The pod squad arrives at All Souls Church
To build what amounts to a ‘ship in a bottle’ to convert All Souls Church in Lancashire into a community centre, contractor Carefoot had to work in the tightest of spaces. Stephen Cousins finds out how it coped with this holy challenge.
Residents of Bolton, Lancashire will soon be enjoying a ground-breaking project to transform a disused Victorian church into a cutting edge community centre. The £4m conversion of All Souls Church on Astley Street involves constructing a “building within a building”, with two futuristic white “pod” structures erected inside the main nave, standing independently of the church walls to leave the historic fabric largely untouched.
These innovative steel-framed pods, one three storeys high, the other two, will take up about 50% of the church interior and incorporate offices, meeting rooms, and a kitchen. In addition, uncovered upper level walkways are designed to give visitors a close-up perspective on the Grade II* listed church’s architectural features, including elaborate stained glass windows, war memorials and a detailed timber roof structure.
For main contractor Carefoot, constructing the pods has been like building a ship inside a bottle, as all its materials, plant and machinery had to squeeze through the church’s 2m wide front door, avoiding any damage to the building. Such a hemmed-in location has meant devising new access methods and construction techniques, while conflicts between the new build elements and conservation work being carried out simultaneously by heritage subcontractor Lambert Walker resulted in several changes to the programme.
“Undoubtedly the biggest challenge has been running two virtually separate projects, the conservation and new build, side by side,” says Paul Mellors, contracts manager at Carefoot. “We are now having logistics meetings on a weekly basis to reschedule things with the key subcontractors and every day new issues emerge that were unforeseen. It has been frustrating to have to backtrack on a number of elements but you’re always conscious of the need to finish on time and not upset the stakeholders involved in the project.”
As a further complication, the site is also being used as a pilot “live classroom” involving six paid training placements, funded by the National Heritage Training Group, and a series of weekly technical days, delivered throughout the 52-week construction programme designed to pass on heritage conservation skills on glass, roofing, lime mortar, and masonry repair to interested industry professionals.
Restricted access to the church has meant that work on the pods must be completed using smaller machinery, including a spider crane
Pillar free space
All Souls Church was built between 1878 and 1881 and designed by Gothic revival architects Paley & Austin. It was paid for by Thomas Greenhalgh, an Evangelical mill owner who wanted to create a place of worship for the local community. The building is unusually large for a parish church, seating about 800 people.
Greenhalgh wanted uninterrupted views of the chapel and choir from anywhere inside, designing an advanced composite steel and timber trussed roof structure to enable a 16m-wide continuous span from one side of the church to the other, eliminating the need for pillars. Also unusual is the fact that all the five large windows on either side of the church window sills are raised 4m above ground level to reduce chilly draughts for the congregation.
But the 20th Century saw both the cotton industry and the church’s congregation gradually shrink until it was forced to close in 1986 and handed over to the charity the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). The intervening years have not been kind, says Alan Gardner, managing director at Alan Gardner Associates, the architect coordinating the scheme’s conservation elements: “The building stood for many years as a massive empty hulk, people had grown up nearby but never gone inside. It became a target for arson attack, lead theft, vandalism to the stained glass windows and graffiti. In addition, much the external fabric had reached the point where major repairs were needed due to weathering, for example, on the roof nail fixings to the slates had rotted away.”
Plans to rejuvenate the building as a community centre were boosted in September 2009 when CCT was awarded a £3.3m grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, it wasn’t until late 2011 that the rest of the funding was secured: £150,000 from Bolton Council, £250,000 from the CCT and the rest from English Heritage and other charitable trusts.
The competition-winning design for the new build was developed by Manchester-based OMI Architects and involves stripping out the church pews to make way for the two free-standing pods, which extend west to east along the length of the nave – a design made possible thanks to the unique monolithic aisle-free space of the original church.
Pod 1, on the south side of the nave, is 10.5m high and comprises offices and a kitchen on the ground floor, meeting rooms and toilets on the first floor, and a classroom and production suite on the second floor. Pod 2, on the north side, is much smaller, comprising a single large events space/conference room on the first floor, which is raised up on six columns to accommodate an “open air” cafe on the ground floor.
This pod is set back from the church entrance to give visitors an unobstructed view of the original rib-vaulted timber roof and a sense of the huge space in which the pods have been built. It is accessed via a steel and timber feature staircase that fans out towards the church entrance.
“Our design is all about contrasts,” says Nick Berry, director at OMI. “The church is very old and rugged, yet the pods are very modern with white walls, modern construction materials, and large glazing panels; the church interior is very linear and box-like, yet the pods are freeform with no straight angles either vertically or in plan. The idea is that as visitors walk around the church interior, the spaces are constantly changing so there is no preconceived vision of the overall thing. It’s a voyage of discovery as you perceive different elements of the existing architecture against the new.”
There was little opposition to the design from the community or heritage organisations, says Berry, perhaps because building standalone pods has meant that key aspects of the church can be preserved, while the inclusion of raised external walkways in pod 1 and a large viewing window at the east end of pod 2 are designed to allow visitors to get closer to the original church details.
“‘Reversability’ is a very important word in the conservation world and the fact that in the future someone could dismantle our entire building and still leave the church intact is quite attractive, albeit unlikely given that this is a predominantly Muslim area now,” says Berry.
Carefoot is responsible for constructing the new build elements and it subcontracted out the £1m historic fabric package to Preston-based Lambert Walker, which in turn employed several specialist craft trades.
Repairs to the church roof involve replacing the original timber structure, reusing about 50% of the original Westmorland green slates and replacing the rest with identical replicas made by Burlington. New lead flat roofs, parapet gutters, and stainless steel lower roofs are also being installed. Around 13,000 bricks are also being replaced, manufactured to bespoke sizes by York Handmade Bricks.
The site plays host to a series of weekly technical days to pass on heritage conservation skills
All 10 large plain glass windows on the south and north elevations are being removed and completely releaded by Pendle Stained Glass at its workshop.
Due to vandalism, these required extensive new glass “quarries” – pieces of glass cut into regular geometric shapes. The stained glass windows behind the chancel, which depict scenes from the New Testament, are being repaired in situ by Lambert Walker.
Restricted access to the church, whose Gothic double-doorway has a maximum 2m headroom, has meant that work on the pods must be completed using smaller machinery including MEWP scissor lifts, a small excavator and a spider crane.
The spider crane was used to install the steel frame for the pods. “There were a few hair-raising moments when the jib was getting awfully close to the protected timber roof,” says Carefoot site manager Gareth Davies-Blower.
“We wanted to use the crane to lift pod 2’s feature stair into position and the only way to do it was to locate the crane inside the entrance tower using the outriggers for support. However, the way the outriggers are deployed meant that the area wasn’t large enough for the crane and we ended up having to lift the stair using a simpler lifting rig.”
First floor plan
1. Multi-purpose conference/seminar room
2. Break-out/meeting room
3. Access WC
4. Female WC
5. Entrance area
8. Staff office
The team’s next challenge is to work out how to install the cladding, in places there is less than 2m clearance between the new structure and the church walls, which is too narrow to work from a MEWP so some unusually shaped scaffolding is likely to be designed.
Although most of the pods will be covered in white-painted plasterboard, some areas will be clad in an off-white stone render and a copper alloy product called Tecu Gold. Structural insulated panels are being installed to create the second floor of pod 1, a requirement of the construction programme to allow the cleaning gantry and scaffolding to be installed to reach the roof to clean it.
But an unfortunate consequence of the new build and restoration teams working alongside each other has been certain unforeseen clashes. For example, to speed up the programme of work a rolling gantry system was installed on the scaffolding around the pods to allow Lambert Walker’s team to clean and restore the underside of the church roof much earlier than planned.
However, when the cleaning was completed and work on the pods resumed, Carefoot realised it was creating dust that threatened to stick to the wax that had been used to coat the timber roof. “The upshot was we had to install a mechanical ventilation system to circulate the air inside the church and prevent dust particles from rising and sticking to the roof. It was one of those unforeseen things we hadn’t considered when planning the reprogramming,” says Mellors.
The church’s electricity and water supplies also proved a problem, adds Mellors. “The church only had a low voltage power supply, so we had to install a generator for our lighting and machinery, the water pressure is very poor, which meant connecting to a standpipe in the road to enable cleaning work to be carried out on the church exterior,” he says. A lack of ventilation inside the church meant closely monitoring fumes from tools and machinery, and traps had to be installed to prevent pigeons from entering.
“If you look at the footprint of the new-build elements, it would take a matter of weeks to build on a normal project, but here the logistical challenges and other constraints have made it much more difficult,” says Mellors. Nevertheless, some canny rescheduling, and pest control, means that the project is on track for completion this August.