Case Study

Breathing new life into Medway

Number One Smithery

Kent / 2010


Ever since the closure of the naval dockyard in 1987, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust (CHDT) has fought to find a productive use for all its buildings. Our reinvention of Number One Smithery saved the building from demolition and has given Medway a major national museum and a world class visitor attraction, drawing in visitors who might otherwise never visit the area.

The building is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and grade-II* listed, and was the last in the dockyard to feature on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register. In adapting it for a completely new use we have made its historical development and form still clearly legible so that visitors can appreciate the building’s past, and provided optimal conditions for the National Museum Collections it holds. The key to this was to create a ‘box within a box’, with independent steel-framed enclosures inserted within the existing spaces which minimised fabric loss.





The success of the project is largely to do with the juxtaposition of the new elements with the original building. Visitors can get up close to the model of a naval ship, and then wander outside to see where its anchor chain would have been made. The huge increase in visitor numbers, we believe, has much to do with the way in which we have made history tangible.


From 1613-1984 Chatham Dockyard played a central role in the support of the Royal Navy, building more than 400 ships, including HMS Victory, and repairing and maintaining thousands more. The 32-hectare site is the world’s most complete dockyard to survive from the age of sail and contains one of the highest concentrations of individually listed buildings in the country.

Number One Smithery was originally built in 1806 for the fabrication of metalwork for sailing ships, and it had been extended numerous times, each time reflecting a technological shift. When we were asked to convert the structure it had been unused and unmaintained for 30 years, and was in a state of dilapidation. Previous proposals to rescue the building had failed, largely due to financial viability, so a plan was hatched between the CHDT and the National Maritime Museum to use the building to store and exhibit the museum’s collection of ship models. With a viable use that had real resonance with the Dockyard came the possibility of raising the funds required for its restoration.




How we worked

We lead the design team and worked closely with the Trustees of CHDT, the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Science Museum, as well as English Heritage, to make proposals to be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

The initial bid was based on the collections-on-display concept of open storage, with lightweight interpretation. The HLF felt this delivered insufficient public benefit and also made the historic fabric difficult to appreciate. We were asked to develop a revised scheme which included closed storage, an exhibition gallery showing the ship models and a touring exhibition gallery for Medway. This successfully obtained lead funding from the HLF and nineteen other funders followed.

The project was delivered using three works contracts to maximise funding opportunities and reduce risk. We had a very close relationship with core members of the design team and employed Purcell to give specialist conservation input as well as working closely with both Max Fordham and Price and Myers engineers. We were involved in the administration of all the contracts and were responsible for change control; the unspent contingency paid for the landscaping of the square outside.

At every stage design decisions benefitted from the constructive working relationship with English Heritage.



Making it happen

The final scheme focuses predominantly on exhibition space. This includes ‘black-box’ space for potential hire, and a thematic display space and permanent collection gallery relating to the dockyard and model collection. It also includes a covered courtyard with an education and activity area.

From the start we identified three clear obligations. Most importantly, we had to protect the scheduled ancient monument. We also had to look after highly sensitive collections in a potentially hostile environment; asbestos, severe water damage and extensive structural defects, so the building’s partial collapse was a real possibility. Finally, for the project to be a success, we had to keep in mind the visitors’ experience.




We worked with Max Fordham engineers to develop an innovative passive approach for controlling the temperature and humidity of the tightly packed model stores, using the spaces of the historic building as an environmental buffer. We created store enclosures with insulation, high thermal mass, humidity buffering materials and very high air tightness to achieve an archive quality environment. The only energy input required is minimal conservation heating.




‘In selecting the project team CHDT was very conscious that the project itself was highly complex not only in terms of construction and delivery but with multiple client and funder outcomes required and an absolutely fixed budget.  We recognised our role in managing the client team and funders while working closely with the integrated project team to solve many problems.  The team was brilliant in recognising our imperatives and allowing us completely transparent access and influence - the relationship proved remarkably balanced and successful.’

Bill Ferris, CEO and Project Director for No.1 Smithery, Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust (CHDT)


‘ This project is a first rate example of what we term “Constructive Conservation”. A project of this scale and complexity inevitably posed many challenges but each was resolved largely as a result of the partnership that this project generated. Use of the building for display and curation of national museum collections and as a venue for touring exhibitions was a stroke of genius. It has breathed new life into the building in a way that not only saves this very important structure but which also contributes to the appearance of the dockyard as a conservation area, adds to the cultural regeneration of the Medway region and helps secure the sustainability of the entire dockyard by attracting new and different audiences to it. This is conservation of the highest order.’

Peter Kendall – English Heritage, Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Team Leader – Kent and East Sussex


As a centrepiece of the regeneration of Chatham Historic Dockyard, there can be no finer testimony to what Heritage led regeneration can offer and the way in which it is now creates a broader dimension for the role of the dockyard in the regeneration of Medway.’

Paul Hudson, Chairman Heritage Lottery Fund South East Committee. Formerly chairman of SEEDA




Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust









Our Role

Architect And Lead Consultant


RIBA Awards, No.1 Smithery, Chatham
RIBA South Conservation Award, No.1 Smithery
Regeneration and Renewal Awards, No.1 Smithery, Chatham
RICS Awards, No.1 Smithery, Chatham
BCI Awards, No.1 Smithery, Chatham
3R Awards, No.1 Smithery

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