The Challenges, Opportunities and Future of Our Industrial Heritage in design, architecture, plannin



Many thanks to Michael Plageman, who has provided the below. Michael is a Chartered Architect, Registered Conservation Architect, at Davies Sutton Architects and is a Design Review Panel member, attending Design Review Panels across the UK including in the south west, south east, east, London, east midlands, west midlands, north east, north west & Yorkshire & Humber.

The Significance

Since the middle of the 19th century there has been no leading economy that is not an industrial power. Therefore, given the significance of industrialisation, it would seem obvious that industrial heritage should be a prime concern in the desire to care for the nation’s heritage. However, industrial heritage, dependent on its age, scale and condition, is sometimes perceived as the poor relation to the more manicured, ‘traditional’ buildings that perhaps more readily spring to mind when discussing our historic environment and built past – it is often over scaled and overwhelming!

Our industrial heritage is special in a number of ways – in particular its pre-eminence in world terms. At the heart of the portfolio are sites and landscapes that reflect the origins - worldwide - of ‘the great age of industry’. They are places that defined Britain as the first industrial nation.

Research into understanding the nature of the key developments and associations that historically influenced industrial development enables us to begin to understand the significance of the legacy. It also however, gives a glimpse of what has been lost and what threats exists to that which remains.

The Challenges

Davies Sutton Architects in association with Planning Solutions Ltd, recently won a bid to produce an options appraisal study identifying sustainable future uses for two derelict Grade II listed buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments, on the site of ‘The British’ in Talywain near Pontypool. This 1300-acre site is the largest remaining site of dereliction in South East Wales and takes its name from the British Ironworks which was founded there in the 1820’s.


1886_Monmouthshire XVIII (includes/ Abersychan; Goetre Fawr) 1886 map of ‘The British', showing the scale of the operation

The ironworks operated until the 1880’s, before a number of collieries and drift mines were opened on the site between 1900’s and the 1970’s – the last mine was closed in the mid-1980’s.


‘A rare surviving photograph of ‘The British’ in operation’)

As a result of its former uses, the site contains a number of hazards, including disused mine workings, shafts, adits, watercourses which flood, and a number of colliery spoil tips. These, together with its sheer scale, has historically presented significant barriers to the future development of the site.

In addition to this, concerns often exist regarding management strategies for industrial heritage. These concerns are further enhanced by a perceived limited understanding and level of research in the area, and it is therefore paramount that as much research as possible is undertaken when approaching such developments. Like many sites of former heavy industry, the context of ‘The British’ had already been altered through well-meaning land reclamation schemes undertaken in the 1980's. These have affected the setting of the buildings that we were asked to look at, and eroded some of the understanding that a more considered approach to context would have produced.




‘Photographs of the existing listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments of ‘The British’. Their context has now significantly changed offering new possibilities moving forwards’

The Opportunities

Despite the passing of time since the closure of the ironworks, through conversations during the progression of the project, the importance of the buildings to the community was clearly still apparent. This was despite the ironworks not being operational in the lifetime of the current community. The ironworks are ultimately the reason for the communities being – it was its working heart and has remained visually imposing in its landscape. Subsequent development on such sites therefore needs to reflect this.

This shows how the influence of industrial heritage extends beyond the confines of its site, both in tangible and intangible ways. It can be the driving the character of the built environment of the surrounding areas and as such they often go hand in hand. At ‘The British’ the streets of terraced housing grew up around the site, and such contexts serve to further enhance the cultural significance of the heritage asset. When an industrial building is left to deteriorate, it is not just the heritage that doesn’t have a use, the raison d’etre of the community is affected and significantly diluted without a functioning focal point. It is recognition of this that engenders the opportunity of such sites – history can be the driver for community.


Proposed external view of the Llanelli Railway Goods Shed by Davies Sutton Architects’

Industrial heritage and its associations, still retains an intrinsic link with its communities as displayed in the publicity and community support surrounding the restoration of such buildings. We have experienced this recently in undertaking proposals to restore the Llanelli Railway Goods Shed in association with the Llanelli Railway Goods Shed Trust There has been a ground swell of community support, pride and interest developed through the proposed conversion of the building into a new cultural hub. This is reflected in the community ethos of the proposed building that has the potential to bring together various community groups under one roof. It evidences the enduring cultural significance of such buildings and the necessity to evolve and conserve them for future generations.


Proposed view of the interior of the Llanelli Railway Goods Shed by Davies Sutton Architects. The scale of the space affords a unique flexibility

Overcoming the Issues

One of the biggest challenges to overcome in developing such proposals is that of scale. Many industrial buildings are necessarily extensive, big and complex to accommodate the enhanced size of the operations they originally housed. They were built at a time where labour and material costs were relatively low, when current economies dictate that labour costs are comparatively high with and quality materials similarly so. Therefore the costs to repair such structures is inevitably commensurate with this, leaving a ‘conservation deficit’ to overcome. The ‘conservation deficit’ can sometimes be enhanced by a necessity to include caring for and operating historic machinery, and therefore requires grant funding to be sought and, in conjunction with this, delivery strategies to be addressed. Such approaches might include phasing works, mothballing structures until such time that they can be addressed, or staged responsive, economic slow development that allows a building to evolve at its own pace.

Central to this is the development of a robust business plan that includes a flexibility to allow it to develop and adapt as a project evolves. A project can only be truly sustainable if it has a viable business plan and this requires difficult and honest conversations to be had with communities and interested parties. Our experience tells us that the importance of this document can not be overlooked as part of a holistic approach to providing a viable vision.

However, for all the difficulties faced, there are a number of success stories. Locally to ‘The British’ site, the inclusion of Blaenavon Industrial Landscape on the World Heritage list has raised international awareness of its historic environment and has proven to produce distinct benefits to its communities. Financial advantages have been gained from increased tourism, whilst other benefits include access to funding streams, educational training and assistance with technical expertise for those empowered with maintaining and developing the site. This offers unique opportunities for ‘The British’ whilst making it necessary to ensure any solutions do not dilute the offering.

Sir Neil Cossons wrote in 2011, ‘...four factors influence the nature and pace of the advance of heritage:

  • A sound foundation of scholarly knowledge

  • Determined, evidence-based advocacy

  • The public's willingness to embrace novel notions of what matters to them and to do something about it

  • And, political will to support innovative and often challenging ideas.

Of those four, the fire in the belly of the public has been the most influential and effective at realising the idea of a valued industrial heritage.’

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Established in 1993, Davies Sutton Architects have nearly 25 years’ experience of repairing, extending and providing new buildings within historic and environmentally sensitive sites.

Their expertise in the conservation of historic buildings informs their approach when designing new buildings in such settings, via an enhanced understanding of:

  • the local vernacular and indigenous natural materials

  • the context and setting of listed buildings and conservation areas

  • a detailed knowledge of the planning system

Their clients include the Welsh Assembly Government, English Heritage, the National Trust, various Local Authorities, several schools and voluntary charitable trusts. Further information can be found at www.davies-sutton.co.uk

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