Stakeholders (including schools, businesses, and the local authority) have been consulted since the concept for a SDC was first developed over 5 years ago. A public consultation resulted in over 2000 positive responses. The feedback has been used to inform the physical design and visitor experience planning for the project. In late 2021, with support from a Towns Fund grant and donations from local companies and individuals, a design team was appointed to prepare detailed plans to RIBA Stage 3. The design approach is to create a contemporary pavilion to house the new 60-seat planetarium over the existing brick arch vaulted Victorian subterranean reservoir, creating a contrast of old and new that is then brought together as one. Visitors will be taken on a journey through the exhibition area and planetarium and be given opportunities to conduct astronomical observing (day and night) using radio and optical equipment.
The reservoir will be repurposed into an exhibition area and teaching space, whilst a state-of-the-art planetarium, meeting rooms, and cafe will be constructed on its roof. A unique selling point will be the integration of the new facilities with the current operational observatory which already provides a ‘wow’ factor for visitors.
The planetarium will be used for much more than astronomy – as well as the full range of STEM subjects, it is a blank canvas that can also be used by musicians and artists.
The design includes solar panels and air source heat pumps to keep energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions down, plus a green roof to ensure net biodiversity gain. Embedded carbon is reduced compared to an equivalent new build as the existing redundant Victorian reservoir will be reused. Electric car charging points and cycle storage will be installed, and a Travel Plan has been developed to encourage more sustainable travel to the site.
Planning permission was granted on 22nd March 2023. Subject to achieving the funding targets, construction can begin in late August 2023. The Centre would then open in late November 2024.