The team behind a sensitive restoration in Bristol speak to ADF’s Tom Boddy about how they made the most of historic Victorian infrastructure to support workspace wellbeing and collaboration on a desirable riverside site
The historic Grade II Listed Generator Building that once supplied electricity to Bristol’s tram system has been restored into a unique and dynamic workspace as part of a wider regeneration scheme in the city.
Situated in the heart of Bristol’s Waterfront Quarter, the six-level, 30,611 ft2 scheme on the banks of the River Avon has been designed in a collaboration between London-based interior design and architecture studio MoreySmith, and Bristol architects The Bush Consultancy.
As well as providing modern flexible office space for Bristolians, a strong emphasis was placed on preserving as much of the building’s historic character as possible, while infusing the area’s nautical aspects. The interior arrangement and design are a carefully considered mix of original and contemporary features – and prioritise occupant wellbeing by focusing on natural light and views of the waterways below.
The project is part of the Finzels Reach Development, one of the largest and most significant mixed use regeneration schemes in the south west. The scheme has been in the works since the mid-2000s and has seen the emergence of waterside apartments, new and affordable homes, modern sustainable offices, a new hotel, and a leisure quarter, transforming what was once a derelict industrial area into a vibrant neighbourhood.
The Generator Building is one of the most recently completed projects on the Finzels Reach site. Located on the south east corner, it is the tallest structure in the scheme – overlooking Counterslip, the main public highway through the site, and Bristol’s famous Floating Harbour.
The Bush Consultancy were responsible for the external fabric, the extension, and the internal structural alterations, while MoreySmith undertook the fitout and internal design.
History & brief
Built in 1899, the building housed the equipment that powered the first electric tram system in the UK. Containing four steam engines coupled with four generators, it supplied electricity to the trams until 1941 when a bomb struck the nearby bridge and severed the power lines – signalling the end of trams in Bristol.
The building’s original Victorian design comprises a red brick cladding while its columns, arches, and doorways are picked out in Bath stone. The south facade has a “narrow form,” which “serves to emphasise the height of the structure,” asserts Tom Partridge, project architect for The Bush Consultancy. To the front elevation, a grand Venetian window sits over the main entrance with a row of four Ionic columns on the second level. At the top of the south facade is a triangular pediment with a tiny window, ornamented in the Baroque style with further large Venetian windows to the side elevations.
Following its fallow period, the Generator Building briefly re-opened as a brewery as well as being repurposed as offices during the 1980s. To serve these varied functions, the internal arrangement has seen significant alterations over the years. Initially a four-level building with two floors and a basement level, its evolution over the years included the insertion of two additional floors, plus infilling areas at upper levels to provide complete office floor plates. A further floor was later added between the original first and second floor.
While it has periodically been in use for short periods, the building has also seen long stretches of dormancy. “Very little development has been produced based on how the space could be used efficiently, ” explains Zoe Bailey, associate at MoreySmith.
Cubex, the developer who acquired the Finzels Reach site in 2013, has collaborated with The Bush Consultancy on several of the projects within the development. Including the design of Castle Bridge over Bristol’s famous floating harbour from Finzels Reach to Castle Park, the Premier Inn, and Aurora (a 100,000 ft2 BREEAM Outstanding office building).
Cubex approached Bush again for an extension and internal alteration of the Generator Building for a speculative development, and in 2018 obtained planning. But in 2019, developers Castleforge Partners bought the building with a view to adapting the consented scheme and creating a unique coworking space for their Clockwise brand.
Their brief was to incorporate shared desk facilities, with offices varying in size from three to 12-person, and communal facilities such as tea points, meeting rooms, and a club lounge with cafe bar servery.
With an abundance of relevant knowledge from working across the wider site, the Bush Consultancy was retained by Castleforge, and MoreySmith was taken on to tackle the building’s interior. The clients wanted to bring in “a designer with a vision,” says MoreySmith’s Zoe Bailey.
The firm’s Michael Kieck continues: “It’s exciting to be given a blank box, but it’s even more exciting when it has so many layers to it – it makes the design so much richer.” One of the designers’ key ambitions was to avoid the solution being restricted to “number crunching” desk space. Keen to make the most of the building’s historic character, their concept was to implement three guiding themes for the interior. These were ‘waterways,’ ‘electricity,’ and ‘industrial,’ as part of “celebrating what the building means to the area,” says Bailey. She adds that she became “obsessed with the building,” and was committed to “do whatever was best for it.”
With the building’s exterior making it a highly recognisable part of the Bristol Harbourside, it was imperative that as much of the building’s 120-year-old structure was retained as possible. However, due to years of neglect, parts of the original facade’s stonework had deteriorated, and needed updating.
With the restoration of this listed building being particularly sensitive, Bush collaborated closely with Historic England and the BCC Conservation Officer. Over time, due to the nature of the structure and the surrounding masonry fabric, the steel frame had corroded in some areas, and had cracked the masonry inside and out. In areas where cracking was more severe, whole brick sections were replaced with heritage bricks to match the original design with isolated replacement stonework. However, most of the cracking was able to be restored without wholesale replacement.
One “major intervention” into the facade that Partridge describes was the reinstatement of the original grand entrance, which had been blocked off with a matching stone plinth. The reopening of the main entrance has been a “significant improvement to the building, and its place within the street scene,” he adds. Before the works were carried out, the architect said it was “easy to pass by the building.” However now that the glazed entrance has been reinstated, “people walking along Counterslip can see into the thriving hub of the Clockwise Office operation.”
The historic 120-year-old windows have also been reinstated – from the ground to the fourth floor. Covered with several layers of (lead-based) paint, a careful strategy was required to refurbish them insitu. Partridge details the windows’ restoration work sequence: “removing the putty, deglazing the panes, sand-blast the frames (ensuring waste was captured and did not enter the adjacent harbour), make good any frames, prime the frames, paint the frames, reglaze with new panes, and finally, apply mastic sealant to the perimeter of window assemblies.”
Although elements of the original structure were replaced, the teams put the overall emphasis on retaining the original finish while making the building as safe as possible – rather than producing an ‘as-new’ look. Partridge explains the intent to keep the finish as “raw” as possible as “a conscious decision, so that the progression of The Generator Building through time could be retained.”
As a result, most of the core structure was left unaltered. However, the north gable wall was an exception, with new openings created into the new extension. This wall had been subject to “numerous alterations during its life but there was still some original structure – varying between 750 and 900 mm thick – that required new openings to be formed,” says Partridge.
An extension to the north end of the building has been purposely designed by Bush using different materials to the original structure. It further defers to the original building by being set back from both of the latter’s long facades, and its dark-coloured materials “keep it in the shadow of the Listed structure,” asserts Partridge. With the Generator Building being located within the flood zone of the adjacent floating harbour, Staffordshire blue bricks were required from the ground to the first floor with the remainder of the extension using a dark grey cladding.
As well as updating the building’s envelope, The Bush Consultancy were consented to alter the internal arrangement while MoreySmith worked on the interior design in line with Clockwise’s and Castleforge’s ambitions. Partridge explains that “a key consideration of the consents was that our additions can easily be removed without affecting the original structure.” For example, the sixth floor has been created from a stand-alone steel frame that sits on the fifth floor slab and fixed to the external walls, and studwork to new partitions have minimal fixings into the glazed brick. The fourth floor mezzanine extension was to an existing 1980s intervention, namely the added floor which it largely replaces.
The ground floor boasts meeting rooms, event space and a bar, with an adjacent cafe lounge area which Michael Kieck of MoreySmith describes as the building’s “social heart space.” The atrium adjacent to the main entrance required Bush to remove part of the first floor. This alteration was to a structure provided as part of the 1980s development, and so didn’t affect the original layout.
Starting on the first floor, dedicated work sections with breakout tea zones with kitchenettes and soft seating encourage cross collaboration and interaction, which continues on the upper levels. “It’s like a small market space for businesses. As there is so much transparency, you are aware of who’s in the spaces, and you can ‘tag team’ projects or clients,” says Kieck.
While there is access to a lift at the rear, the raw metal staircases are located in areas that mean occupants generally have to circulate on foot through the spaces. The second floor, which is “quite contained,” features a wrap-around office space with “a track for circulation” with further tea points and breakout zones.
The third and fourth floor is a double-height space which now has a central, floating mezzanine. This area occupies a more flexible desking system where people can book a desk for as short a period as a day. The double height windows fill the space with natural light, and offer views of the water and boats below.
One of the main architectural interventions by MoreySmith was the insertion of another mezzanine level – on the fifth floor. What was a “big open hangar space feeling more like an aviary for pigeons,” says Bailey, now houses pod structures placed between the existing roof trusses to maximise volume and create a second level within the space. To maximise natural light, the Bush Consultancy installed a rooflight along the entire length of the ridge, and the large porthole windows offer further views of the city.
In the shared spaces, alongside the teapoints and breakout zones, individual phone booths allow users to shut themselves away for a private call without disturbing other users – an “important feature” to the client, says Bailey.
The space offers “so many different work settings’’ which allows people to choose “how and when they work,” says Kieck. The different variety of spaces such as the private offices, teapoints, and cafe space “cater to different styles of companies.” Also, some of the deep windows create nooks, which provide users to “grab a cushion and sit and work in there for a couple of hours,” says Kieck.
While the overarching objective was to create a space that catered for modern working, being sympathetic to the building’s rich history was key. MoreySmith’s strategy was to sensitively incorporate new elements to the interior without compromising the original architecture. “We wanted to create a contemporary version of what the building might have been if it had been designed now,” asserts MorleySmith associate director Etienne Sharp.
Inside, the original glazed brick walls have been retained with spots popping up sporadically on the perimeter of the building. While the broken (and unsafe) bricks were replaced, some of the worn down and crumbled bricks were left untouched.
Although MoreySmith wanted to keep sections of the interior ‘raw,’ some areas needed “freshening up” and so required some modern insertions. “We tried to make sure there was a balance between contemporary and original elements,” asserts Bailey.
The architects grouped floors with each one having its own specific palette: the first and second floors are blue, the third and fourth floors green, and fifth and sixth floors a mustard yellow. The ground floor boasts an industrial feel, featuring corrugated metal and mosaic flooring to reference the original Victorian architecture of the space. The furniture throughout the levels is an “eclectic mix” of vintage and contemporary, and was about “blending the neutrals with occasional pops of colour.”
The electricity, waterways, and industrial themes are emphasised by the building’s lighting. For example, as part of the waterways theme, rope lights designed by New York-based Lindsey Adelman feature in the ground floor ‘clubs space,’ subtly referencing the nearby canals. Encircling the bar on the ground floor, a bespoke ring light has been installed to mimic “the flow of electricity,” referencing the building’s original function, while in the atrium, ‘Noctambule’ pendants have been installed. To “add warmth” to the upper levels, the architects incorporated timber into finishes.
Where they could, MoreySmith used repurposed industrial fittings extracted from derelict or demolished buildings. The avoidance of using new materials wasn’t just about “creating a circular economy,” says Kieck, it was also to give “a bit more of a context” for building users.
With the project now complete, the new coworking space has reportedly received an “amazing response,” says Bailey. The historic, but neglected building has been brought back to life as a characterful and thoughtfully restored space for local businesses to engage with each other in a wellness-focused workspace. The resulting spaces are lively, creating a desirable location for businesses. Kieck enthuses:“It is a striking building that has such an amazing opportunity to flourish again.”
Evidencing the success of this complex, sensitive project, the building has picked up a clutch of awards including Frame magazine’s Coworking Space of the Year 2022, as well as being shortlisted for Dezeen’s Large Workplace Award 2022 and the 2023 BCO Awards for Refurbished/Recycled Workplace.