When I was told that one of the new projects I would be working on was a redevelopment of a Grade II* listed building, my general reaction was contempt, as I knew the design would need to revolve around the limitations set by Historic England. With approximately 500,000 listed buildings in England, I’ve always found it a bit unnecessary to limit the potential of a development because a forgotten poet once rented a room in the building or the structure has simply lasted over a hundred years.
Brownsfield Mill, the project in question, is one of the many 19th century power mills in Manchester that will be converted into trendy loft apartments. From a fire engineering perspective, it presented an interesting challenge, as current prescriptive guidance could not be applied, due to the listed status of the building and the ambitious design approach of the architect. At that point, I thought that was all the building had to offer.
However, during a later visit to the Air and Space Hall at the Museum of Science and Industry, the name Brownsfield Mill caught my attention when it appeared in one of the plane’s exhibit descriptions. The plane itself was the Avro Triplane – the first all-British aircraft to fly, its remains were discovered in the attic at the Brownsfield Mill and later restored.
As I later discovered, the mill spent 85 years serving as a cotton factory, and in 1910 Brownsfield Mill became the birthplace and factory of one of the most important aviation companies in the UK – AV Roe and Co. I could not have imagined how planes can be prototyped and even manufactured in a low ceiling and enclosed mill like that, but apparently it was all that was needed for the small team of Sir Alliott Verdon-Roe and his brother (the ‘Co’ in the title) to manufacture 28-planes before moving to a larger factory.
Apart from the Avro triplane, which had only 9hp (about half the power of a ride-on lawnmower!), Brownsfield Mill was also home to the Avro Type E, the predecessor to the most produced aircraft of any kind during the First World War. A latter and more well-known addition to the Avro fleet was the Avro Lancaster – the most famous and successful bomber in the Second World War.
Discovering all these enriched histories of the mill has made the project much more noteworthy to me. The significance of this inconspicuous-looking mill made me think that it belonged in a museum and it increased my appreciation for the work and effort that is going in to preserving the feel and features of the mill in the development, now appropriately rebranded as AVRO.
My take from all of this is that I should not dismiss any old building I work on (or just see in the streets) as relics from the past, because you never know what interesting stories they may keep.
Image: © Urban Splash