Cardiff Royal Infirmary Coffee Shop & Library
A Grade II listed chapel restored and transformed into a community hub, library and meeting place.
In 2017, the former chapel at Cardiff Royal Infirmary was vacant. The Grade II Listed building was in fair condition, but it had no purpose and sadly lost its place within the community.
With the chapel celebrating its centenary in 2021, it seemed like a fitting time to wake the building from its slumber.
Our clients, Cardiff & Vale University Healthboard and Cardiff Council, had a vision to restore and transform the building into a community hub, library, café, and meeting place to serve Cardiff Royal Infirmary Hospital and the wider city in a way which offered social, economic, and spiritual value.
A community asset
The chapel is beautifully positioned for people who live and work in and around Cardiff. Staff, CRI patients, along with families, young people and adults in the community can now easily access a range of facilities and services within the building.
A new library, forming part of the Cardiff Hyb network, provides health and wellbeing information to support the treatments available at the CRI clinics.
Bookable meeting rooms and an IT suite offer free Wi-Fi and can be used for anything from tuition and CV workshops to reading and conversation groups. The council is providing community courses, support, and IT facilities to encourage positive employment outcomes within Cardiff.
An Aroma café provides people with a memorable place to meet for lunch or relax with a coffee.
When the project was complete, our photographer, Tom Bright, chatted to Senior Associate Technologist, Karyn Williams, about breathing new life into an historically important building and delivering a valuable community asset.
Hi Karyn. Can you start by introducing the project?
About a year-and-a-half ago, if you opened the doors to this Grade II listed chapel, you would have found old desks, tables, bikes and stacks of paper inside. The chapel was in fair condition, but it had no purpose.
Our clients, Cardiff & Vale University Healthboard and Cardiff Council, had a vision to restore and transform the building into a community hub, library, café and social meeting place to serve Cardiff Royal Infirmary Hospital and the wider city in the best possible way.
To me, the restored chapel feels like a Swiss Army knife. It’s one building, but it’s doing so much; a cafe, a church and a learning resource. How do you go about designing a building like that?
Jessica Ellis was responsible for the design. She’s done such an amazing job and fitted a lot into a small space. But what I respect most about Jess’s design is that the new elements stand out as new elements. There are the bits of heritage work which respect and honour the listed fabric, but the new elements are so clearly distinct. There is this lovely balance between new and old, but it’s delicate and respectful.
It was important to make a landmark statement with the chapel. The Conservation Officer was really excited for us to breathe new life into this building in a way that fitted where the community is at the moment. To try and restore it in a way that imitated the age of the chapel wouldn’t have been right.
I agree, the new really complements the old. And as a photographer, I was blown away by the lines of sight throughout the building.
Yes, you can see right from the centre of the church all the way outside to the sky. Jess did brilliantly to tie meeting-room windows with the outside. It’s that level of careful thought and planning which was such a pleasure to deliver.
When I walked up the stairs and saw the light at the three ends, I just felt ‘Ah, that’s perfect.’
In the meeting-room pod on the top floor, the way the windows align with the existing church windows is really special. When the sun shines through that stained glass, it’s almost like a religious experience. The colours just flood the space.
The walls are all deliberately white to allow the colours of the existing fabric to shine, rather than compete or clash with it. I remember checking that with Jess, ‘Are you sure you don’t want any colour anywhere?’ and her saying, really clearly, ‘No. It has to be white.’ I trusted her completely and the results speak for themselves.
Our relationship and project journey has been such a gift for us both personally. You just know people in that meeting room are going to have this brilliant experience when the sun illuminates the room with all of its colours.
There are so many special design details. What else stands out to you?
The project was about creating somewhere that wasn’t like anywhere else. So if you were going for a coffee, to pick up a leaflet or have a meeting, you’d come away with a lasting memory of that experience. Jess has cleverly achieved that by creating these glimpses of intimate views of the chapel that you just fall in love with.
The design lifts you up into the roof-space, so that you’re walking amongst the timbers, and makes you feel like you’re in the heavens. The ability to walk amongst the eaves, peer down on the side spaces or look up to the underside of the church is fantastic. Seeing the stained-glass windows at eye-level is such a special detail. The glimpses on the staircase alone are so special and remind you of the building’s original function.
You’d never get bored in this building, there’s so much to observe and experience.
Together, we both prioritised purpose, customer experience, and quality construction and I strongly believe the space delivers an individual experience every time. We are both incredibly proud of the chapel.
Every time I walked across that walkway, I had a very different version of the same experience. You never feel the need to rush it; you walk slowly across and look at things like the organ pipes, the restored ceiling shields and bits of the ceiling that you wouldn’t see if you were sat in the congregation.
Thinking about project delivery, what challenges did you face?
Driving quality was the thing I had to work hard to get buy-in on. It’s a unique building and I had to get people on site to believe that they weren’t just doing what they’d done before. It pushed the contractors to work beyond what’s normal and challenge how they’ve done things before. I’m so pleased with the result. But the hardest thing we all had to deal with was Covid-19.
Can you tell us more about that?
The project started onsite when the first lockdown became a reality. It was hard work, high intensity and meetings were often reduced to critical personnel so we could maintain social distancing. But this project kept me going during lockdown. It gave me a reason to get out and gave me a feeling of continuity; having a familiar project and regular contact felt friendly and very personal. The team came together and we managed to deliver on time to happy clients. A great result.
Despite the obvious challenges, it sounds like a great experience with lots of camaraderie…
You don’t get this type of project very often, one that feeds all of that design passion you have bubbling around. They’re like gems, so rare and exciting. And rarely do you get a project that is driven by the brief rather than budget, with a client that fully trusts you. I had to deliver this project at a time of great upheaval but, because it was such a lovely project, I just felt motivated to keep going. Even the mundane is exciting because you want to get it right. I had a responsibility to deliver it for the client but also to Jess. I knew how much it meant to her and to do it properly was, on a personal level, important to me.
I can’t wait to see the chapel in use and see how people use it. It’d be great if there’s people praying, having a coffee and having a meeting at the same time. It’ll be so cool, to see all those different behaviours going on at once.
I can’t wait for people to go in there and think, ‘Somebody’s thought about this space. It’s really cool. It’s got all of the functionality, but it’s really well done.’ It’s going to be so busy in summer when the community garden is complete with health and wellbeing-inspired planting like lavender, sage and rosemary. Can you imagine, on a warm day, sitting out there with the sun on your face, sunglasses on and a coffee in hand. Just what the doctor ordered!
Sitting outside in the sun, drinking a coffee with my shades on, that’s where I thrive. Thanks Karyn!
A balance between new and old
The project was about creating a unique and impactful destination. So if you were going for a coffee, to pick up a leaflet, or have a meeting, you’d come away with a lasting memory of that experience.
Therefore, it was important to make a statement with interventions that respect the historic fabric but also embrace the new. Distinct, contemporary elements celebrate the chapel’s revitalisation and restoration within the community.
In the heavens
The design lifts you up into the roof-space with walkways sitting amongst the eaves. The eye-level glimpses of the stained-glass windows, organ pipes, and ceiling details offer special moments and reminders of the building’s previous life as a congregation space.
The creation of a floating pod allowed us to maximise the available footprint of the chapel. This addition provides enhanced flexibility of use but also responds to the physical and historic constraints of a listed building.
The pod is one of many interventions which can be easily reversed, allowing the chapel to be restored to its original use if necessary.
Light and colour
Throughout, sight lines and meeting room windows have been carefully aligned with the existing church windows allowing for views from the centre of chapel through to the sky outside.
When the sun shines through the stained-glass, colour floods the internal spaces. Walls are deliberately white to enhance the vibrancy and to allow the existing fabric to take priority on your senses.