Update on the Muswell Hill Synagogue Building Project and Q&A
In our last full update in December we signalled that we were about to kickstart the fundraising track of the buildings project. That commenced over the past few weeks. The process has led to a renewed engagement with many members of the community, out of which some questions have arisen, and we thought this would be a helpful way to address some of those questions.
- How did you arrive at the assumptions and priorities that lie behind the plans?
- The word ‘Ambitious’ can be interpreted in a number of ways. What do the Building Committee mean by this?
- It follows from this that the Building Committee must therefore have a view of what our future requirements are for the building. Could you set these out?
- Didn’t some members caution against being too ambitious? What about their views?
- Can we afford it?
- How were the major elements of the original design arrived at?
- Is there a business case for doing any of this work, for example increased rental fees from enhancing the function hall?
- If this project is meant to carry us beyond the next ten years, why is the ladies’ seating gallery being retained?
- What is the nature of the relationship between the shul and Yeladenu Pre-School?
- How is the buildings committee distilling the feedback it receives?
- Then why haven’t the plans changed since they were published in July?
- So are the current plans fixed?
- Have the architects that have worked pro bono on the plans been guaranteed the contract for the building phase?
- In conclusion
Question: How did you arrive at the assumptions and priorities that lie behind the plans?
In the Rosh Hashanah edition of our shul magazine, we outlined five design principles that underpin the brief we handed to our professionals. These design principles stemmed from consultations with the community in 2017. We tried our best to distil the hundreds of comments received into a headline reflection of what we think the community wants. To recap, these design principles are:
Ambitious. As the first major renovation project proposed in many years, the design should constitute a comprehensive refurbishment.
Coherent. Given the flow between the foyer, the main shul and other spaces in the building, the design should look to create a consistency and optimise the flow between them.
Flexibility. A wide range of activities is run in the building and so the design should create sufficient flexibility to host them.
Basics. The basic utilities – heating, lighting, ventilation – should be incorporated into the process.
Tradition. The community has a very proud tradition and that heritage should be preserved in a redevelopment of the shul.
Question: The word ‘Ambitious’ can be interpreted in a number of ways. What do the Building Committee mean by this?
Indeed, ambitious can mean a number of things. The core of our interpretation of it is that the project should be scoped to try and properly meet our requirements as a community for the next ten years or more. That having not invested in the shul infrastructure for many years we should make sure to be comprehensive in the work that we do now and ensure that we do not have to repeat the process too soon. And that we should aim for the building be a vibrant, modern reflection of who we are as a community and where we are going. This seems to us to be the prevailing view of the membership.
Question: It follows from this that the Building Committee must therefore have a view of what our future requirements are for the building. Could you set these out?
No-one has a crystal ball. However here is what we know.
We are a large, growing community. The size of our membership has grown by nearly a fifth in the past ten years, currently standing at 700 adults and 365 children. Last year we were one of the top ten United Synagogue communities in terms of net growth. We are also a relatively young community: some 61% of our adult membership is aged 60 or below, which compares with 46% for the United Synagogue at large. More specifically, a full half of our adult membership is in the 40-60 age bracket, compared with less than a third for the United Synagogue overall.. Those demographics seem to indicate that the community is here to stay.
On high holy days more than 600 people attend services. Educational and social events now regularly attract crowds of over 100 and on a typical Sunday morning around the same number pass through the building. Last year we celebrated 17 bar/bat mitzvahs, and over the next two years we will celebrate another 58. The demographics would also indicate that in the future we may hope to celebrate more weddings in the shul, too.
In terms of building usage this translates as follows.
We see trends towards increasing demand for spaces in which to hold educational and social events as well to hold as parallel services (eg women’s, explanatory, overflow) that often attract between 50 and 100 people, and sometimes more. We foresee increasing numbers of times when these events will be carrying on simultaneously, and a greater variety of events. We also hypothesise that a refurbished hall, kitchen and toilets might attract a higher proportion of members to consider using these for their own simchas. We do not anticipate a large growth in the size of either the Nursery or the Cheder. We expect to see a modest increase in the numbers attending regular Shabbat services and continued growth in attendance on the High Holydays.
Question: Didn’t some members caution against being too ambitious? What about their views?
Absolutely. We did hear this view and we are very mindful of it. However there are certain realities to be faced.
Ours is a large building that has not been invested in consistently over the years. We therefore have some ground to make up and this impacts us particularly in areas such as electrics, heating, flooring, ventilation, windows, doors and so on.
Secondly, it is important to recognise the impact of taxes, fees and contingencies. Doing a project professionally requires professional contractors, engineers, architects and project managers, and a proper contingency fund for unexpected issues. Which means that for every £1 of actual building costs we need to set aside roughly 50p for VAT, professional fees and contingencies. The impact of these items is not trivial.
So therefore even though we have been careful to try and constrain our work the costs are still significant.
We have tried not to fall prey to wishful thinking. We have engaged professional firms of surveyors, architects and engineers to help us be as realistic as possible about the costs. To aid transparency we present a breakdown of their work: Download the Building Budget here
We would caution that there is a lot of shared cost between components of the plan and so isolating specific parts is not useful. In particular electrics, heating and ventilation underpin a large part of the project (consistent with another of our design principles, to upgrade the ‘basics’) and they constitute a large shared cost. Elements of the plan are also interlinked so it is not a simple case of being able to select from a menu. Indeed, these interlinkages reflect another of our design principles – coherence across the building rather than a set of individual ‘projects’.
Question: Can we afford it?
We are clear that everything we do must balance desire against real constraints and the financial capacity of the community, both in terms of what we are able to raise and also the burden that a loan from the United Synagogue would place on the community. Analysis has suggested that £350k is the maximum value of a loan that the community could sustainably and responsibly support. Added to what we believe we might be able to raise from the community, plus what the United Synagogue would be prepared to invest we have arrived at £1.5m as the upper end of the range of what might be affordable.
That sounds like a huge number, and it is. In many respects it is quite daunting. And we have not yet raised the money.
And even £1.5m will not give us everything we may want, such is the scale of the building. One option – to demolish the building and rebuild – would have an estimated cost three times the current budget, and in any event negates our design principle to preserve tradition. The project is shaped in order to try and deal with as many issues as we can now rather than leave these pending until an undetermined point in the future.
Other communities that have recently conducted major building programmes have invested in excess of £2.5m into their buildings, excluding VAT. Like them we are consulting heavily with the United Synagogue which has extensive experience in the field. Our investment tries to reconcile the bottom-up need to invest with the top-down capacity in our community.
Question: How were the major elements of the original design arrived at?
A lot of the work proposed is either refurbishment or minor changes. The major changes proposed were done so with the following rationale:
– Positioning a new daily entrance at the rear of the building allows the creation of a new, larger and more welcoming daily entrance lobby and a new security office. A new corridor leading from that entrance around the edge of the function hall allows the hall to be used for events without people needing to cross the hall to access different parts of the building. All of is enabled by extending the building out slightly under the undercroft utilising additional space without sacrificing car parking facilities or reducing the size of the function hall. This in turn leads to the idea of creating the playdeck so that Nursery children do not lose any of their outdoor playspace.
– The enlargement of the Beit Hamidrash is an iteration of a plan outlined several years ago which gained widespread appeal among the community. The creation of a new larger Beit Hamidrash alongside the function hall and the main shul means that the ground floor of the shul revolves around three distinct spaces, each capable of holding medium to large events.
As we suggested when these plans were unveiled in July, they were by no means the first draft. On discussion, our professionals made various changes based on feasibility and also cost. As a reminder, five versions of these original plans were drawn up, and three complete cost analyses were conducted.
Alternative schemes have also been considered. For example, one proposal – to retain the daily side entrance and snake a corridor around the south side of the hall – was rejected because it would make the hall smaller and also cut off the main shul from the function hall. As was a proposal to extend the function hall to the back of the car-park and approach Fortismere school about the idea of sharing it.
Question: Is there a business case for doing any of this work, for example increased rental fees from enhancing the function hall?
Our financial plans are not predicated on major income growth from the refurbished hall. We would anticipate incremental income growth, and this could be used for the benefit of the community or to amortise a part of the loan from the United Synagogue. But primarily what we hope to deliver is a building that will serve the community well for our own simchas and events as well as for all our religious services. Likewise the plans are not predicated on a reduction of operating expenses for the building although we anticipate that this could be an effect of more modern heating, lighting and windows.
Question: If this project is meant to carry us beyond the next ten years, why is the ladies’ seating gallery being retained?
It is true that few modern orthodox synagogues constructed in the 21st Century incorporate a separate ladies seating section upstairs. South Hampstead, Highgate, Radlett and Brondesbury Park have all either recently been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt on a single seating level. Many synagogues maintain split level seating and others are considering their views.
Single level seating is not a consensus position within our community. In recent years some limited experimentation with provisioning a women’s seating section downstairs has met with a mixed reception, from both women and men. In the original consultation work that was undertaken in 2017, the traditional heritage of the shul was seen as a feature to retain. So that became one of our five design principles.
Nevertheless we are looking forwards. The proposed plans allow more flexibility for inclusive seating on an ad-hoc basis on occasions when there is a desire from the community to do. First, an enlarged and refurbished Beit Hamidrash provides an alternative venue for single level seating on occasions with smaller numbers of congregants. The Beit Hamidrash also provides a space in which we could host women’s only services, a celebrated feature of our community. Second, a new entrance is proposed to be installed into the main shul from the lobby. This could allow greater flexibility for temporary configurations of seating arrangements in the main synagogue downstairs. Third, the function hall will be acoustically partitioned from the main synagogue and will no longer be a thoroughfare to access children’s services, which opens up many possibilities for parallel services. And finally, working partitions between the main synagogue and the function hall offer the option of an expanded single level on occasions.
Question: What is the nature of the relationship between the shul and Yeladenu Pre-School?
Yeladenu Pre-School is a separate legal entity from the shul, with its own governing body and its own budget. However, there is clearly a lot of overlap. In its 15 years of operation the overwhelming majority of Yeladenu parents have been or have become shul members. In addition, the presence of the pre-school on site has been an important indicator to the whole community of its liveliness and the potential for continuity.
The current plans recognise the role of Yeladenu as an integral part of the community. The installation of a first floor playdeck allows us to expand the shul function hall, introduce a more efficient corridor through the body of the shul and retain carparking facilities without compromising Yeladenu’s ability to provide critical outdoor play.
In discussion with Yeladenu management it has become apparent that the playdeck initially proposed was not of optimal size. A later draft of the plans enlarges the deck and carries it over onto a part of the flat roof at the rear. Whichever solution we go with, we recognise that this is a major undertaking for the community and discussions with Yeladenu will remain ongoing to ensure that any investment that the community makes in the pre-school is sustainable and that our interests are aligned. The building committee are maintaining a close dialogue with Yeladenu management and will continue to do so right throughout the process. We are clear that the plans need to be absolutely right for both parties.
Question: How is the buildings committee distilling the feedback it receives?
We have received a huge amount of feedback since this process began. We have always been clear that all feedback will be assessed against the parameters of utility, cost and feasibility. Some of the feedback is contradictory by its nature – the Beit Hamidrash should stay as is / it should be larger; car parking provision should be reduced / it should be retained; the project should include a complete overhaul of the main shul / the main shul should be left untouched. In a community of 700 diverse members this is inevitable. We see our role as the Building Committee, working on behalf of the Executive and the Board as being to try and examine each idea carefully and balance them up.
Question: Then why haven’t the plans changed since they were published in July?
Some ideas brought to us by members of the community are obvious improvements and simple to implement. More attractive plantings at the front of the building, a larger door into the hall, in/out doors into the kitchen and cloakroom, more storage, an external door at the rear of the Beit Hamidrash, improved heating in the Tribe Zone. These have been passed on to the professionals and will be incorporated in later plans.
Other ideas are naturally more complex to assimilate and/or would represent more substantial challenges to the published plans. In particular:
A lift. Many members expressed a desire to install a lift into the new building. We consulted with our professional advisors on the optimal position of a lift and its cost, and they came back with a very good plan but at a cost of £225,000 (inc VAT). As well as the cost we need to consider the utility, particularly as the ladies’ gallery itself is made up of stairs so that a lift would allow access only to the rear pew; the considerations outlined in answer to the about ladies’ seating also need to be taken into account. A lift would likely be of significant benefit to the pre-school, but that brings us back to the question about our relationship with Yeladenu. Consequently, we opted to defer the decision pending determination of whether the funds could be raised.
The size and position of the Yeladenu playground. This is discussed earlier in this Q&A.
New everyday entrance. Members have questioned if we really require this or should we not upgrade the front entrance?
The position and width of the proposed new corridor. There have been questions as to whether this is wide enough or in the correct position.
Flexibility and partitions. Members have observed that some flexibility is actually being lost downstairs due to the loss of the partitions between the Succah and the Hall as well as the merger of the classroom into the newly enlarged Beit Hamidrash.
All of these points are being considered and worked on. However to draw up proper new plans and have them costed is a time-consuming process, and each time we do it and involves around £2,000 of costs. Therefore we wish to ensure that before we draw up and publish plans again we have fully assimilated all of the points above and can be confident in the solutions that we propose.
Question: So are the current plans fixed?
The short answer to this question is no. We are pursuing our fundraising initiative in parallel with continued consultations. The current plans provide a concrete framework with which to talk to donors, and we are clearly much further along in the process than we were when we received our first tranche of pledges in 2017.
However it remains important that the plans match the community’s ambitions and views and so we are working with the professional team to address the points made above. On the basis of all we have heard so far we have decided not to progress our planning application in parallel with fundraising but to wait until end of March until this round of meetings with potential donors is complete and we have had chance to assimilate the points being made about the current plans.
Question: Have the architects that have worked pro bono on the plans been guaranteed the contract for the building phase?
No. We were strongly advised by the United Synagogue to identify architects who were prepared to work pro bono during this first ‘conceptual design’ phase. Their experience is that this phase can last longer than communities expect and that it is very important to avoid running up large professional fees whilst this goes on. This has happened to communities in the past.
We have followed this advice and been very fortunate that community member Murray Levinson, from architecture practice Squires has personally given generously of his time to assist us in this phase as well as making resources available from his firm to assist us. We have also had contributions of time from firms of engineers and quantity surveyors.
As and when we move into future phases the award of all work packages will be done on a commercial basis and under the supervision of the United Synagogue Buildings Department who have strict guidelines for the award of work, insurance and the delivery of value for money. This does not preclude firms involved in earlier phases pitching for and being awarded work in subsequent phases, but it certainly does not guarantee it.
As always we continue to invite constructive feedback. We would also like to thank all donors for their support. Over fifty years ago a group of people in Muswell Hill raised the funds to build a space that we are able to enjoy today. We look forward to building on their legacy to provide a space that can take their work forward.