of solidified snow had lain on the ground for five cold days, and I was braving a 24-hour break in the week-long train strikes schedule. The train was deserted. Outside temperatures weren’t much above 0˚C, sometimes well below. But the day was stunningly bright and crisp, and at Jubilee Pool in the winter sunshine a constant huddle of swimmers was enjoying the new geothermally heated waters.

At 91m long by 49m wide, the pool is the UK’s largest and one of its five remaining seawater lidos. With a capacity of five million litres it can accommodate 600 people. It was designed by Penzance borough engineer Frank Latham in an art deco style and completed in 1935. Triangular in shape, the pool was built on an area known as Battery Rocks on the headland, which had become a popular year-round bathing spot during the Victorian period. It is surrounded by 225˚ sea views, including of St Michael’s Mount, with the harbour on one side and the beach promenade on the other.

However, the grade II-listed Jubilee Pool has in recent decades endured multiple episodes of waning popularity and damage followed by closure and reopening. After declining in the 1970s and falling into disrepair, it was closed in 1992 but relaunched after a restoration in 1994. Then in 2014 it was seriously damaged during the Valentine’s Day storms along the south coast. Some outdoor changing rooms and sun lounging terraces were affected and the storm revealed major underlying structural issues whereby the pool floor was no longer attached to the bedrock.

Seen from above: the new geothermal pool in one corner and roofs of the new café and community buildings either side of the entrance steps.
Seen from above: the new geothermal pool in one corner and roofs of the new café and community buildings either side of the entrance steps. Credit: Eye on High

After the storm, the Friends of Jubilee Pool charity was set up by locals to help raise funds for its repair. The pool was again restored and reopened in May 2016 at a cost of £2.94 million. At the time, however, the council which owned it was simultaneously reviewing its longer-term viability. Its operation in the years to that point had been contracted to other health/leisure providers as part of multi-facility centres in Cornwall, and as a result it never received the investment or attention it needed. One proposal considered by the council was to fill in the pool and turn it into a giant car park. Again, the Friends of Jubilee Pool came to its rescue and in 2017 agreed to buy it on a 99-year lease, setting itself up as Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd, a charitable community benefit society.

For the judges of the 2023 MacEwen Awards, this backdrop of community action and ambition set the project apart. In 2017 Scott Whitby Studio got involved. Director Alex Scott Whitby was introduced to the Friends of Jubilee Pool/Jubilee Pool Penzance by Patricia Brown, director of design consultancy Central, who has a house in the area. Scott Whitby is connected too – his wife’s family has learned to swim at Jubilee Pool for generations. The practice was asked to make proposals that could turn the pool into a year-round facility, thereby ensuring its financial security and making its revenues more predictable with, for example, a permanent staff. It is this second phase of development at Jubilee Pool, a collaboration between Jubilee Pool Penzance Ltd and Scott Whitby Studio, that makes the scheme this year’s MacEwen Award winner. The project has saved an important historical monument and piece of heritage, and given it a new, sustainable and thriving future.

Before being taken into community ownership the pool was open for four to five months a year, largely on a voluntary basis, and drained over the winter. In recent decades its best year had achieved 40,000 swimmers. Since the pool reopened mid 2020 that number has more than doubled to 90,000 per year; about 50% come from outside Cornwall. It has created 46 jobs, seven full time, across lifeguarding, hospitality, bookings, retail, planning and marketing. And it has developed a thriving events programme that includes pizzas on summer evenings, open-air cinema and music, and a revival of the open water swim from Newlyn, down the bay to the pool, in which 215 people took part. 

Since Jubilee Pool reopened it has doubled its previous best swimmer numbers to 90,000 and created 46 jobs

  • Swimmers enjoy the newly partitioned geothermal pool in one corner of the original pool. Temperatures in the heated area are guaranteed at 30-35ºC all year round.
    Swimmers enjoy the newly partitioned geothermal pool in one corner of the original pool. Temperatures in the heated area are guaranteed at 30-35ºC all year round. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Like pop-up eyes, one of the new clerestory windows.
    Like pop-up eyes, one of the new clerestory windows. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • The community space with its vaulted timber ceiling can be transformed to any use, with packable furniture for when it is a gift shop.
    The community space with its vaulted timber ceiling can be transformed to any use, with packable furniture for when it is a gift shop. Credit: Jim Stephenson
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The huge turnaround has been down to local commitment. Once the pool was in community ownership in 2017, the organisation launched a new funding drive that raised a further £1.8 million. By this point, the idea to create a geothermally heated section of the pool was already under way. Scott Whitby Studio’s early feasibility found opportunities to upgrade the café to make it less weather-dependent and create a community space that could be used for events, local group activities or as a shop at different times of the year. As a community benefit society structure, which allowed it to issue shares, the organisation found 1400 community shareholders worth £600,000 with the help of Scott Whitby Studio – 1000 from within the county. Share prices ranged from £20 to £25,000. The team also attracted £350,000 from the Architectural Heritage Fund, and one of the last-awarded EU grants to do the geothermal pool, plus funds from Cornwall county council and Penzance town council.

The geothermal pool, designed by GEL Geothermal Engineering and Arup and partitioned from the main triangular pool in the most sheltered section, broadens its audience by appealing to those less comfortable in the cold. It is also fully accessible. It works using a 410m-deep well just off the site. Hot water from the well is pumped up to a new plant located in several converted former changing rooms where a heat exchange process with the pool sea water takes place. The process guarantees pool temperatures of 30-35ºC all year. The pool steams in the cold  – although it was a struggle to reach the guaranteed temperatures during the prolonged pre-Christmas cold patch. ‘The ingenuity of the project is making the pool more affordable to heat,’ commented judge Joan Kerr. ‘It could so easily have been lost because of high running costs.

  • The café has an informal, cosy atmosphere.
    The café has an informal, cosy atmosphere. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • The simply finished café interior adopts one of the former rubble huts on the site.
    The simply finished café interior adopts one of the former rubble huts on the site. Credit: Jim Stephenson
  • Jubilee Pool seen from the poolside, with the city making an attractive backdrop at dusk.
    Jubilee Pool seen from the poolside, with the city making an attractive backdrop at dusk. Credit: Jim Stephenson
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As for the expanded facilities, Scott Whitby Studio’s approach has been to retain the existing structures along the promenade either side of the original entrance gate and extend them by infilling and linking up. From a planning perspective, despite its heritage listing, the local authority’s conditions were ‘all about how to sit the new buildings on the original promenade perimeter wall,’ explains architect Osman Marfo-Gyasi. As a solution, the new steel beams sit across the top of the sea wall to create two structures that are approximately symmetrical and of similar size. One is the café, which expands into a former stone ticket office. The other is the community room. To the north the roofs lifts up in an undulating form to pop out as rippling wave-like clerestory windows, letting in soft light from the north and creating a welcoming wall from the road whereby passers-by can peek inside to see what’s going on. This particularly delighted this year’s judges, with RCKa’s Anthony Staples commenting: ‘The new interventions are not singing, they are quiet. It’s nice the way it touches the street.’

To the south, the roof veers downwards to protect the all-glass south walls from too much solar glare and create a sheltered outdoor terrace. In both spaces the finish is rustic but charming – the exposed ply underside of the roof, timber rafters,  simple concrete floors and original exterior walls just whitewashed. Where new enclosed structures have been added, like the new freestanding ticket hall and refurbished kitchen, the exterior surfaces have been clad in similarly undulating fibreglass panels that provide a robust defence against sometimes aggressive sea. The programme of works has also included creating a spa treatment room in one of the former rubble huts to expand into and attract more experiential-type tourism. 

On awarding the project, judge Kathy MacEwen said: ‘The pool is really important to Penzance, it is beautiful but it does more than that... it could have just fallen back into the sea. It is a major achievement to get it back.’ 

Jubilee Pool is of course naturally enhanced by its original architecture, but the judges felt the project had it all as a MacEwen Award winner. It has been community focused from the outset, the introduction of sustainable, low-cost geothermal energy has been a vital achievement, and it re-engages the promenade, makes it more accessible and gives it a livelier public life too. The project has a thorough business plan with longevity. The community saved it; they and the architect jumped into the scheme, making it happen with a determination that has blossomed. 

See the MacEwen Award 2023 shortlist here

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In numbers 

Gifa 266m² 
Funding raised for phase 2 £1.8m 
Minimum guaranteed temperature of geothermal pool 30ºC 

Credits

Client Jubilee Pool Penzance 
Architect Scott Whitby Studio 
QS (RIBA Stage 2) PT Projects
Structural and services engineer WebbYates Engineers
Project manager/quantity surveyor Fox Cornwall
Main contractor Catling Construction
Joinery A1 Construction Penzance
Polyurea roofing ESW
Fibreglass cladding Fibreglass Ltd
Geothermal engineering GEON - GEL Geothermal Engineering Ltd/Arup

 

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