“These buildings have real character and that creates a challenge that requires more innovative and creative solutions. We like that”, says Tim Heatley, co-founder of developer Capital & Centric. “It’s much more interesting to keep a building and repurpose it and bring it back to life than it is to tear it down, munch it to pieces, dig it into the ground and put a new building above it.”
He’s talking about Weir Mill in Stockport, the £60m project we are transforming from an historic mill complex into a community of 256 apartments with co-working offices, amenities and public spaces. I couldn’t agree with him more; these buildings have stories to tell.
Textile mills were the original Northern Powerhouse. From the late 18th century onwards, they propelled the industrial revolution forward; pioneering technical innovation, stimulating new trade and overhauling the transport network. Silk, cotton and woollen production shaped the landscape, economy and communities of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Yorkshire. However, the 20th century decline in national textile manufacturing means an uncertain future for many of these monuments.
Weir Mill is such a place. Constructed as a complex of multi-storey cotton spinning mills with separate weaving sheds, built adjacent to a towering railway viaduct and the River Mersey, a major feat of engineering that to this day remains one of the world’s largest brick structures. Weir Mill was a major employer for local people, has survived multiple fires, technical evolutions, and is a well-loved historic crumbling landmark.
One of the impacts of Covid is to remind people why architecture and public space is important. The complex at Weir Mill will transform the two derelict mills – bringing them back to life, making them relevant again, forming part of a mix of new structures and amenities that connect people to their history and culture.
Architecturally, one of the unique characteristics of the site is its rich history. Because mill complexes were built over time there are layers of stories; from the alleged presence of ghosts to the remnants of a wheel house that drove the mill before steam engines were invented, part of which lies under the Mersey, with timber from the original water wheel still intact.
The new structures that will accompany the mill emphasise their engineering in tribute to Victorian infrastructure, while public spaces form a new gateway to welcome the wider community and create a vibrant destination for people from across the region. The proximity to the Stockport Viaduct gives the opportunity to experience the scale of the colossal structure up close and the new square will feature retained cast-iron columns from the former weavers’ shed creating a unique new event space for the town.
There is no doubt that history defines us and the places where we live. Repurposing existing buildings and reconnecting places with their history roots us in our environment and the regeneration of Weir Mill brings immeasurable economic, cultural, and environmental benefits. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of our forefathers, presents a fantastic design challenge and it is, quite simply, the right thing to do for the sustainability of our planet.