The announcement in 2014 that the former Rockfield Primary School would be demolished sparked a wave of reaction in Oban and surrounding area and launched a huge community campaign to save the building. Although the heart played its part – driven by nostalgia for their old school and their formative days – the community also recognised the potential value of the building and its grounds and the opportunity they provided to establish a community hub sitting central to the town, and a short walk from the esplanade, the railway station and the ferry terminal.
Oban Communities Trust was established, and in 2015, following a huge effort and a great deal of energy and resourcefulness from local people, the campaign to purchase the building was successful. Not only did this ensure that an ‘at risk’ listed building was saved for future generations but it also created an unstoppable momentum to realise the potential of this unique asset to create a distinctive resource that would, for residents and visitors alike, address many of the town’s needs under one roof.
The vison for The Rockfield Centre was born through extensive community engagement and consultation, the outcome being a desire to establish the hub as a blend of community, enterprise, production, display and social interaction through four key themes – namely arts and culture, history and heritage, community wellbeing, and education and enterprise – and these four strands of delivery formed the basis of the design team brief for the reconfiguration of the building.
Initial estimates established a budget requirement of £3m and over a relatively short period, a number of applications to major funders were successful. While these grants, along with smaller grants, donations and fund raising activities raised a significant proportion of the required funding, a shortfall remained and a community share issue was launched. The public support for the project was demonstrated when this raised £210,000.
However, the repair, refurbishment and reconfiguration of a ‘B listed’ building that had lain empty for 12 years was always going to present some significant challenges, and the design team and main contractor had to address a number of issues, including unexpected structural defects and dry rot, while still keeping costs within the available budget. The process from initial purchase to opening covered a five-year period that included loss of a major funder, market cost increases due to Brexit and the covid lockdown, but in October 2020, construction was complete and the building was handed back to the Trust and a programme of fit-out and furnishing works got underway.
With covid restrictions still very much to the fore, the new facilities were brought into use gradually throughout 2021 and in the past year The Rockfield Centre has become fully and firmly established as a vibrant, sustainable, cultural/community venue with a unique identity, a place which is welcoming, inspiring and accessible to all. A vital amenity to the town centre and an important part of its heritage that remains both at and in the heart of the Oban community.
Supporting StatementFrom the outset, the project has been driven by the community. A range of consultation and engagement methods were instigated to collect detail, initially to save the building and produce a business case to purchase the site and later to gain views and seek feedback on the potential uses of the building and the service needs it had to address.
While design development and fund raising progressed, the Trust maintained momentum and community engagement by delivering activities in its Community Huts – two former temporary classrooms that remained within the school playground. Not only did this allow the viability of the vision to be confirmed, but valuable operational experience was gained and ideas were tested.
With the main building now fully operational, community involvement continues with over 9,500 volunteer hours contributed last year.
A key asset of the building is its character and the proportions of its internal spaces, giving it the flexibility to accommodate a range of activities. Overall 1500m2 has been refurbished and repurposed to provide 12 new functional community spaces.
However, the repurposing of these spaces and the need to satisfy current regulations and accessibility requirements was not always straightforward and working out economic and practical solutions for enhancements to improve the environmental performance of the Victorian building was challenging. A number of unexpected issues had to be addressed and the scope of works was constantly being adjusted to ensure that costs were maintained within the fixed budget.
Oban has lost a number of iconic buildings and the local community was determined that the old Rockfield School, with so many personal memories for so many, would not befall a similar fate. The project ensured that an historic building in a prominent townscape setting was saved and given a new lease of life with the external fabric fully repaired and enhanced to cope with west coast wind and rain.
Shortly after the building opened a local resident posted on facebook: ‘Well that made me quite emotional. What an amazing job! So delighted that this is what became of my old school. Lovely building. So glad it didn’t become flats. It’s a credit to everyone involved.’
With community support, the project has in 6 short years taken a ‘building at risk’ to a vibrant functioning hub which is ready to adapt and thrive for years to come. The former classrooms have a new life as a resource for Oban and they now host a mix of community, heritage, co-working, arts, performance and exhibition activities alongside social enterprise, café and learning facilities.
Speaking in a recent Scottish Parliament debate on Asset Transfers and Community Empowerment, local MSP Jenni Minto said:
Walking into the Rockfield centre in Oban, a person cannot help but be struck by the bright primary colours, the warmth of the welcome, and the creativity of the space. The Rockfield centre is a shining example of a community driving positive change and achieving its ambitions through ownership and management of a building.‘