The Builder was his masterpiece, but nine years before it was born, Joseph Aloysius Hansom designed a civic temple for the proud city of Birmingham. Unlike the magazine you’re holding, it hasn’t aged well. Thomas Lane reports on the town hall’s long-awaited refurbishment

“Hansom” looks on approvingly as the scaffolding comes down.
“Hansom” looks on approvingly as the scaffolding comes down.

Joseph Aloysius Hansom was a very enterprising man. Most notable, surely, for founding The Builder, later to become Building – and still contributing a diary column at the grand old age of 202 – he also found time to invent the Hansom cab and design more than 200 buildings. Perhaps the most notable of these – albeit the one that led Hansom to financial ruin – was the iconic Roman-inspired Birmingham Town Hall.

And just as its designer recovered from bankruptcy to establish everybody’s favourite construction weekly, so too has his town hall been reborn after years of neglect. Gone are 172 years’ worth of grime, together with crumbling plaster and rotting woodwork. After a painstaking restoration, a beautiful limestone exterior now dazzles in the summer sun as the scaffolding is slowly removed.

But the story of Birmingham Town Hall is not just a story of one architect’s vision – as with all great civic buildings, its history is bound up with the people of the city. After its completion in 1834, the town hall became the venue for all the important events in the city, from music to political rallies. “It was the place to go,”says Anthony Peers, of conservation architect Rodney Melville and Partners. “If you were going to do anything in Birmingham, you did it in the town hall.”

These events shaped the town’s history and the building itself – and not always for the better. Only two years after it opened, its balustrades collapsed under the surges of the city’s overjoyed electorate when Birmingham’s first MPs were elected; in 1927, a concrete double-tier balcony was crudely inserted to increase the building’s capacity and therefore its commercial viability; and in the 1970s, its floors were trashed by pogoing punks. In 1996, battered, scarred and deemed unsafe, it closed its doors to the public.

“They ran the organ once a month, to keep it in good condition, and that was it,” says Tony Shenton, project manager for contractor Wates.

Fittingly, the people of Birmingham have come to the building’s aid, stumping up more than half of the £34m needed to refurbish it. The project will give the town hall a new lease of life when it reopens next January, as well as sweeping away the unsympathetic changes and bodges that obscured Hansom’s design (“The Roman road to ruin”, below).

Most of the work was concentrated on replacing damaged carving and column sections
Most of the work was concentrated on replacing damaged carving and column sections

Cowboys ride into town

Changes to the building began almost as soon as Hansom was out of the door.

Fourteen years after it was completed, architect Charles Edge added a basement. “They pretty well undermined the footings but it was never a problem,” says Peers. This is borne out by Shenton, who recalls his first sight of the building. “It was dark, damp and in poor condition as the repairs over the years had been done by jobbing builders and were of poor quality. But fundamentally the structure was in good condition.”

Even so, the structure was “fragile”, according to Shenton. Investigations found wells under the walls and two furnaces installed in voids created in the walls – these have been removed and the voids filled in. During the refurbishment, scaffolding was needed both internally and externally to prevent overloading of the structure.

Because the floor had been weakened by those pogoing punks, it wasn’t possible to erect a full working platform at ceiling height (the floor has been strengthened, but rock concerts won’t take place in the refurbished venue). Instead, two sliding working platforms were used to reduce the loads. The external scaffolding is entirely freestanding and featured a rolling roof that enabled materials to be craned into the building.

Charles Edge’s basement has come good: improving the business case for the town hall. The floor has been soundproofed, enabling events to be held under the main auditorium. But this meant a new home had to be found for the plant that used to occupy the basement. Unusually, it has been located outside the building, in an underground council car park close by. “It takes up 12 spaces, which took a lot of negotiation,” says Shenton. The task of remotely locating the plant was made easier by the discovery of a series of old ducts that could be used to connect up the services. “These are huge – you can walk through them,” says Shenton. “They were put in but never used.”

Damaged plaster has been restored and the interior painted in pale colours to reflect the building’s original decoration. The organ just needed a good clean
Damaged plaster has been restored and the interior painted in pale colours to reflect the building’s original decoration. The organ just needed a good clean

If it hadn’t been for those pesky punks …

A more challenging job was the removal of the concrete two-tier balcony. The original timber single-tier balcony had been removed in the 1920s after many years of neglect. “The concrete balcony was intended to get more bums on seats,” explains Barry Adams, the project architect for Urban Design. “But it cut across the back windows, destroying the view and ruining the acoustics at the same time.”

It took Wates a gruelling four months to get the concrete balcony out. “The quantity wasn’t a problem – 300 tonnes is not a lot of concrete. It was the location,” explains Shenton. “The day we started we got it fundamentally wrong so we lost six weeks.”

The problem was those punks again – the weak floor had to be propped from underneath to support the demolition equipment, which meant Wates lost time in the design of the temporary works. Remote-controlled concrete munchers were used to pulverise the concrete, thus reducing the vibration on the fabric, and a new door had to be created to get the rubble out.

Shenton clawed back his six weeks by re-sequencing the work and bringing in extra equipment. Finally, a new concrete balcony was installed, leaving specialist contractor Stonewest with the job of reinstating the lime plaster and fibrous plasterwork displaced by the offending double-deck version. History has now come full circle – Hansom’s original vision for the balcony has been reinstated, albeit in concrete, and the acoustics improved.

The ceiling was also replaced in 1927 and has since been patched up. Because of the variety of events that will be held in the building, a device was needed to vary the acoustics of the auditorium. The answer was to install a series of huge Perspex panels, which can be raised or lowered to effectively vary the ceiling height of the auditorium and its acoustic response. Because the panels are clear, the audience can still appreciate the decorative ceiling. Lighting will also be attached to the framework supporting the panels. Steel trusses were installed into the roof to take the load, which was relatively easy to do as the roof has been replaced.

After the 1927 refurbishment, the 1950s saw an attempt to do something about external noise. Etched glazing was fitted over the original windows, which blocked the light but not much else. “When we arrived the traffic noise was horrendous,” says Shenton. The glazing has been ripped out and new secondary glazing fitted to block noise. To minimise the visual impact, huge panels of clear glass have been fitted – these are nearly 11 m long and weigh 300 kg.

There is one object that has escaped this historical chaos – the organ. The town hall’s organ was purported to be the largest in Europe in 1834, with a staggering 6000 pipes. Apart from being moved back a few metres to enable a larger stage to be built in 1836, it has sat through all the changes. It was sealed up in a giant bag to protect it, but it will be cleaned and have a new console added to make it easier to play.

Architect Adams reckons Hansom would recognise more than the organ if he could see the town hall now. “We have respected the original fabric but very much brought it into the 21st century,” he says. “We didn’t want a museum; it has always been a living building and that is what it will continue to be.”

The Roman road to ruin

Joseph Hansom’s vision for Birmingham Town Hall was inspired by the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome. “He cleverly knew this would appeal to the client because it represents the civic pride that the Roman empire was so well known for was something the city fathers of Birmingham were keen to show off,” says Anthony Peers of architect Rodney Melville and Partners.

Hansom got it spot on and won the architectural brief advertised in The Times, beating submissions from heavyweights Sir John Soane and John Nash. Hansom did get to build his temple, complete with rusticated podium, Corinthian columns and entablature to the north and south ends. But getting to this point was anything but straightforward.

The first hiccup was that the advert was wrong. The site was 10% smaller than described so Hansom was forced to ditch the columns to the north and the podium to the west to get the design to fit the site – these were eventually built 14 years later.

Then the street commissioners (the unelected equivalent of today’s council) got sticky because of Hansom’s youth and inexperience, insisting that he underwrite the scheme. “He was a headstrong 27 year old and very keen to get on with the project as this was the job that was going to make his reputation,” says Peers. “This was a very foolish thing to do because the project proved to take longer than anticipated and cost £7000 more than originally estimated. The contractor duly went bust and unfortunately the architect with him.” Wates, contractor on the refurbishment, hasn’t suffered the same fate (“How not to do it like Hansom”, page 33). It is currently on time and on budget.

Hansom’s entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t dented by this experience, however. He patented the Hansom cab in 1834 and founded The Builder nine years later. Unfortunately, this renaissance man wasn’t really one for business acumen: he was forced to sell The Builder because of lack of capital and the £10,000 he was promised for the patent of the Hansom cab never materialised.

Squeezing limestone

Restoring the exterior has been one of the biggest jobs on this project. “Large chunks of carving were missing,” explains Paul Woods, project manager for stonework specialist Stonewest. “This has been caused by a mixture of atmospheric pollution and the nature of the stone – it has little fissures in it which let the water in. Bad workmanship at the beginning also made the stone very thin.”

Woods has been in charge of 30 skilled masons, carvers and restorers who have been working for two years to complete more than £4m worth of repairs. “It’s one of the largest single projects we have ever carried out,” he says.

Once the building had been cleaned, it was surveyed to establish what needed to be done. Most of the work has focused on replacing damaged carving and column sections. Templates of damaged stone were taken and used to carve new stone, with small items carved on site and larger pieces done in Stonewest’s workshop.

The original limestone came from Anglesey and, luckily, one quarry was still operating on the island. The stone has to be worked using power tools because it is so hard – once the new carving has been stitched in next to the original stone, it is worked by hand to match the original. Elsewhere, lime mortar is used to repair smaller areas of damage and finally the whole facade is washed over with lime; this is rinsed off but some lime remains in cracks and crevices to help the stone last longer. Internally, Stonewest has also been responsible for restoring damaged lime plasterwork.

Apart from the limestone, Stonewest has its own direct historical link with the building. “Two masons died during the original construction of the building and are buried in the cathedral graveyard,” says Woods. “We held a memorial service for them. We all went to it and a lot of people from Wates came too.”

How not to do it like Hansom

An unusual procurement route was chosen for the £34m job. Naturally – and especially given Hansom’s experience on the original project – the client wanted the budget and programme to be fixed. However, the complex nature of refurbishment work means this security is hard to provide: refurbishments tend to hide expensive surprises and cost-cutting is not usually an easy option. “You can only do so much value engineering on a grade I-listed building,” says Wates’ Shenton.

Wates is doing the job on a design-and-build contract but the exterior works are being handled using a traditional contract, with the client responsible for their design, because of the specialist nature of the exterior works. Wates still bears the risk for the entire project, however, so how is it protecting itself from history repeating itself if the cost of the exterior works spirals?

“We vet everything they do,” explains Shenton. “If there is an issue, we talk about it until it is resolved.” Indeed, talking is key to the success of this project. The standard JCT98 contract has been modified to include a partnering element. “It’s getting people together and talking,” says Shenton. “That’s partnering – you get problems when you don’t talk.”

Preliminary investigations were crucial to mitigate the contractor’s risk. “All the risk was in the ground. We did a lot of investigations and found enough to limit our risk,” says Shenton. But inevitably, the unknown nature of refurbishment means some things have cost more than envisaged, meaning savings have had to be made elsewhere.

“English Heritage has been pretty good – if something was going to cost too much they were flexible about it within their guidelines,” says Shenton. For example, the heritage body allowed large areas of damaged lime plaster to be entirely replaced rather than being patched, which is not only cheaper but provides a better job. Elsewhere, minor changes such as repositioning lighting meant less plaster had to be chased out for the wires, again saving money. Indeed these measures seem to have paid off, as the £1m contingency fund is still intact.

Putty in their hands

“The windows were in extremely poor condition,” says Lol Summers, of the joinery firm bearing his name. This was caused by people hacking out the old putty when the glass was replaced and damaging the wooden glazing bars. In some areas, there wasn’t any wood left. The firm removed the putty chemically to assess the damage.

The plan was to take the windows out and repair them in the workshop. “It would have been difficult to get them out as they are 5 m high and would have caused a lot of damage,” says Summers. “I felt we had to come up with something that would conserve as much as possible.” The solution was a tool that cut grooves into the back of the glazing bars, enabling a replacement section of wood to be glued in to support the glass.The firm replaced whole glazing bars only where absolutely necessary.

The woodwork elsewhere in the building also needed urgent attention. Joinery specialist Edmonds refurbished the old doors, repaired the floor, made new furniture and repaired and replaced the balustrades.

This is not the first time the firm has worked at the town hall. David Edmonds, managing director, says: “My great-grandfather worked on the building in the 1930s. He made the fittings when the lighting was switched from gas to electricity.”

Specialist contractors

steel roof truss 4tec

decorator A&D Barton & Sons

interior fit-out A Edmonds & Co

floor specialist ALD Plastering Co

seating Audience Systems

wall tiling Birmingham Tile and Mosaic

joiner Cedar

asbestos Central Insulation & Environmental Services

demolition works Coleman & Company

concrete repair and waterproofing Data Contracts

ceilings DM Stewart

secondary glazing Drawn Metal

floor finishes Dorgrove

timber repair to roof structure ECC Timber Engineering

external works Fitzgeralds

plant hire Hewdens

roof and peristyle lead works and SS gutters JJ & RR Mundy

concrete balcony JJ Cafferkey

fire protection KGC

existing windows repair Lol Summers Joinery

scaffold design Newton Scaffold Design

sound and light specialist Northern Light Stage

drylining P&W Plastering

concrete balcony R Betts Construction

groundworkers R&C Williams

new windows Selectaglaze

M&E Shepherd Engineering Services

scaffolding Stanfords Scaffolding

stonemason Stonewest

wheelchair lift specialist The Wheelchair Lift Co

temporary electrics Wysepower

lifts, access platforms Thyssen Krupp

ironmongery Tuscan Hardware