No.1 Smithery, Chatham

Saving a building 'at risk'

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.

‘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)

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We like a challenge. However the state of No.1 Smithery when we first saw it, unused for twenty-five years, derelict and on the Buildings At Risk register, with gaping cracks and propped facades, dense internal shrubberies and lace-like roof coverings, didn’t remove our excitement at the potential of the building if saved.

A Scheduled Ancient Monument by virtue of its record of industrial metalwork development (in the remains within earth floors and its actual roofs, each different as technology improved), Grade II* listed and at the heart of one of south-east England’s most significant  industrial complexes the stakes could hardly have been higher.

We won the commission by putting together a team, including Martin Stancliffe Architects, Price and Myers and Max Fordham, who understood the need to focus on the essential aspects of the brief and work with the nature of its historic fabric. From the outset we also understood the need for complete teamwork with the Trust in its discussions with the numerous stakeholders: the National Museums, the statutory authorities and consultees, and multiple funders, to develop and deliver a highly complex project.

Our ‘box-in-box’ concept underpinned every building strategy and is clearly expressed within the building. This fundamental idea – presented at interview – was to physically separate the new facilities from the historic fabric, thus accommodating the stringent collection requirements, including those of the Government Indemnity Scheme, whilst reducing losses of historic fabric to the absolute minimum.

  • Project Details

    • Location: Kent
      Client: Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust
      Area: 4442 m2
  • Project Awards

    • Highly Commended - Regeneration and Renewal Awards
    • Winner - RIBA Award
    • Winner - RIBA South Conservation Award
    • Shortlisted - RICS Awards
    • Shortlisted - BD Architect of the Year Awards, Refurbishment Architect of the Year
    • Shortlisted - Philippe Rotthier European Prize for Architecture
    • Shortlisted - 3R Awards
    • Shortlisted - BCI Awards

The brief was ‘fitted’ to the spaces available, and by using much of the volume of the Smithery as an unconditioned buffer zone, environmental loads were hugely reduced. This approach provided a particularly rich visitor experience, allowing the visitor to experience the historic character, patina and artefacts of the Smithery, whilst securely accommodating the permanent collection of ship models and the changing exhibitions in the touring gallery, and minimising impacts on historic fabric. The building stores the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museums collections of ship models, which are extremely valuable and vulnerable to changes in environment. We worked with Max Fordham to develop almost passive stores to satisfy the Museums’ brief, rather than using close-controlled air conditioning plant as they had envisaged.

Helped by the buffer of the historic spaces, the stores deliver almost archive quality conditions with insulated and heavyweight structures, with minimal conservation heating for humidity control. These are cost effective to build and run, and inherently safe – there is almost no plant to fail, and if it does, the change to the conditions is so slow that remedial action can easily be taken.

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

As lead architects we worked particularly closely with the conservation architects who we subcontracted to specify and manage the extensive specialist repairs to the historic fabric, and with the interpretative designers, Land Design Studio, to manage the interface between interpretative and building works, closely coordinating AV, IT and lighting with the architectural elements. The end result is a seamless visitor experience.

The project received funding from thirteen separate funders, private and public, led by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was delivered with three building contracts with further contracts for interpretative works and fit-out

The works were effectively managed by the project team, allowing unspent contingency from the building contracts to be redeployed to landscape the open space at the front of the Smithery during the latter phase of the project.

 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.


Project Timeline

  • 2003

    Site internal view

  • Feasibility study of site
  • Concept design
  • Fundraising

    Heritage Lottery Fundraising submission

  • Engagement

    Design discussion sessions with local stakeholders

  • Planning

    CGI of internal reception area

  • Materials

    Using traditional materials to retain historic patina

  • Construction

    Installing the 'box within a box' frame

  • Official opening of Smithery

  • 2010