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Preston’s Skylark Centre: A Truly Conscientious Development

Conlon Construction and Frank Whittle Partnership (FWP) have completed the creation of a rehabilitation unit which will help patients recovering from mental health conditions regain the skills associated with day-to-day living.


In 2010, Preston residents took part in a campaign led by local MP Sir Mark Hendrick to prevent the closure of the Avondale Unit – a centre at the Royal Preston Hospital which provided adult inpatient care for those recovering from severe mental health issues.

The Government had ordered the unit to close as part of major cost-saving measures across the North, but the public were concerned its shutdown would mean patients receive less specialist support, either in the community or at alternative units outside of the area.

The Avondale soon closed, and for the next 10 years, those suffering from mental health illnesses in Preston travelled to other areas of Lancashire for their rehabilitation.
During that time, the number of people requiring mental health support in the city rose faster than anywhere else in the UK. In 2018/19 alone, 10.8% of the area’s population were in contact with mental health services – the highest rate in the country.

In response to this, and realising the area needed a dedicated facility to support this trend, in January 2020 the Government awarded Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust (LSCFT) with £2m to open 11 new mental health rehabilitation beds – destined to occupy the now defunct Avondale Unit.

Reinstated to reduce the number of people with mental health issues being sent to other parts of the country or visiting hospital accident and emergency departments, the beds would require a newly-refurbished home which was fit-for-purpose, offering a robust and safe environment that fully met the needs of the community.

Local contractor Conlon Construction was appointed to the redevelopment and provided a build solution with oversight for the newly-named Skylark Centre. Based in Bamber Bridge, just a couple of miles from the hospital, Conlon Construction worked in partnership with architect, design and masterplanning practice Frank Whittle Partnership (FWP) – also on the unit’s doorstep – to develop a truly local supply chain that would bring the passion displayed for the unit ahead of its closure to the fore of the new centre.

Conlon Construction brought its 20 years of expertise in building healthcare settings to the Preston project to ensure it was delivered efficiently and with consideration for the local environment and economy. In 2018, it delivered One Hatfield Hospital, a purpose-built, energy-efficient facility in Hertfordshire which was awarded BREEAM ‘Excellent’ for its lowest possible carbon footprint. Renowned as a contractor that constructs with local residents in mind, Conlon’s contribution to the One Hatfield Hospital was awarded top points in the Considerate Constructers Scheme, scoring ‘Exceptional’ in the Community, Environment, Safety and Valuing the Workforce categories.

But the project at Royal Preston had more synergies with Conlon Construction than a need to deliver efficiently. It is specifically designed for patients who have experienced long periods of time in hospital to rebuild abilities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry care and shopping, as well as how to return to employment. As a leading contractor in the area, the development’s needs were aligned with some of Conlon’s main priorities.

Earlier in 2020, the company announced it had selected mental health charity Lancashire Mind as its chosen charity for the year. Darren Lee, Commercial Director at Conlon Construction, said: “Mental health is a growing concern both nationally and within our sector. Construction workers specifically – which make up just 7% of the national workforce – account for more than 13% of suicides in the country.

“Because we work with such a local supply chain, and in such a high-pressured industry, we were acutely aware that some of the people we work with might need to access the Skylark facility at some point in their lives. That gave us extra motivation to deliver and work with partners who could make this a truly outstanding community provision.

“Connecting with Lancashire Mind is one way we can bring those figures down and working on projects, such as the Skylark Centre, is another. It will make a huge difference to the Preston community, providing much-needed care and ongoing rehabilitation for all the practical elements of life – the things people forget are important to recovery.”

The project didn’t come without its challenges. All parties had to coordinate their teams and resource during the biggest stall to construction operations the country had ever seen, ensuring the scheme could still be delivered to projected timings and budgets despite the coronavirus lockdown. To facilitate this, teams made use of electronic meetings and video updates, and utilised BIM processes to simultaneously manage the design and flow of information across the supply chain. The £2m refurbishment was completed on time and has now been fully operational since June, taking an initial cohort of male inpatients.

Frank Whittle Partnership (FWP), equally experienced in designing and delivering healthcare settings, shared Conlon Construction’s vision to offer some of the most vulnerable people in Preston a facility which would help them overcome the most challenging period of their lives.

The interior design was fully coordinated by FWP, which has offices in Preston, Manchester and London, to bring the unit’s spaces together seamlessly, to enhance and enrich the patient journey and to aid their recovery.

David Simmons, FWP Associate Partner and Interior Designer, said: “We were tasked with delivering a robust and safe environment for patients, while also maintaining a domestic feel to the unit.

“One of our main aims was to improve the patient experience. We’ve done that through thoughtful modern design and the use of colour and light to create a calming and peaceful atmosphere.

“There’s a woodland theme running through much of the work, which gives an added air of tranquillity and a spacious feel to the whole area. “We think we’ve delivered something special, which is far removed from people’s traditional view of a hospital unit.”

James Halsall, FWP’s Lead Designer on the project, said completing the scheme during the COVID pandemic was “particularly challenging”.

He said: “Team interactions, working practices and material procurement all had to be reviewed in order to minimise disruption to the project timescales, whilst maintaining safe working practices within Government guidelines.”

Darren Lee added: “This was a project delivered in true partnership, at a time of major adversity. Only by working intrinsically with FWP and LSCFT were we able to deliver such a high-quality unit in line with original timings.”

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