Re-using industrial buildings is not just about conserving our industrial legacy, it’s also a valuable contribution in reducing the carbon footprint of modern construction, whilst also improving the quality of the cultural landscape and local communities. This thought rose to mind on seeing the pictures of the devastating fire that swept through the empty Grade II listed Fisons’ fertiliser factory, dating from 1858, in Bramford near Ipswich (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-48175407).
The best way to conserve a building once its original purpose is lost, is to find it a new use; it is well known that empty buildings are vulnerable to vandalism, theft, and arson. The adaption and re-use of industrial structures is much older than industrial archaeology and heritage studies: dozens of 18th and 19th century steam engine houses were later re-used as dwellings or stores, whilst many of the textile spinning and weaving mills of northern England declined were re-used as clothing manufacturies and business units in the mid-20th century. Guidance on converting weaving sheds to a variety of uses, from commercial to residential was produced by English heritage (now Historic England), Lancashire County Council, and Regenerate Pennine Lancashire nearly a decade ago (‘Northern Lights: Finding a Future for the Weaving Sheds of Pennine Lancashire’ can be found here:
Beyond the heritage agencies a variety of charitable trusts and organisations have for several decades been promoting the re-use of industrial structures, from building preservation trusts founded to save a single structure to the conversion into museums of hundreds of former manufacturing buildings.
Thanks to a series of generous donations the Association for Industrial Archaeology have been able to make available restoration grants of up to £20,000 annually for a range of historic and industrial archaeology purposes. The first awards were made in 2009, and since then around half a million pounds has been invested into restoring and re-using a variety of industrial structures. These have ranged from a vertical cross-tube boiler from the Clyde puffer VIC32 to the Lion Salt Works railway salt wagon and amongst the industrial buildings supported have been the Beeleigh Steam Flour Mill, the Grane Mill chimney in Lancashire, Hoylandswaine Nail Forge, two canal warehouses at Wappenshall Wharf and Wellington Wheel Pit at Mellor Mill.
It’s not just through grants that the Association are keen to help conserve industrial buildings and find them a new use where necessary. The AIA have also been promoting best practice through its creative re-use awards which allows key case studies and best practice to be highlighted. Thus, as part of the month of ‘Adaptive Re-use’ in the year of European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, the AIA hosted a seminar at Salford University to explore the experiences of a number of organisations in re-using industrial buildings and discover how they had managed the task and the lessons they could pass on to others.
Four major case studies of creative and adaptive reuse of industrial buildings were studied. Alistair Gill, spoke on the conversation of Clementhorpe Maltings to residential apartments while retaining much of the original malting equipment. The project was awarded a Best Creative Reuse of an Industrial Building award by the AIA in 2017. He was followed by Martin Hulse of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust, who described the success in refurbishing St Hilda’s Pithead to a community, culture and heritage space in South Shields.
Elizabeth Perkins of the Birmingham Conservation Trust, talked about the problems of operating the Coffin Works Museum in Birmingham – engaging with the community and social media, and particularly the essential need to recruit and retain volunteers at which they have been very successful. The Coffin Works, originally Newman Brothers, was visited by one group during the 2016 Telford Conference.
Charles Smith, Historic England’s North West Planning Officer, continued with a description of the organisations Industrial Heritage Strategy. He noted that there are now about 250 industrial sites open to the public excluding an even larger number of canal and railway sites and that these were often as popular as ‘stately homes’ and castles. He emphasised the need to show evidence of opportunities for jobs and housing when seeking to convince authorities of future benefit.
An international perspective was provided by Nadia Ferrer from Barcelona who described the transformation of Can Batlló from an extensive derelict cotton mill in a run-down area of the city to a thriving community asset. This had been achieved by and is now managed by a local community cooperative. A level of direct action had been employed which was very different from our experience, as was the support of the local authority.
The relevance of these case studies to early 21st century urban communities becomes apparent when the occupancy and vacancy of just one class of industrial monument is considered: the textile mill. A heritage audit of the 541 surviving textile mills of Greater Manchester was funded by Historic England and undertaken by the University of Salford demonstrated in 2016 and 2017. It found that the total floor space in historic textile mills across Greater Manchester is approximately 3,759,800 m². Of this estimated total, some 1,158,220 m² appeared to be vacant or under-used, equating to approximately 31% of the total commercial/industrial floor space in mills across the county.
These figures are comparable with those calculated for historic mills in Lancashire, where an estimated 848,212 m² of a total 4,295,307 m² of floor space across more than 400 sites was found to be under-used or vacant in 2012-13. The occupancy rates varied between the nine boroughs with textile mill in Greater Manchester, with approximately 82% of the floor space in mills in Oldham in economic use, compared with 47% in the borough of Wigan. However, several empty mills with large floor plates were at the time of the survey in the process of refurbishment for residential use, with a particular focus in Central Manchester. Since 2000 the repurposing of historic mills in the Ancoats suburb of the city has enabled a thriving new community of residents to become established in this depopulated district, providing a model for the regeneration of the city regions other industrial towns.
Converting more of such buildings into residential use might be one answer to the increasing demands for urban housing whilst also reducing the pressure on redeveloping greenfield sites. It would also make better use of the energy and resources already invested in these structures. Yet the current planning system and VAT tax regime discriminate against such conversions. It would seem that it’s not only our 19th century industrial structures that need repurposing for the 21st century.