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From horses to coursesMay 2006

It began life as an exercise yard for royal horses, then became the Devonshire Royal Hospital, and it's now a faculty for the University of Derby. How sustainable can one building be? Roderic Bunn investigates.

Around the corner from Derby railway station lies a gaggle of decaying, boarded-up buildings that were once the city bus station. What catches the eye is the startling sight of an old caravan that someone has parked on the roof. It sports a large, scrawled protest banner: "Stop climate change - use buses".

Apparently, Those In Charge have deemed the art deco/bauhaus bus station - said to be the only one of its kind left - to be no longer fit for purpose. So, to the dismay of those who oppose unsustainable development, the bus station is coming down, likely to be replaced by something new, shiny, and very post-modern. Whether it will be any more functional - or as loved by the locals - is another matter.

In Buxton, not many miles distant, lies the antithesis of Derby bus station: the former Royal Devonshire Hospital, which has been restored as the faculty of hospitality and catering for Derby University. Once a candidate for conversion into luxury flats, the 200-year old building has instead been kept for the benefit of the local community. Admittedly, it took over £23 million to refurbish and convert, but in doing so Buxton has preserved its architectural heritage, found new uses for 12 old buildings, and brought much needed investment into the town.

The renovation project obtained support from many donors, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund (£6.11 million) the Learning Skills Council (£2.62 million) and the Higher Education and Funding Council England (£1.5 million). English Heritage contributed £160,000.

This money was sorely needed - the cost of the project spiralled with the difficulties of threading 21st century services through protected 18th century trusses, and the discovery of loose asbestos under the dome floor, fibres of which had infected everything in sight. This cost £1.6 million to clean up, and caused a 23 week delay.

Still, Derby University's Director of Facilities Management, Ian Willgoose - aided by environmental consultant John Packer Associates and architects Hall Grey Architects and Donald Insall Associates kept faith in their vision that The Devonshire could be converted from a crumbling NHS hospital into a center excellence for food, tourism and learning.

The new teaching environment includes classrooms and a host of specialist teaching facilities, providing spa, hair and beauty salons (all run by students) a library and electronic learning resources centre, a bistro and fine-dining restaurants.

The hospitality and catering faculty itself boasts six specialist kitchens, and a 100-seat lecture theatre come-kitchen, capable of relaying cooking master-classes onto screens around the campus.

Most of these facilities are housed on two storeys around the perimeter of the dome, a massive structure - larger than St Paul's - that has dominated the Buxton skyline for over 200 years.

Project history

The Great Stables were built in 1789 for the Duke of Devonshire. They were roofed over in the late 19th century by one Robert Rippon-Duke to create the dome. In its day this was regarded as a major technological feat.

The dome has a circular colonade and walls set within an octagon, with radial walls at the four cardinal points. The ground floor rooms were stables for the Duke's 120 horses, with those on the second floor accommodation for the stable lads and the grooming equipment. Much of the 19th century detailing has been retained, including Rippon-Duke skirting details, goats-hair plaster finishes and many other joinery items.

The buildings became a hospital in the early 20th century, and over the years grew to include hydrotherapy departments, operating theatres and rehabilitation wards. The usual story of under-investment saw the buildings slip into decay. The central wooden floor of the dome deflected by 450 mm to the centre as the foundations to its oak beams gave way. Some solid walls added over the years were found to have no foundations at all, which begged questions as to how they stayed up.

The four corner lanterns, or turrets, boarded up for many years, were restored to their original state. Three lanterns now house the dome's ventilation plant, while the fourth acts as a rooflight for the first floor restaurant.

Traditional materials and techniques were used to restore the building's original fabric. A Victorian recipe for lime plaster, re-created using lime putty, was applied throughout the project. Burlington slates were sourced and cut to match the existing dome slates.

The brief

The brief for the renovation and conversion developed over a series of meetings between the client, Derby University's Facilities Management department, and the design team at the architect's offices in Derby.

"The heads of department were consulted early on and involved in the evolution of the schedule of requirements" recalled John Packer. "The main thrust was to clear up what was a very messy building. Over a long period the Hospital had added external escape routes, external flues and chimneys, and we stripped all that back so that everything is now hidden."

A hard lesson learned by all was the need to get English Heritage on board early before any design work had been carried out. Although Derby University had appointed a conservation architect to advise the design team, the stringent demands of English Heritage placed a great strain on the services design.

The insistence of English Heritage that none of the original structure should be removed or changed forced a re-design by John Packer Associates, who had to find new, non-destructive ways of routing cables and ductwork.

No plant was allowed to penetrate the existing roof fabric, which meant long and tortuous extract ductwork from the kitchen hoods, through the three-foot deep ceiling-void around the circumference of the dome, to get to three of the four turrets that were commandeered for ventilation plant. The extra pressure drops caused by triangular ductwork sections around retained roof trusses inevitably led to greater fan power and more noise attenuation, but after much re-design it all went together.

"The air volumes for the kitchens were around 26 m3/s, and this had to be accommodated in a very small area" said Packer. "A lot of the ductwork also had to be spiral wound and fabricated on site."

Given the nature of the site, John Packer found it difficult to design the services with active sustainable elements. "Solar panels would have been good to use, given the amount of hot water used in the kitchens, but very difficult to do given the preservation criteria," he said.

Nevertheless, the 10-year old boilers were found to have plenty of life left in them, so they were retained and refurbished with new controls, and retained in their original position, but with a new flue. These boilers serve contemporary radiators and the vast Warmafloor underfloor heating system in the dome, which was originally heated by large, cast-iron radiators which ran 24 h/day ("Goodness knows what the energy consumption was," said Packer).

The dome

Derby University has turned the dome into the heart of the campus. On a day-to-day basis it serves as an area for dining, for meetings, and for internet surfing, but it is also a major venue for all sorts of events that the University will hold, from fashion shows to concerts to graduation ceremonies. No other University has anything quite like it.

The dome was subject to an extensive programme of restoration. As part of this the client took the opportunity to put in a walk-through services trench under the dome floor to take the piped services to the kitchens, retail outlets and teaching spaces on the two floors behind the colonnade.

English Heritage allowed the use of modern partitioning on the basis that it could easily be removed, but resisted dado trunking or chased-in wall sockets unless the original hospital sockets could be reused. "The dome is effectively a circle within a square," explained the University's Director of Facilities Management, Ian Willgoose. "The real challenge for the design team was how to make the unusual shapes and sizes of perimeter rooms work for 21st century education."

The non-symmetrical and often wedge-shaped rooms around the dome's perimeter have been restructured very successfully. Most fluorescent lighting is of suspended fittings which requires little alteration of the preserved original ceilings and goats hair plaster. Mechanical cooling in the form of dx air conditioning has only been used in the main computer suite of the Learning Centre, and some IT-rich teaching rooms. Most other rooms, retail outlets and dining areas are naturally ventilated.

Repairs were carried out on a like-for-like basis, enhanced by modern techniques, to maintain the maximum amount of historic fabric. While all primary structural elements were repaired, and missing elements restored where there was clear evidence for their original form, restoration based on conjecture was avoided. For example, a new staircase linking the ground and first floor of the colonnade is unashamedly contemporary, as trying to design in the original idiom would probably have been unsuccessful.

Most of the building work was concluded early in 2005, with the fit-out of classrooms and specialist facilities completed by the time the University opened its doors to its 2000+ students in September 2005. With new student accommodation down the road and the potential for expansion, the faculty has increased Buxton's population by around 10% - significant inward investment for a town that has hitherto relied much on seasonal tourist income.


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