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Saving the UK's first steel framed building

Aloft Liverpool LargeConferenceRoom 002

Liverpool city centre has no shortage of beautiful heritage buildings, but sadly over the years many have become empty and unloved and are following the same patterns of dereliction with plants growing randomly out of brickwork, broken windows and defaced walls.

Campaigns such as the Liverpool Echo’s “Stop the rot” are aiming to change this and one buildings which has thankfully been saved is the old Royal Insurance building, now the Aloft Hotel. This exuberant grade II* listed, Edwardian Baroque building, which originally opened its doors in 1890, is unique among the others though, as it is thought to be the first ever fully steel framed building in the UK.

Only a few years ago, the building’s future looked bleak. The cost of renovating such a place meant that it had fallen into disrepair for 20 years, and had earned itself a place on English Heritage’s “At Risk” Register. However, in 2013 Liverpool City Council bought the freehold for £1.95M and the developer, Ashall, used the Business Premise Renovation Allowance Scheme to secure investment to restore the building and convert it into a hotel. Architects, Falconer Chester Hall together with consultants Clancy Consulting and main contractors, Balfour Beatty were then brought in to carry out the £18M renovation work.

It was the high level of collaboration between the all of the parties and their willingness to cooperate to save the building which won the project the Building of the year £10M to £50M award at the BCIA last year.

Aloft Liverpool Exterior 013 2

Aloft Liverpool Exterior

This grade II* listed, Edwardian Baroque building stood empty for the last 20 years.

Restoration of such historically important buildings can be a contentious issue, with developers and conservation experts not necessarily having aligned goals. But on this project all parties recognised the value of the building and the extent of the work needed to save it and worked collaboratively to reach sensitive and pragmatic solutions.

“I have to give Liverpool [City Council] credit for the collaboration on the scheme,” says Balfour Beatty design manager Nicola Duerden. “Chris Griffiths, the conservation officer was quite heavily involved in working with us and the engineers. And he was quite pragmatic with his solutions because he knew that they had to be viable.”

The original structure of the building is quite special. The first and second floors are hung from a series of arched trusses between second and third floor levels which are supported by columns around the perimeter of the building. This allows the ground floor to be column free, making it an impressive opening space for what will now be the lobby, bar and reception area of the hotel. Internally the walls in the board rooms are clad with Brazilian Walnut panelling. The floors are “clay pot” with concrete infils and the external cladding is Portland stone.

Converting this 120-year-old steel framed structure into a 116 room boutique hotel was a challenge. Out of 116 new rooms, there were 80 different bedroom layout variations because of the complexity of the original structure. There were a few surviving drawings of the existing frame, but none were accurate enough to work from, so the team had to design all of the elements and connections by taking onsite measurements of the existing frame. And the walls of the rooms had to be carefully laid out to incorporate the trusses on the second floor and make the best use of the space.

They were quite pragmatic with their solutions because they knew that they had to be viable

Nicola Duerden, Balfour Beatty

There were many logistical challenges to overcome, not least when it came to working around the existing steel frame.

“In terms of working around the steel frame, at the rear of the building there was a dormer extension and we had to connect to the existing frame, which created some logistical issues,” says Duerden. “Bays at a time were removed so we could survey the existing steelwork, so we could design the connection details and then erect it in the next crane lift.”

When the team uncovered the steel frame, in all but in one area, it found it to be in miraculously good condition.

“The worst elements of it were at the ground floor level where, back in the 1960s, there had been some conversion work to put in a roof light at first floor level,” says Duerden. “Those works were insufficient and led to a lot of water ingress and the steel down there was delaminating.

“Everything else had been quite well protected within the envelope of the structure.”

The steelwork was cleaned and repainted to preserve it.

Aloft Liverpool LargeConferenceRoom 002

Aloft Liverpool large conference room

The board rooms are clad with Brazilian walnut panelling

To make sure the building complies with today’s fire regulations, the team brought on board a specialist fire consultant Trenton Fire to analyse the existing structure to see if it had enough capacity to withstand a fire without requiring further protection. Adding protective boarding to the structure would have meant moving the internal finishes, something the team was keen to avoid.

“With a structurally engineered fire solution, we found that we didn’t need to then overprotect the columns,” says Duerden. “This would have caused difficulties with the listed building consent because that would have meant amending the timber panels which were part of the protected building.”

An English Heritage grant assisted with the repair of the dormer and slate roof to current codes. On the external façade, stone masons agreed cleaning techniques with the conservation officer for an allegorical panel, metalwork and stonework. Stone masons also restored the internal faience tiled corridors.

As well as working around the existing frame of the building, the team had to minimise the impact of the work on the existing internal fabric of the building when incorporating the new lift shaft. The clash between new regulations and the listed building consents meant that visually the lift had to blend into the existing structure while cutting through as few structural members and internal finishes as possible.

“There were challenges to incorporating a new lift shaft,” explains Duerden. The firstly was in terms of cutting it through the existing structure; the second was that it would be visible on the rear side of the existing façade and the third was that on the ground floor, there was quite a lot of historical plaster work and cladded plastered beams, so we came to an agreement that the lift shaft would be put in one corner to minimise the impact of that.”

Construction on site took 70 weeks and the total cost to develop the building was £18M. It is now a building which lives again thanks to the hard work of the parties involved and it is one of the lucky few to have its name removed from the at risk register. 





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