Contact Theatre

Contact Theatre, Manchester

The overhaul of Manchester's eccentric Contact Theatre enhanced the efficiency of the building's original sustainable design features, such as its distinctive chimneys that made it the first naturally ventilated theatre in the UK.

Contact, the leading national theatre and arts venue to place young people at the decision-making heart of everything, offers a diverse and accessible artistic programme for everyone. The project comprised of a £6.5m extension and remodelling of the Contact Theatre’s existing building. Aiming to transform the visitor experience and improve the building’s visibility from Oxford Road, the works added two new performance spaces and vastly improve disabled access.

Working alongside Sheppard Robson Architects, we provided performance design of the M&E systems with an on-site monitoring role during construction and aim to future-proof the building through a complete overhaul of the engineering systems. This included the addition of new signage and architectural lighting over the entrance.

“It was incredibly rewarding to work with a design team willing to take on Contact’s ethos of involving young people in all major decisions. They created the time and space for this throughout the project, from inception to completion, and our wonderful new creative spaces and facilities are a testament to the deep engagement of our young building-users in the project.” - Matt Fenton, Artistic Director and Chief Executive at Contact Theatre

Max Fordham were involved in the previous refurbishment and extension of the theatre in 1997, which resulted in the addition of the distinctive large natural ventilation H-pots. Based on an early assessment carried out by us, which indicated that natural ventilation was still the most energy efficient strategy, this ventilation strategy has been carried through to the new extension.

The new extension includes two new chimneys, to compliment those originally designed by Alan Short, for natural ventilation of the new performance space and offices. The building users are highly engaged with their building, so there was a desire not to overly automate the offices. Natural ventilation in the open plan offices is manually controlled but with BMS advice on when to open windows and chimneys based on air quality and temperature.

Improvements in control allow the theatre to monitor air quality and control the air flow rates of the existing natural ventilation system. This innovative variable flow natural ventilation system will minimise the heat loss caused by over-ventilation in the winter, and provide night cooling of the thermal mass in summer to limit overheating and negate the need for any comfort cooling in the building.

The new offices replace inefficient and poorly daylit cellular offices with fully naturally daylit workspaces that minimise overheating using overhangs, external shading and optimised fenestration design.

Other design aspects which contribute to carbon reduction include replacement of all lighting with LED technology, including the main performance space, and the office area redesign. A kill switch at the front door allows all the building’s lights to be switched off by the last person out.

New central heating plant replaces the 20-year-old boilers for more efficient heat generation. Better zone control has been provided to limit overheating and underheating of the previous system.

Our acoustic advice included improvements to the existing theatres and the addition of a new performance space, offices and recording studio. The theatres make use of pioneering acoustically attenuated natural ventilation chimney stacks. The new spaces also follow an attenuated natural ventilation strategy, which has been developed to control noise ingress from the nearby road.

In addition to our M&E and Acoustics roles, we have been leading the Soft Landings approach to ensure the design is developed in collaboration with Contact Theatre’s operational team and that key systems are optimised during the first year of operation. We have facilitated a number of workshops focusing on sharing lessons learnt from the existing building, reviewing the proposed environmental control strategy and planning for an effective handover.

“What an opportunity to get under the skin of this iconic building, that was at the leading edge of thinking when we refurbished it in the 90’s. With this latest refurbishment and extension project it was great to bring the theatre back to the forefront of exemplar low carbon and passive design. It was only possible because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the unique Contact Theatre organisation, whose purpose is to support future generations and the world they will inherit. I hope we’ve done them proud.” - Iain Shaw, Principal Engineer and Partner at Max Fordham


Sheppard Robson






Contact Theatre

(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The chimneys were added as part of Max Fordham's scheme in 1997. During the latest works, the control was modified to be demand-driven in order to minimise heat loss in winter.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The new extension includes a new, naturally ventilated studio space that was designed to optimise daylight.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The low-level seating at the back of the room conceals the natural ventilation fresh air inlets and the heating system. Additional vents provide purge ventilation for cooling the space.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The finishes of the studio space provide acoustic absorption. High-level ventilation outlets are designed to provide acoustic control without compromising thermal comfort and air quality.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
A new bar within the main entrance lobby was installed with new LED lighting integrated into the overall performance lighting system. The new sound and lighting systems provides the possibility for every space to be used as a performance space.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
A new recording studio was a key addition to the building for young performers. The studio is acoustically sealed to allow high quality recording and editing.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The orginal auditorium was provided with new LED house lighting and performance equipment.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The original auditorium is naturally ventilated with H-pot chimneys. Ventilation has been optimised to control based on temperature and air quality to limit overventilation and excessive heat loss in winter.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The new extension was designed to honour the existing building. New chimneys ventilate the ground floor performance space and first floor offices, which are provided with side panel ventilation to allow blinds to be drawn to reduce glare, but not reduce the impact of the natural ventilation.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The oriel window to the new studio space allows daylight in and provides a space for fixed seating. The underside conceals a fresh air inlet and heating equipment below the seating.
(c) Adrian Lambert Info
The ground floor of the new extension houses the new performance space, which is ventilated with concealed low level acoustic inlets, and the chimneys. Exposed concrete soffits allow secure night cooling.