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Keeping up appearances

SITE REPORT - Each of the 180 apartments in the conversion of a massive Victorian cotton mill near Manchester presented its own challenge for Dew Construction. Damian Arnold reports from the site

PEOPLE expect a bit of period detail when buying a home in a converted Victorian mill.

So the challenge for Dew Construction was to fit 180 apartments into the 200,000 square foot Victoria Mill in Reddish, Stockport, while leaving the original timber floors, sandstone brickwork, cast-iron columns and 3 m-high window frames untouched and exposed.

In pract ice, the faithful renovation of period mills and warehouses is becoming more and more difficult because of evolving building regulations.

'We wanted to preserve the existing structure wherever possible, while at the same time conform to modern building regulat ions. It created some big challenges, ' says Dew Construction director Peter Greenwood of the £15 million project, which is expected to complete in June.

In some cases, the contractor had to admit defeat and stunning period finishes at the 1874 cot ton spinning mill such as cast-iron column heads have already been boxed up in plaster board and filled with mast ic in order to comply with regulat ions on sound proofing and fire protection.

But Dew has tried hard to keep as much period detail on view as possible by approaching the construction of each apar tment differently over the course of the 75-week construction contract.

'No two flats are the same in this building, which has been no easy task, ' says Mr Greenwood. 'We've had to work around the existing structure to do something that conformed to the regulations on acoustics and fire protection, which is very challenging when you are working to a budget.'

For example, a lot of thought was given on how to hide the mechanical and electrical services and keep the exposed brick walls and timber beams unencumbered.

'It's not something you can put down on drawings, ' adds Mr Greenwood. 'We had to approach each apartment separately and work out the routing while we did the work.'

While Dew completes the building's fit out, the airy one, two and three-bed apartments with 4 m floor to ceiling heights are already selling well. A forthcoming feature on the TV show Location, Location, Location will no doubt further boost sales of the apartments that start at £96,000.

The area is reported to have more than 160 other undeveloped mills, leaving scope for many similar refurbishment projects in future.

But Dew's experience has shown that there are plenty of const ruct ion challenges to face.

The first was to add an extra penthouse floor with mezzanine level and light-filled atrium on top of the existing mill that could be suppor ted by timber floors more than 130 years old.

The solution was to lay a new concrete floor on the fourth storey, supported by new steel columns underneath, and build a lightweight steel-framed structure on top that would not exert too much pressure on the timber floors.

'We beefed up the foundations and the columns at the lower levels and just about managed the concrete floor, ' says Chris Fenner, Dew project manager.

The new-build element created perhaps the biggest construction challenge, because the original roof trusses were removed in the first few weeks of the job and the mill then had to be kept as waterproof as possible.

The original roof was removed in spring 2005 and it was hoped that the new lightweight, single-ply membrane roofing system - as used by Dew Construction on the nearby Trafford Centre - would be in place by the end of the summer. However, the new roof wasn't fitted until Christmas 2005 - eight very wet months, as it turned out.

Dew fitted a temporary asphalt membrane over the top of the structure which kept the worst of the weather out, but even so, the conditions for plaster boarding and pouring concrete have been treacherous, says Mr Fenner. Before the new roof could be installed, two 4 m-high walls that supported the old roof were left exposed and caused great concern.

'We felt there was a great danger that materials could smack into those walls, so we've had them propped after checking that the floors below could take the force, ' says Mr Fenner.

Before work on top of the mill could advance too far, other major strengthening and repair work had to be carried out down below during the first six months of the project.

The timber floors of the rectangular mill structure are supported by two very thick sheer walls towards the far end of each side of the building.

Big holes had to be punched into these 1 m-plus thick walls to make room for corridors traversing the whole mill and open-plan community spaces in the middle of the f loor plan to accommodate facilities such as gyms and cafes.

This required major strengthening work to the walls, such as the installation of massive lintels.

Meanwhile, new staircases and lift shafts were fitted on either side of the m ill. As escape stairs with two-hour fire protection, the two new cores are heavily protected and required reinforced concrete piles.

On the ground floor, some of the timber floor ing had to be replaced with concrete because the wood had deteriorated so much. The flow of air needed to preserve the timber had been hindered by smaller annexe buildings being added alongside the mill (which have now been demolished). This led to fungus on the timber in some places and the National House-Building Council insisted that the affected flooring had to be replaced in order to secu re buildings insurance.

Structural works led to another major logistical problem throughout the job, which was the lack of openings for heavy materials into the building.

The problem was partly solved by lifting structural beams and columns from a 1.5-tonne electric hoist at the far end onto a landing platform on the scaffolding at the second floor and then carrying materials in through the opening. Other materials were trollied in through the ground floor and hoisted up the lift shaft.

'It was not an easy task, with big structural beams and columns to lift, ' says Mr Greenwood. 'The situation got more difficult with every apartment that we finished, because it meant there was one less opening to fit into and store materials. Towards the end, most of the stuff had to be manhandled upstairs.'

Another unforeseen challenge for the contractor was the condition of the sandstone brickwork. Such was the extent of the re-pointing and replacement brick required that a decision was made early in the project to surround the whole structure with scaffolding for six months.

'In some places, the soft sandstone brick had been severely weathered and one elevation of the mill was particularly bad, ' says Mr Fenner.

'Each bit of work had to be approved by the architectural conservation officer at Stockport District Council.

'It's amazing how long it takes and it's not something you can rush. It did lead to some slippage in the programme.'

Dew is now investigating the structure of the neighbouring Elizabeth Mill ahead of renovat ion into modern apartments. With the Victoria Mill experience in mind and with a similarly tight budget, the firm would like more leeway to alter the unlisted interior.

'If we could change anything, it would be to have less working around the existing structure, ' says Peter Greenwood. 'It would be nice to be able to take out every th ing internally so that we could then go for uniform construction.'