ILKON. Ilkeston Contemporary Arts | Chris Williamson Architect | World Design Awards 2023

Chris Williamson Architect: Winner of World Design Awards 2023. Ilkeston has suffered from a decline in manufacturing and skilled jobs leading to the Independent newspaper headline “Cracktown” which  is unrecognisable to the thriving town I knew as a child.. This beautiful 1936 Church had been empty for 5 years and was badly in need of repair, care and attention. Its neighbours are a junior school and a care home and both have been enthusiastic supporters of its conversion to a lively and flexible venue to house performance, dance, film, sculpture music and fine arts. The surroundings are mixed- run down industrial buildings and a mix of poor quality terraced and social housing – but also well maintained detached homes. There is a vibrant but underfunded arts community. ILKON Provides a home and catalyst for creativity

The Ilkeston motto is “Labor Omnia Vincit” “Work Conquers All” – this was immortalised in Alan Silletoe’s brilliant “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” set locally. With the demise of much local industry ILKON’s aim is to encourage creative thought and new connections. If we are to compete with China, India and other economies we need to think differently. Response has been encouraging. The booking system on the website has been fully booked for several weeks. This can be viewed on In addition there have been many community group and schools using the venue.

ILKON is not a made up name. It is an Old English word meaning “everyone” and was used by Chaucer in “The Second Nun’s Tale” about Saint Cecilia who is depicted in one of the beautiful stained glass windows to the North of the former church.  It is an apt name for this inclusive flexible space which brings contemporary arts to all members of the community.

The previous owners had sold the beautiful church organ which was a great pity but an opportunity to insert a compact well designed apartment into high quality two storey height space including the former vestry for the resident artist.

The Church Hall is converted into a high quality teaching space for local schools and community groups. It is now heated and secured separately from the main arts centre and therefore be curated independently. A permanent collection of contemporary art assembled over the last 40 years is displayed between the ambitious rolling program of events for the enjoyment of all the community.

The Mayor officially opened the venue in January 2023 and the video can be viewed on you tube. The current exhibition documents the plight of Ukranian refugees with portraits by Alona Melnyk. In March this will be replaced by the ILKON permanent contemporary collection which consists mainly of young artists -concentrating on our relationship with religion, with celebrity and with each other. The display lighting designed in conjunction with Sylvania and the remote controlled blinds and a state of the art Audio Visual system allows fantastic flexibility which is being enthusiastically used by the local schools and other community groups for rehearsals, plays, music and performance.

The Planning Department has been extremely helpful allowing an apartment to be inserted into the space for an artist in residence and giving permission for several external sculptures by local and international artists. ILKON is now discussing with Erewash Borough Council a collaboration to develop a sculpture park elsewhere in the Borough.

An important part of the project is the external space. The previous owners removed 7 mature elm trees so ILKON planted 16 silver birch around the perimeter and a hedge of beach. The previous soft landscape was manicured lawn which has now been invited to grow wild and reinforced with native  grasses and wild flowers, lavender and other native shrubs in flowing swathes which will look stunning when established whilst encouraging insects and providing a home for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. One of the first plantings were 5 apple trees opposite the junior school so that school children can pick the fruit next Autumn. There is no external soft landscaping at the school or the Care Centre opposite so providing some within our project is  vital to create a sense of community. External seating for use by the café adjacent to the teaching area will provide an oasis in a dense urban environment.

An important part of the project is to educate and inform about sustainability and climate change. The south facing solar panels are directly opposite the school and shows how this new technology can be inserted carefully to coordinate with historic fabric. A new air source heat pump and additional insulation reduces energy consumption by 75% Insulation was added without detriment to the wonderful fabric of the church. Together with green technologies of solar panels and an air source heat pump the energy consumption has been reduced by 75% and carbon emissions by 80%. The building’s original innovative natural ventilation system has been refurbished. State of the art display lighting and Audio Visual systems have been added to allow a multitude of uses. The building needed repairs to the fabric and the brickwork had been repointed badly.

The project invests in the local community inspiring, informing, educating and entertaining using contemporary arts as a creative force for change. It’s not the Tate, the Wallace or the Saatchi collection but will develop into something important to the East Midlands.

The Former Church is a beautiful well crafted building designed by local architect John Higginbottom, completed in 1938. It was derelict and in dire need of repair having stood empty since 2017 and has been brought back into use as a community arts venue. The building has been refurbished to include a teaching room for local school children and other groups, accommodation for an Artist in Residence and a Café with external seating.

The brief for the project was to respect, retain and enhance the best and to sensitively update where necessary. The original innovative natural ventilation system has  been refurbished. Openings at low level in the church’s brick fabric are left open at night to cool the building and heat extracted through openable louvres in the ceiling void. The original lighting has been refurbished using LED fittings enhanced with display quality track lighting from Concord Sylvania. The external sculpture garden is lit by igguzinni.

The project was conceived, designed and funded by the owner. The owner produced hand drawn sketches based on the extensive survey drawings and used “WhatsApp” to communicate with builders engaged under a JCT 2016 Minor Works Contract. Their recent experiences particularly in Australia was that architects too readily use visuals to generate design which can be dangerous because the visual is only from one viewpoint and does not show important details or junctions out of the frame. What is important is how the elements fit together, the spaces that are generated, the play of light and colour, the look and feel of the materials and the immersive experience of moving through the building. Additional insulation has been added in the roof void but otherwise the fabric retained intact -although not listed it is worthy of respect.

It was important that the project was seen to be a demonstration of sustainable re-use. We should try wherever possible to bring old redundant buildings back to life for new uses. The brief for this historic building was to do so with the precision of a surgeon rather than the force of a butcher. The Client insisted that the carefully crafted fabric be enhanced whilst still accommodating new technologies and better insulation.

The heating system has been adapted to incorporate new green technologies including a ground source heat pump and solar panels which in addition to the additional insulation reduce the carbon emissions by 75% without detriment to the beautifully crafted building.

Having worked with this marvellous building we think that any award should be shared with John Higginbottom the original Architect. It is interesting to note that all the stained glass (including that of Saint Cecilia which became the inspiration for the branding) and much of the original construction was funded from donations in the 1930s when the economy was even more difficult than present. Particularly important is the innovative natural ventilation system. We are pleased that Higginbottom’s work and the donations of the community are now recognised in a vibrant new community venture.

The project respects the existing fabric and beautiful crafted construction whilst being an exemplar for sustainable re-use. This involved careful analysis of the parameters

  • Solid brick external walls – 1.30 W/m²K
  • Single glazing – 5.50 W/m²K
  • Roof (slate on felt) – 5.10 W/m²K
  • Ceiling to loft without insulation – 3.60 W/m²K but with 200mm rockwool insulation – 0.17 W/m²K

Predicted annual CO2 emissions/m2 16 kgCO2/m2 not including any contribution from PV

overall weighted U value: 1 W/m2K, this represents a 75% improvement on the existing fabric performance

Predicted percentage improvement in annual CO2 emissions/m2 (with any emission reductions from renewables indicated) over existing building. The refurbished building has a predicted 84% improvement in annual CO2 emissions, made up from:

  • Fabric improvements 45%
  • Ground-source heat pump 38%
  • PV installation 1%
  • Predicted annual CO2 emissions/m2 for both existing (before retrofit) and after (post retrofit)  Predicted emissions for the building before retrofit  are 99kgCO2/m2compared to 16kgCO2/m2 now

In terms of annual heating demand (based on air source heat pump SCOP of 3.0 for main building , and direct electric for artist residence)

The key to reducing energy use in a refurbishment project is to improve the thermal performance of the building envelope. The existing aesthetic and the importance of the walls and the stained-glass windows to the look and feel of the building, means that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to thermally upgrade these elements. However, the roof of the building is extensive and previously poorly performing, such that this upgrade alone delivers a 45% improvement in the building’s overall weighted U-value. This equates to a predicted 45% saving, calculated on a like-for-like basis, on the CO2 emissions from the building heating requirements. 

Beyond fabric improvements, the next step to reducing CO2 emissions is in replacement and upgrade of heating systems and equipment. While the existing gas-fired boiler was heating the whole space to the level of comfort expected for a gallery, the comparison made here is on the basis of a like-for-like replacement of the gas-fired boiler by a ground-source heat pump. The heating system upgrade realises a 38% saving in carbon emissions by utilising a flexible approach.

Although the photovoltaic installation for this project is relatively small, and the overall reduction in CO2 emissions correspondingly small, at least when compared to that from fabric and heating system improvements, it will have a significant long-term impact in reducing operational costs. 

The embodied carbon of rockwool is typically 58 kgCO2/m³, so the embodied carbon is around 2550 kgCO2. This means that the energy savings will offset the embodies carbon of the loft insulation in around two years.

PV panels

In terms of mono-crystalline PV located on the main roof facing south-east, will generate about 4.3 MWh/year of grid displaced electricity, or CO2 saving of around 560 kg/year. 

The interest and enthusiasm in the venture since the opening in January 2023 has been amazing. It has generated publicity on BBC East Midlands TV, BBC Radio Derby, and in print the ‘Derbyshire Times’ and ‘Ilkeston Life’. The building has won the Gold Award in the International Interior Design Awards 2022 for Best Public Building and is currently shortlisted as a Finalist in the Cultural Enterprises Awards. All the 5 Chairs of the “Boards” are busy organising a varied mix of events with the community ensuring something for everyone throughout the year including dance, a film festival, photo competitions, street art and local history based workshops. The distinct brand identity is helping these connections stressing synergy through similarity and autonomy through individuality. The Client commented “The designers have interpreted my brief brilliantly, I couldn’t be more pleased. To have researched the whole Saint Cecilia story makes it truly unique and creating something based on heritage yet updated and modern fits exactly with what I am trying to do”

A  resident artist is funded by ILKON and changes every six months to engage the community in a comprehensive programme of events curated in conjunction with local groups and schools to demystify the world of the arts- to encourage creative thought whilst educating and entertaining. The centre is a 10 minute walk from the train station which has a direct service to Nottingham to the south and Leeds, Wakefield and Sheffield to the north. The Universities in these towns including Loughborough and Leicester are engaged in the programme of events as well as community groups.

The visitors have also been generous in their comments

“I’m absolutely loving everything you’re doing at the gallery.

My parents visited last week and haven’t stopped talking about it”

Deb Collighan DCHair Design Ilkeston

“A wonderful and generous gift to Ilkeston”

The Mayor of Erewash Councillor John Sewell

“It is truly amazing”

Dr Mitchell Former Head Ilkeston School

“A great act of patronage”

Richard Short Ilkeston Resident

“The whole experience was wonderful…

I’m coming back with my children next week”

Yvonne Bloor West Hallam

 “a fantastic addition to our community arts”

 Councillor James Dawson

“Fantastic to see someone giving back to the community”

Ian Shaw Ilkeston

“I love the way the branding draws on the heritage of the building yet ties in the contemporary art theme. It all goes together, building, brand and activities”

Jane Shepperd Ilkeston

“An amazing local resource”

Helen Dawes Heanor

Fascinating experience. Excellent communication with Cara. -Jean Jones

An extremely interesting journey into understanding and appreciating art. So enthusiastic and inspirational. Good luck with this endeavour. -Gavin Jones

An amazing experience for the second time. Saw lots of things I missed last time. So good to have a total experience to be able to discuss and question what we were seeing. Macara was so helpful and interesting sharing her passion for the whole project. Looking forward to coming again when the next exhibition has been curated. WOW! -Steve

Wonderfully Bonkers! Just what Ilkeston needs to re-enliven the community. – Peter Burke

A fantastic space to show contemporary art. Very Welcoming and interesting–Ilkeston is fortunate to have such a fabulous gallery. I will come again-often! –Tony Fletcher

“This is a brand new venture that we visited for the first time. The host was excellent spending lots of time to explain the concept and exhibition items. The current exhibition centres around refugees from Ukraine and their stories. It’s difficult to put these into words but a sense of loss, pride and hope are ones I would choose. It’s really great to see someone investing so much in Ilkeston. I hope it thrives.” Steve Briggs Local Resident.

Project Details
Chris Williamson Architect

Chris Williamson Architect

Project Name
ILKON. Ilkeston Contemporary Arts

World Design Awards Category
Cultural Built

Project Location

Chris Williamson

United Kingdom

Photography ©Credit
©Lee Ballard

ILKON is a not for profit company established to bring creative contemporary art to a post industrial region of the east midlands. The big employers such as Stanton Iron works and Raleigh bikes have gone and ILKON to be a home for innovative thinking.

The architect behind the project is Chris Williamson who had a fantastic free education at Ilkeston Grammar School which enabled a wonderful architectural career.

Macara Pryse- Jones is the interior designer and Susanne Pinter and Francesca Pinter-Parrott the branding consultants pulling the organisational structure and community programme into a coherent identity.