Derby Roundhouse restoration project

PUBLISHED: 12:42 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013

The Administration Block and the Roundhouse

The Administration Block and the Roundhouse

An historic part of our railway heritage, the Grade II* listed Roundhouse opened its doors last autumn after an award-winning restoration project. Mike Smith reports.....

Revitalization is a David Croll speciality. Fifteen years ago, he was appointed Principal of Wilmorton Tertiary College, which had been the subject of a major inquiry into its management. Against all odds, he quickly converted the failing college into a successful institution. In 2002, he became principal of Derby College, formed by the merger of his own college and those at Mackworth and Broomfield. In no time at all, he was hatching a plan to convert a vast complex of abandoned and crumbling Victorian railway works into the flagship campus of the new institution. Thanks to his vision, together with inspired design from Maber Architects and superb construction from Bowmer & Kirkland, the historic buildings have been rescued from near collapse and transformed into an award-winning campus.

The old railway works, which are located next to Derbys mainline train station, include the Carriage Shop, which was used, as its name implies, for the manufacture and repair of railway carriages, the magnificent Grade II* listed Roundhouse, which was built to facilitate the repair of locomotives, and an imposing three-storey office block that is wrapped around the north-west quadrant of the Roundhouse. A short distance from these three inter-linked buildings, there is the old Engine House.

I met David Croll in his room in the restored office block, which has a faade that would not be out of place on a country house, and began our conversation by asking him about the time when he took on his first revitalization project at Wilmorton. The Secretary of State for Education had responded to the findings of the inquiry into the college by insisting on a completely new governing body, and David had to convince the new governors that an inversion of traditional management styles was needed to turn around the institution. Summing up his approach to management, he said: Its my job to service the all-important interface between the front-line staff and the learners. Im here to serve everyone in the college and enable them to realise their potential.

Derby College is one of the largest further education colleges in England, with 4,000 full-time and 16,000 part-time students. David has also established a Corporate College as a skills provider to help employers maintain their competitive edge. The dedication of the students to their studies was evident in every department that I visited and the enthusiasm of the staff was plain to see. In the catering department, I encountered Shirley Sweeney, who was tutoring some special needs students in pastry-making. Although she still has a house in Cornwall, Shirley accepted a post in faraway Derby because she was convinced that David would give her the chance to fulfil an ambition to create the best centre for culinary art in the country.

Just as he sees and fosters potential in his staff and students, David could see potential in the old railway works, even though rainwater was pouring through the roofs on his first tour of the dilapidated buildings and some of the rooms were open to the elements and infested with pigeon droppings. Two talented men have worked closely with David to make the buildings fit for a new purpose without losing their historic character: architect Ian Harris of Maber and contracts manager Mike Atkinson of Bowmer and Kirkland.

Ian and Mike met me in the Roundhouse, which is actually a 16-sided polygon with 16 spoke-like wells emanating from a central turntable, where locomotives were manoeuvred for repair. When Ian and Mike took on the project, all the windows were broken, ten of the sixteen roof trusses had failed and the dome was leaking. This magnificent building, which was constructed in 1839 and is the oldest surviving railway roundhouse in the country, now serves as the social hub of the campus, as well as a spectacular venue for functions. The rim of the railway turntable is still clearly visible at its centre; a glass panel has been placed over one of the engine wells to reveal its original purpose; the vaulting has been restored to its former glory and a new lantern has been created at the apex of the domed roof.

Before restoration work began, the well between the Roundhouse and the adjoining three-storey office block was filled with rubble and mud, but subsequent excavation revealed a York-stone floor, which now forms a sunken patio that is open to the sky and popular as a gathering place in good weather. The Roundhouse is also linked to the Carriage Shop, which has been imaginatively converted into a library. The original shell of the building has been preserved by housing the book shelves, computers and study desks in a huge oblong pod that is set some distance in from the old walls and is framed by 30ft-high glass panels, which are covered by an etching of the musical score for the tune Steam Train Hornpipe. The space between the Carriage Shop and the old Engine House has been filled by the brand-new Kirtley Building. Ian Harris had no qualms about plugging this gap with a thoroughly modern edifice, because his approach to conservation and restoration follows the William Morris principle of letting the old be old and the new be new. However, Ians new building has many subtle references to the original purpose of the neighbouring Victorian structures, most noticeably in its spectacular external cladding. This is made of double-layered chameleon glass, which is seen to change colour by pedestrians as they walk past the building. These changes in colour create an impression of rapid movement, which could be seen as a reference to the revolution in movement brought about by the coming of the railways.

The three-colour palette used for internal fittings is consistent throughout both the new-builds and the restored Victorian structures. Yellow echoes the colour of the huge lifting cranes that were used in the workshops, while orange and blue match the colours of the original brickwork. Ians new building is linked to the old Engine House by a glazed breathing space with funky graphics that pay homage to railway engineer Matthew Kirtley and the configuration of the old boiler room within the Engine House has been cleverly preserved by Mike Atkinson, who has threaded new fittings around the original structures.

The most controversial part of the new campus is a second new-build, which takes the form of a huge, freestanding glass box with a prominent projecting canopy. Known as the Stephenson Building and designed to accommodate the hairdressing and beauty therapy departments of the college, it has much more in common with Norman Fosters Carr dArt in Nmes than it has with any other building on the Derby site. However, Ian points out that it was cheap to build and has an energy-efficiency that makes up for the poor energy efficiency of the Victorian buildings. A three-storey graphic inside the building depicts George Stephenson, inventor of the Rocket locomotive, whose head appears to look out from the third floor across a large courtyard to the workshops where some of the earliest locomotives were repaired. There is no doubt that the 48 million restoration and development of the Roundhouse site was a labour of love for Mabers architect and Bowmer and Kirklands construction team. Ian Harris talks of the project as a realisation of his passion for constructive conservation and Mike Atkinson reports that all his workmen were inspired in their work by the craftsmanship of the Victorians. Mike is particularly pleased to have worked on this final phase in the regeneration of the Pride Park area because he was involved in the construction of Derby Countys stadium at the very beginning of that regeneration. Some construction students of the college worked on the restoration project and the respect shown for the buildings by all the current students was very apparent to me as I toured the facilities. Needless to say, David Croll is absolutely delighted with his new campus.

Last October, this inspirational combination of restoration and contemporary construction was given two Construction Excellence awards by the East Midlands Centre for Constructing the Built Environment (EMCBE). It was named Project of the Year and Heritage Project of the Year at a ceremony held, appropriately enough, in the restored Roundhouse, the most spectacular symbol of the all-round excellence of a project that has seen Derbys historic railway centre made fit for a worthy new purpose.

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