Eco-retrofitting a Youth Centre

Dave Lane
Tuesday, 2nd June 2015

Dave Lane explains how community volunteers ecoretrofitted the Keystone Youth Centre, turning the draughty old building into an energy-efficient and thriving centre.

Keystone Boys Club was formed in 1962 after the large 1891 town house building was left in trust “to the young people of Kettering”. In 2001 it became the all inclusive Keystone Youth Centre. The centre has been run by volunteer trustees for 51 years. The facility is large and comes with its own half acre walled rear garden. 

The ‘Fit for the Future’ project was launched in early 2011 as a result of an initial building inspection undertaken in direct response to complaints from Keystone Youth Council – a committee of young people – that the building cold and dank had become quite run down and unappealing. 

Although Keystone had been running as a youth centre for half a century, nearly all the investment had been put into services and the building itself had become seriously neglected during the last 15 years.

The first thing many people noticed and commented on with Keystone, was how cold it was – the old place had never had any energy conservation works undertaken. Until 2012 the building still had its original double front doors – which were in a very poor state. Most of the rear windows were the original sashes and in a terrible state with some boarded up. The very large loft space had never been insulated. The horrible dim lights consumed lots of energy but for little effect and all in all the place was a bit of a wreck.

In November 2011 the Trustees started work on designating a major renovation scheme to include a massive eco-retrofit – the ‘Fit for the Future’ project.

Keystone’s Eco-retrofit. Fit for the Future

From the outset, the design brief was based on extensive research from organisations such as the Building Research Establishment and the Association for Environmentally Conscious Buildings. 

From this we developed an approach based around the buildings ‘fabric’, which meant focussing on walls, the roof, doors, windows etc. so the centre would be warmer in winter and use less energy rather than generating more from renewable sources like solar panels. 

After word spread, the major building development company Wilmott Dixon, who were busy in Kettering building two new schools, got in touch and offered to undertake a technical energy audit. You can get an idea of what they thought when they laughed when presenting their report. The guy from Wilmott used words like ‘sieve’ to describe the buildings efficacy.

Our final spec was to focus on:

  • Extensive internal solid wall insulation – using Homatherm breathable wood pulp, covering over 350m2 of walling
  • 30cm loft insulation – using Warmcell recycled newspaper
  • 20cm ceiling insulation – using Warmcell recycled newspaper
  • New (insulated core) front door
  • Low energy lighting system based on extensive use of LED spots (5 watt bulbs) and also T5 High Frequency strip lights 
  • All new double glazed windows
  • Zoned and Weather Compensated heating system using high efficiency gas boilers – donated by the fabulous people from Veissmann Boilers

I have a real problem with the very idea of the suitability of foam based insulants as an ‘eco product’, as it seems to be a bit of an oxy-moron. So we decided to exclusively focus on natural materials and looked at hemp, sheep’s wool and finally decided on wood pulp for the walls and loose fill Warmcell for the loft. We also decided to lift fill the ceiling voids of the first floor. As Keystone had always been so ridiculously draughty and cold, our overarching guide for the project was based on a ‘fabric first approach’ to tackle air leakage and using lots of insulation. However we learned from our research that addressing air movement must also go hand in hand with regulating moisture. Being a youth centre the building can get very full of lots of sweaty teenagers running around and simply controlling the heat and moisture they will cause through simple air extraction was not going to cut it. Natural insulants such as wood pulp being hygroscopic are very good at taking in and releasing moisture and tackling condensation.

Fit for the Future: Volunteers

Whilst our plans for the centre were certainly ambitious, it was the way we were to deliver it that marks our project out from all other eco-retrofits around the country. Whereas most retrofits use contractors, we decided that as Keystone is a community centre, we’d use local people to do the work…and by local people we mean volunteers!

We knew this would be a tall order as it would require us to secure the help of lots of people with good DIY skills and commitment. We would also need ‘team leaders’ to take charge of certain areas of work and to lead volunteer work parties. In essence we needed to create our own Keystone Contractors…but with free volunteer labour. In early 2012 we had people turn up for a day or so here and there but it was all too little. To be honest I think some people just looked at the place and thought, no way, this is too big a scheme.

However, one of the other Trustees had strong links to the local church – well he is the Vicar there – and he put out a call to help from the pulpit which resulted in the first great batch of volunteers. Once we had this group, attracting others seemed so much easier, although it was the Church group who provided the real core of regular volunteers.  

Work really began in earnest during the winter of 2012-2013 where large work parties would come together on Thursday nights and especially Saturdays. The teams systematically ripped the centre apart taking up floorboards to insulate, changing light fittings, installing all the wall insulation, new flooring, windows and doors.


Volunteers after laying the heat pipes

Although many volunteers clearly had some good DIY background skills, it’s fair to say that fitting 350m2 of internal wall insulation proved quite a challenge. Whilst the Homotherm wood pulp insulation can be directly affixed to the walls using a special hammer fixing, the resulting walls would then need to be plastered with a lime plaster. As Keystone is a youth centre and can take a bit of rough and tumble, we needed stronger walls. So we plumbed for using timer studwork in-filled with the Homtherm onto which we affixed Fermacell wall boards as these are both recycled and very strong. Another really key advantage with working with natural materials is that although its very messy when cut with saws to be fitted into the stud work, which quite literally gets up your nose, its benign nature means that no special breathing kit is required, so it’s very safe to handle.

Trustee Kane Taylor, who led the volunteer teams said that, “One of the drawbacks with volunteers is the speed of the work. Whist the Thursday nights and Saturday work parties were well attended with lots of hard work, the lack of time meant that progress was very slow. We had on the one hand, this great team working experience where everyone believed in what they were doing but ultimately we had to weigh this up against the need to get the centre operational again."

We divided the project into two phases, with phase one covering the downstairs and phase two, the upstairs. By the time we had completed the far more extensive phase one, the volunteers were exhausted and had already committed over 2,000 hours between them. By this time word about the project was spreading and a local funder offered us a grant to have the upstairs completed by a professional fitter using the materials we had already bought. We employed a local carpenter, who brought in the other trades and the upstairs was done in three weeks! We then went back to volunteers for final decoration.

We feel that the volunteer element of our project has been really important and our photo record is strongly based on the people who did the work.





Volunteers throughout the project

Corporate support

The project has also caught the imagination of several large companies who have done so much to help. In the early stage, Willmott Dixon the large nation building developer, undertook a major technical energy audit for us and also had the new front door bespoke made. This data has been essential in getting the new state of the art heating system made to the correct specification. Here our deepest gratitude goes out to the German heating company Veissmann, whose input into our project is explored further on in our story. Local company RCI Europe have also been a real help when we had their entire corporate IT team descend from across the UK and Europe to undertake a major re-painting of the many of the newly finished rooms. The County Highway contractors MGWSP have also been really helpful in taking out our old knackered skate ramp and also some essential external groundwork’s. 

Where we are now

As of early 2015, the Keystone building is utterly transformed. Due to the 88 LED spots and the few T5 batten lights, the entire lighting system pulls down just of 1.4kw – two thirds the power of a boiling kettle! The Weather Compensation run gas boilers trickle along and despite the building being lovely and warm the radiators are never hot…and some hardly come on at all. But most importantly the centre is welcoming and none of the new users complain about the cold any more…and we have several new users such as a youth theatre group, an award winning youth fitness club, The Compound, a family intervention service and soon to be starting a girls only night, focussing on key life skills. The centre’s bills are also a lot lower – though as we now have more users than in the past it’s difficult to accurately compare. All in all the place is now very much fitter for the future.


New kitchen

Funding - grants

Mick George - Landfill Community Fund - 23,000

Margaret Giffen Trust - £40,000

WREN - Landfill Community Fund - £18,500

Northants County Council – Councillor Empowerment Fund - £15,900

Community Development Foundation - £7,500

EW Hall Charitable Trust - £7,500

Funding – Community support

Stanion Complimentary Therapy Group - £700

Brambleside Primary School - £700

St Andrews Arts Centre/Church - £540

University 1st Age - £500

Princes Trust – Kettering Team 36 - £800

Commercial backers

Willmott DixonUndertook building energy survey and donated all new bespoke from door

Veissmann Boilers – supplied new twin 35kw high efficiency condensing boilers and a 1000ltr thermal store

MGWSP – Northants county highways contractor – Vol team removed old massive rotten skate ramp and front car park works 


Nov 12 - Nov 14 Electric and Gas = 28% less

Dec 2013 - Dec 2015 Electric and Gas = 13% less

Jan 2013 - Jan 2015= 8% less

Dave Lane is the project manager and chairman of Keystone Youth Centre.

Further resources

Cheaply increasing the energy efficiency of an old home

Watch: How to ecoretrofit your home with Rosemary Morrow

A permaculture retrofit: Tim & Maddy Harland's house


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