Beacon of Light in Sunderland is on the ball

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Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

FaulknerBrowns’ Beacon of Light uses sport to help bring social benefit to Sunderland’s residents. It’s a runaway success

Probably one of the largest projects to be submitted for the MacEwen award, and in close proximity to the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s £18 million Beacon of Light was initially written off by the judges as a form of glorified leisure centre; but, in the manner of a great sporting underdog, it bucked the assumptions. ‘I passed over it and then came back to it, finding it fascinating the second time around,’ said judge Kathryn Tombling. She wasn’t alone. It made it through as one of our four 2020 commended projects.

This was also due in no small part to being championed by judge Dan Kerr, who had visited the 11,200m2 facility just after it opened last year with, admittedly, the same preconceptions – only to have them overturned the minute he walked in past its huge, illuminated polycarbonate screen. 

Of course, the showstopper is the ETFE-roofed, outdoor 4G artificial pitch that crowns the top of the four-storey building, clear-spanned by a lofty ‘domeblerone’ steel structure and set within the opaque polycarbonate panels that are more suggestive of the delicate shoji screens of the Far East than Sunderland’s north east. But that is really only the start of the story.

The Foundation of Light charity is now in its 18th year. It started out in makeshift office space offered by Sunderland football club’s charitable arm, and is now an independent charity looking to deliver real social benefits to the city’s residents, employing 150 staff across four sites and with a fundraising turnover of £5 million a year. ‘We were one of the first charities to use the hook of football as a gateway to wider community engagement,’ says Beacon of Light general manager Phil King. ‘And what we’ve created here, in the Beacon’s four dedicated zones, hopefully delivers not only in sport but in education, employability and mental health.’

That might not be obvious when you first walk in to the Beacon’s ground floor ‘street’ however; there’s a curious, corporate feel to FaulknerBrowns’ architectural language, but a glance right to its sizeable indoor arena gives away the building’s focus on sport as the driver for all its other initiatives. Here, at any time of the day or evening, you’ll see kids, adults and older people engaging in football, futsal, tennis, netball, badminton, judo, even paralympic sport boccia. On the day we visited, over 55s table tennis matches were in full swing, the space hireable by local groups at highly discounted rates due to the funds raised by renting the halls out for big corporate events or conferences. ‘The business model is a social enterprise whose profits are reinvested in the charity to keep everything affordable for the community at point of use,’ King tells me, before listing what else they run here.

A prime focus is on health and wellbeing. The five-a-side community football initiative ‘Man V Fat’ challenges its overweight players to win their league not just by playing, but by shifting pounds as a team through a short programme of nutritional advice before a game. In a region where even childhood obesity is a problem, King says: ’60 adult men lost 45 stone between them in 10 weeks. The scheme is so successful we’ve extended the initiative to women players, as ‘H’Weigh the Lasses!

 

  • There’s a rather corporate architectural language experienced from the ‘Street’, but it masks some real community endeavours on every level.
    There’s a rather corporate architectural language experienced from the ‘Street’, but it masks some real community endeavours on every level. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • Rising to the state of the art 4G pitch on the roof brings a gasp of delight.
    Rising to the state of the art 4G pitch on the roof brings a gasp of delight. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • Work Zone helps children and adults develop skills in  catering, mechanics and construction.
    Work Zone helps children and adults develop skills in catering, mechanics and construction. Credit: Richard Chivers
  • The main east elevation accesses both the centre and, via a separate door to the left, the school.
    The main east elevation accesses both the centre and, via a separate door to the left, the school. Credit: Richard Chivers
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There’s more serious health education too – physiotherapy referral rooms that can double as less institutional mental health touch-points for veterans suffering from PTSD. And they’re adding an NHS-funded gambling addiction pilot programme, a problem that’s got a grip on young people too.

With the foundation’s administration offices occupying part of the first floor, the rest of it is given over to the Work Zone; where, in conjunction with the likes of Nissan, Barrett Homes and Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food, those struggling with employment can get the necessary Level 1, 2 & 3 NVQs in vocational skills to start their careers. It brings added benefits – for example, parents can take cookery classes to learn about healthy eating, and kids in literacy classes downstairs can come up and prepare foods associated with the stories they read. It’s the cross-purposing of programme and spaces that makes the Beacon feel so energised. 

Probably the best example of this is in the 60-pupil school on the second floor, specifically for those kids who have been excluded and referred from schools or the local council. With classrooms, science labs and IT suites, it’s a high teacher-to-pupil ratio Ofsted school, sandwiched between the community functions below and that heavenly pitch on the roof. King adds there were understandable concerns about this being programmed into the facility, as there were certainly no precedents that they were aware of when they did it; but that it has been a real success story. ‘You feel as if this place is transformative for them,’ he tells me. ‘They might have a bad home life or other negative influences, but here they can check all that in at the door and inhabit a supportive and completely different, aspirational space.’ 

All connected by a grand stair rising from the ‘Street’ level, its 73 steps might be a reminder of the year Sunderland last won a major title; but with the foundation’s football scholarship producing, I’m told, seven players from last year’s women’s World Cup England squad, the only way is indeed, up. 

‘It’s meaningful and a significant scale of project,’ offered MacEwen judge Hana Loftus. ‘It’s saying that community architecture – and this award – isn’t just about cute little grass-roots projects but strategic, large-scale ones.’ And with more than 6,000 people a week using its sport and outreach services, that scale component is key, thinks King. But, he feels, the numbers should not distract from the Beacon’s power to inspire on an individual level. ‘There aren’t many sports ­facilities where you enter a space like this; so when you see young kids walk up the steps for the first time to the rooftop pitch, you feel that, for them, it’s a bit like a dream.’ 

Lead photograph: Jill Tate


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Credits

Client Foundation of Light
Architect FaulknerBrowns Architects
Engineering Shed
Environmental/M&E engineer JH Partners
Quantity surveyor/cost consultant Identity Consult
Planning consultant Wardell Armstrong 
Main contractor Tolent