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Barnfield Construction's tricky restoration proves educational

The project team faced the challenge of converting a Victorian mill into a university technical college, with a leaking canal adding further complications.

Project: Burnley UTC
Client: Burnley Borough Council
Contract value: £10.1m
Region: North-west
Main contractor: Barnfield Construction
Lead designer: Capita Symonds
Steelwork subcontractor: Harold Newsome
Cladding and glazing subcontractor: AMS Cladding
M&E subcontractor: W H Good
Start date: June 2012
Completion date: August 2013

A 150-year-old Grade II-listed former cotton mill in Lancashire is being given a new lease of life in an ambitious project that has led to visits from Prince Charles.

Barnfield Construction is creating Burnley University Technical College on the site of the disused and dilapidated Victoria Mill as part of a wider regeneration scheme in the area.

Marrying the needs of a modern UTC with the demands of conservationists during a tight 14-month programme has been a major and ongoing challenge for the construction team.

Capita Symonds was appointed in January 2012 to carry out multi-disciplinary design work for the project, which still required planning permission at the time.

“We worked very closely with Burnley Council’s planning officer, who told us what we had to do and who we had to consult with,” says lead architect Natalie Sarabia-Johnston.

The project, which has been partly funded by local skills provider Training 2000, had to be completed in time for the 2013/14 academic year.

Planning permission gamble

With the clock ticking, Barnfield Investment Properties – the borough council’s development partner for the wider On The Banks scheme – pushed on with work ahead of receiving planning permission.

Barnfield Investment Properties project director Gareth Smith says: “A difficult but important decision was to start detailed design work on the day we submitted for planning permission. We ran the risk of it being aborted, but we thought we had done enough work to get approval.”

The gamble paid off, with planning permission granted within eight weeks of the application going in on 2 April.

A petrol station and car wash had to be removed from the front of the site, which sits snugly between busy Trafalgar Street and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The cleared area was then used for site offices, and work could begin on cleaning up the mill and attached Victorian weaving shed.

Infested mill renovation

Barnfield Construction site project manager Mike Riley recalls: “The structure of Victoria Mill was infested – 48 per cent of timbers had dry rot, there was no ground floor as such and lots of temporary propping arrangements were in place.”

Ms Sarabia-Johnston adds: “The council had cleared half a metre of dead pigeons off the roof, but even that left us with a clean-up operation. There was a huge amount of activity.”

After the clean-up, site workers could begin the internal strip-out. Gaining permission to remove and replace materials was a major project in itself.

“The Prince of Wales and I get on but we don’t really see eye to eye on things”

Gareth Smith, Barnfield Investment Properties

Statutory consultees included English Heritage, the Victorian Society and the Weavers Triangle Working Group. Prince Charles also showed a keen interest.

“English Heritage’s area head would talk to his boss, who would talk to the UK head of the body – that’s how important this scheme is,” Mr Smith says. “And all this would filter back to Prince Charles, who sees this set of mills as the perfect example of Victorian mill heritage.”

Royal disagreement

The prince has visited the site, and Mr Smith has travelled to meet him in London. “[The Prince of Wales and I] get on but we don’t really see eye to eye on things,” says the project director.

There was a lengthy process of satisfying the heritage bodies, with one particularly contentious issue being the specification of the windows for the UTC.

“English Heritage wanted us to use fine metal windows but these are not double-glazed, which leads to UV light and acoustic issues,” Ms Sarabia-Johnston says. “We had to come up with a window section that was acceptable to English Heritage but satisfied the UTC.

“They wanted a modern intervention using traditional materials”

Natalie Sarabia-Johnston, Capita Symonds

“We spent a lot of time on this project consulting the conservation bodies and managing the expectations of the end-user.”

Only materials used in the original mill and weaving shed are allowed to be used on the restoration project. This rule still applies on the new-build extension, which will hold a multi-function hall, yet the new building is not supposed to replicate the old structures.

“They wanted a modern intervention using traditional materials,” Ms Sarabia-Johnston says.

Laboured material negotiation

These lengthy negotiation processes often involved detailed explorations of unfavoured methods – which the team had to prove they could not use.

“We had a big debate over the beam replacements,” Ms Sarabia-Johnston recalls. “Traditionally you would use oak, and we did an exercise to find reclaimed oak so we could test its strength, but in the end we persuaded English Heritage to go with an engineered beam called glulam.”

Mr Smith adds: “For the aluminium windows we had 10 samples made before we reached an agreement.”

And all this was just half of the battle: the work still had to take place on site.

“The replacement of the timbers was a scheme in its own right,” Mr Riley says. “The logistics of replacing 54 timbers in excess of 7.5 m in length each were challenging.

“The work had to be sequenced to maintain the structural integrity of the building, and we did not know how long each one would take until we started.”

Structural reinforcement

As well as having unsound elements replaced, the mill had to be structurally reinforced due to its change of use. School buildings must be protected from disproportionate collapse, meaning an incident in one corner should not risk bringing down the whole structure.

Steel columns were installed ceiling-to-floor on each level and tied together to form an internal frame to the building – a process that took from November 2012 to February this year, alongside other works.

Minor works to prevent disproportionate collapse also took place in the larger adjacent weaving shed, which then had its roof taken off and replaced with a corrugated, insulated material to look similar, but provide more effective protection.

“We spent a lot of time investigating the fine details to make it look appropriate,” Ms Sarabia-Johnston says. “It allows quality natural light into the building, giving true colour readings without glare.”

Piling for the new-build block also took place in this intense period over the harsh winter. CFA piles 20 m deep needed to avoid a sewer that runs through the site. The building was constructed on stilts to allow a car park underneath and access to the sewer should it ever be needed.

The extension’s steel frame went up in eight days, throwing into sharp focus the painstaking work going on in the 150-year-old existing buildings.

“The new build was simple,” Mr Riley says. “I knew exactly how long everything would take.”

The challenging atrium

What wasn’t simple was creating an internal atrium between the weaving shed, an engine room, a water tower and the original mill. A crane had to lift cherry pickers into the confined central space so they could erect 18 m-high steel columns.

“Fixing kit that will be on show is very different to fixing it behind a ceiling”

Gareth Smith, Barnfield Investment Properties

M&E work was another delicate task. The busy road outside meant heavy reliance on mechanical ventilation rather than windows; and all the piping was left on display as part of the ethos of using the building as a learning tool for construction students.

“The finishes had to be clean and crisp,” Mr Smith says. “Fixing kit that will be on show is very different to fixing it behind a ceiling.”

April saw internal finishing work taking place, and door hanging was due to begin in May as the project entered its final stage with completion due in August.

By the time the first pupils enter the UTC in September, much of the site team will have moved on to phase 2 of the On The Banks project.

If they need any motivation, they will be able to look across and see for themselves the life they have breathed back into this previously discarded Victorian mill.

A building that teaches

Burnley UTC will specialise in construction and engineering and encourage its pupils, aged 14 to 19, to learn via real problems rather than theory.

As such, the building is designed to showcase its evolution, with elements from the original stonework through bricked-up doorways right up to today’s steel bracing being left on display.

In addition, machinery from the mill’s days at the heart of the Lancashire cotton industry will remain, with a large hoist looming over one of the classrooms.

Beyond the physical reminders of the building’s past, the project team will also hand over a BIM model of the project. This will allow pupils to trace materials and pipework that disappear behind walls and ceilings, and to see how such a major construction job is co-ordinated.

When it is in operation, the UTC will invite key figures from its sponsors to provide lessons on a regular basis over a period of weeks.

A thematic space has been designed to allow sponsors to bring artefacts such as engines and models in to help with this teaching.

As lead architect on the conversion project, Ms Sarabia-Johnston will talk to pupils about design.


Repairing the leaking canal

As if the project team did not have enough to deal with converting a Victorian mill into a UTC, they hit an unexpected snag along the way.

The Leeds-Liverpool canal that runs directly behind the site was found to be leaking into an historical culvert, causing serious structural movement of masonry under the weaving shed.

To get to the culvert, the canal had to be drained – and to drain the canal, a raft of preparation work had to be undertaken in conjunction with the Canals and Rivers Trust.

“We put structural timber under either side of two bridges and pumped several millions of gallons of water out of the canal,” Mr Riley explains. “To do this we had to carry out a fish rescue, using a specialist to stun the fish and pull them out. It was interesting but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Barnfield Construction carried out 90 per cent of the work itself because it was so desperate to get on with the main project.

“We had to gear up quickly,” Mr Smith says. “We are a traditional construction company with our own workforce so we were able to do so.”

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