As the Asembly Rooms are being used for public entertainment and occasionally for theatrical use, the building is subject to the requirements of the fire regulations and requirements of the local authority licensing officer. The existing building's services and the layout have not been changed for many years and the licensing authority was particularly concerned that the means of escape and safety systems should be improved.
Unfortunately continued use of the first floor would have required the provision of two new staircases. It was only possible to install one staircase without altering the external appearance of the building and so the balcony cannot be made accessible to the public.
Improving safety without damaging the historic character of the building has been particularly challenging. Relocation of the kitchens and toilets has allowed escape routes to be improved and enlarged. It has also enabled independent routes to link each meeting room and the common services, such as toilets, cloakroom and storage areas. The small rooms can now be used simultaneously for unrelated events
There is also a need to make the building more accessible to disabled visitors. Converting the front entrance to provide disabled access would have had an adverse affect the on the appearance, but by the provision of a ramp access to the east side of the building and altering the car parking levels on the west side of the building wheelchair access is possible to each of the three meeting rooms. The many changes of level in the old building have been removed and there is a common floor level throughout the building allowing unrestricted access. Other facilities for those with disabilities include a hearing-aid loop, a disabled toilet, easy-grip tap handles and handrails to the ramp access.
One of the major constraints on the use of the old hall was the lack of storage. The stage was difficult to dismantle and there was no suitable storage space so it had to be left erected at the south end of a hall. This severely reduced the space available for other activities. It was decided a new high purpose-built storage facility should be provided and this was located to the south of the existing hall and is only visible from the garden.
The new space can be used as a changing room for performers when the stage is in position and allows access between the service areas of various halls without passing through the main hall.
There was a concern that a traditional lead roof at low level and in a discreet location would prove that too tempting for lead thieves. The store has been covered with stainless steel that has been specially treated to weather to the colour of lead. This process will take approximately 18 months.
A new, easily dismantled, stage has been purchased with the generous help of The Cory Environmental Trust in Colchester.
The old heating and electrical systems of the building were deficient in many respects; not least that only part of the building could be adequately heated! It was decided to completely renew the electrical and heating systems and whilst opening up the building the repairs allowed new services to be concealed beneath the floor and in wall spaces.
The whole building is heated from a gas central heating boiler and the installation has been designed to allow any of the three meeting rooms to be heated up independently so that it is not necessary to heat up the main hall if only one of the smaller halls is in use.
The building has been fully rewired and new light fittings have been installed. Because of the variety of events that might place in the main hall, three independent lighting systems have been provided:
- A highly efficient floodlight system for events requiring a very good lighting level
- A traditional chandelier-based light system for formal events
- Discreet uplighters to provide background lighting for stage performances
To allow for additional lighting required during stage performances wiring has been laid within the walls of the hall, leading to power sockets around the perimeter at ceiling level. This will allow specialist lighting to be provided at the south end of the hall controlled from the balcony area.
The requirements of the fire officer and the licensing authority required extensive additional safety systems. Integrating these into the fabric in a discreet manner involved complex negotiations and it has not always been possible to blend safety features in with the historic colour scheme. Despite the best efforts of the project team the safety notices on the doors have to be blue and the fire exit signs have to be green.
The building now has a fully automatic emergency lighting system, and fire detection and alarm systems.