Ahead of the Mills Development Conference – supported by Historic England and Homes England we hear from Rebecca Burrows and Dr Alex Holton of industry experts Purcell…

Great emphasis and optimism has, rightly, been placed on the ‘historic mill’ as a cultural asset that has potential to offer solutions to residential housing or commercial office requirements, and to breathe new life into deprived areas through placemaking, retrofit and re-use.

Typically, these assets were robustly built, have large, flexible floor plates and are architecturally inspiring. They also form a fundamental component of local identity and communal interest. High-profile examples such as the ‘pods’ at Lister Mills in Bradford and the revival of Saltaire evidence this narrative and reveal the possibilities. However, there are an array of issues that often have to be overcome before this can be successful. [emaillocker id=”71749″]

Commonly, such sites present themselves to developers in a state of dereliction and contamination, meaning there are always significant capital cost challenges to contemplate before a sustainable new use can be assured. This extends into weaknesses in financial viability, shallow understanding of the significance of the heritage and scale of planning risk, the isolation of well-intended schemes from a cohesive masterplanning vision and a lack of clarity of the public benefits of regeneration.

At Purcell, we have long enjoyed working with this building type and have a depth of experience of how to successfully overcome these issues in the best interests for our clients, end users and the buildings themselves. Our case studies below unpack our relationship with historic mills to demonstrate how these important sites with seemingly no future have been given a new lease of life.

Cromford Mill – from masterplanning to end use

One of our first mill projects was at Cromford, Derbyshire, a World Heritage Site. Our client was the Arkwright Society who had been restoring the complex since acquisition in 1979. The site’s condition and former existence as a dye works might have ruled against future use, but Purcell were able to support the Society to overcome the considerable obstacles of lead chromate decontamination through careful project management and design to save and retrofit the listed Georgian industrial structures.

Purcell’s masterplan scheme for Cromford focused on Building 17 to transform it into a northern anchor site and orientation centre for the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. The introduction of a creative media centre on the building’s upper floors was a viability response to the County Council and Development Agency market research. This consisted of small office suites with a central first-floor reception facility, shared meeting rooms and other supporting accommodation.

Both elements have been highly successful, both architecturally and economically. The complex now employs over 100 people in 45 companies, with a waiting list of businesses seeking use the new lettable offices. This underlines the fresh sustainability of the site, while a rise in visits from the public and school parties across the region reflects a surge in interest in its history and social identity.

Capacity building, partnership working with stakeholders, phasing development and establishing flexible, multi-functional end-uses were all vital to delivering this project through to successful completion. Aside from the rehabilitation of Building 17, our masterplan also addressed the wider site as a whole, including the challenges of decontamination. The award-winning project has been commended for its high-quality contemporary design combined with its socio-economic success.

“The adaptive reuse of this building, which incorporates respectful and reversible interventions, addressed problems of contamination with innovative research. The result is a building with a social function that offers the perfect gateway to the World Heritage site of the Derwent Valley Mills.” Europa Nostra 2017 Judging Panel 

Cromford copyright Purcell

(Cromford copyright Purcell)

Lister Mills, Bradford – an incremental approach to viable re-use

For some sites it is not always possible to secure a precise end-use or investor at the outset, often because the visibility of risk (planning and capital costs) remains too uncertain. In this case a more cautious and incremental approach can be taken, and our recent work at Lister Mills in Bradford is a perfect example of this.

Lister Mills is a former industrial factory site in Bradford, previously the largest silk factory in the world. It occupies a prominent position in the city that also influenced the development of the surrounding area and region. The site ceased to operate as a mill in 1999. A significant portion of the site perimeter walling and shed structures had already been abandoned and fell into significant disrepair and risk of collapse.

Given the scale of the challenge the developer, Urban Splash, established a phased route to the regeneration of the site. This began with a portion of the site being brought back to life as a distinctive place in itself with piazza and living apartments. Alongside this, the deteriorating listed structures have been repaired and rationalised under the steer of Purcell to secure the significance of the assets and reduce the uncertainty of fabric-related risks. This has improved the viability forecast by presenting a site to investors that is now more receptive to development. Listed-building risk has been reduced, while the land value and potential has increased. As the socio-economic picture for Bradford continues to improve it is expected the full redevelopment of the site can now be realised.

Lister Mills (copyright Purcell)

(Lister Mills copyright Purcell)

The North Light development at Brierfield Mill – supporting change through the planning system

Regeneration projects of historic mill sites such as Lister Mills can often take decades to achieve a successful outcome, with external financial uncertainty having a substantial impact on ability to convert a proposal into a completed scheme. This underlines the importance of the incremental, phased masterplanning approach, and one that acknowledges, understands and seeks to mitigate planning risk from an early stage.

Brierfield Mill is a major Grade II listed Victorian mill complex, in Pendle, Lancashire, containing approximately 380,000ft of floor space. The mill was first built for cotton weaving and spinning in the 1830s although the original buildings were swept away and the mill rebuilt from 1868. The site was substantially extended between 1868 and 1907 and today comprises a spinning mill in two blocks, three weaving sheds, three engine houses, warehouses, preparation blocks and offices. In 1957 the mill closed but following some modifications, including the removal of some machinery, it commenced manufacture of medical bandages. Production ceased on the site in 2007, when its vacancy and deteriorating condition led to English Heritage adding it to their Heritage at Risk register in 2009. In 2012, the site was acquired by Pendle Borough Council with the aim of regenerating the buildings for the local community.

Purcell supported PEARL (Pendle Enterprise And Regeneration Ltd, a joint venture by Barnfield Construction and Pendle Council) to a successful application for planning and listed building consent in 2014. Our advice and guidance, culminating in a heritage impact assessment setting out the conservation and public benefits of the scheme, informed the proposals as part of an iterative design approach. This collaborative process included engagement with the public and consultation with statutory bodies such as Historic England, to ensure a consensus was gained on both where heritage significance lay, and on the acceptability of the proposals.

The proposals for new £32m learning, living, working, leisure and cultural destination in the North West consisted of a seven acre site with new apartment buildings within the mill itself, an adult learning organisation in the office block, a community leisure centre in the warehouse and arts company in the historic garage. The first phase of apartments were placed on the market at the end of 2019, which will support the next phase of apartments, which have been constructed using local contractors. Funding from local partners, including £4.95m from the Lancashire Growth Deal fund has been put back into local development in Pendle.

By creatively and pragmatically responding to the specific challenges of each site and placing these solutions within a sustainable development narrative of national planning policy, we are able to shape the retrofit and reuse for these significant historic sites.

The Northlight Development at Brierfield Mill (copyright PEARL)

(The Northlight development at Brierfield Mill copyright PEARL)

Northern Lights: finding a future for the weaving sheds of Pennine Lancashire

Our work at places like Brierfield Mill have shaped our wider understanding of historic mills as a building type and opportunity. We produced a regional white-paper study into north-light weaving sheds, a certain type of mill that is highly vulnerable to loss compared to multi-storey mill structures yet is fundamental to the industrial character of the north.

Funding by Historic England in partnership with the Lancashire councils, we carried out the research into weaving shed sites, which are a unique reminder of the innovation, energy and vitality of the region’s distinguished industrial past. Case study examples showed that acceptable creative solutions can still be found to bring these buildings back into viable new uses whilst also retaining their character. Whilst the original use of these sheds has long since disappeared, a large number have proven convenient for other functions such as storage and trade workshop space.

Resourceful refurbishment schemes can also result in conversion in a variety of ways to meet the changing requirements of modern life and work. These uses have been found to be financially viable and the study found that conversion of a weaving shed can cost the same as or less than an equivalent new building. Significantly, retention and upcycling of these buildings avoids loss of considerable embodied energy, helping to contribute to Net-Zero carbon targets.

With flexible and supportive local planning policies this viability can be further enhanced, with shorter development periods and fewer development constraints and obstructions. The form of these sheds also makes incremental development possible, incorporating ‘meanwhile’ and permanent uses, to respond to available funding and market conditions.

JL2 shopping centre Nelson (copyright Northern Lights study)

(JL2 shopping centre Nelson copyright Northern Lights study)


Our project case studies have shown that the challenges and complexities of adapting and re-using industrial mill buildings can be overcome through partnership working and establishing a collective understanding of significance, risks and opportunities. Agile programming and phasing can turn liability sites into valuable assets that can be sustainable in every respect – from the economic through to the social and the environmental. Key is engaging with the right expertise at the start of the process and maintaining an ambitious and creative outlook to optimise the outcomes.

For more information on how we can help please contact info@purcelluk.com or visit our stand at the Mills Development Conference >