Contact Theatre

The overhaul of Manchester's iconic 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.

A building with big chimneys and a pink door

Key information


Alan Short Architects / Sheppard Robson


Contact Theatre Company



Year of Completion

1999 / 2020





Contact is a leading national theatre and arts venue in Manchester that places young people at the decision-making heart of everything, offering a diverse and accessible artistic programme.

In 1999 we completed work with Alan Short architects on the pioneering sustainable refurbishment of the original 1960s building. Features such as the distinctive large natural ventilation H-pot ‘chimneys’ made it the first naturally ventilated theatre in the UK. In 2020, working alongside Sheppard Robson Architects, we completed a new extension and remodelling of the existing building, with the aim to transform the visitor experience, create new performance spaces, and vastly improve disabled access.

Our early assessment indicated that natural ventilation was still the most energy-efficient strategy, and we carried this through to the new extension. The new extension includes two new chimneys, designed to complement 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 a BMS advising 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.

Improving theatre acoustics

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.

Pedestrians passing by a building with big chimneys and lit by colourful lighting at night

© Adrian Lambert

Colourful entrance to a building with bright lights and vibrant decoration

© Adrian Lambert

Group of people sitting around a table in a room with blue lighting

© Adrian Lambert

A large auditorium filled with people sitting

© Adrian Lambert

A group of people walking around a spacious room filled with tables and chairs

© Adrian Lambert

Reducing carbon emissions

Aspects of our design that 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.

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

We led the soft landings approach to ensure the design was developed in collaboration with the theatre’s operational team and that key systems were optimised during the first year of operation. 

This included facilitating several workshops to share lessons learnt from the existing building, review the proposed environmental control strategy, and plan for an effective handover.

Modern building with multiple chimneys on top, contrasting with the sky

Contact Theatre in 1999

© Ian Lawson

Red seats in a theatre

© Ian Lawson

A grand building with multiple chimneys

© Ian Lawson