This Bryant & May match factory, now converted into sleek 21st-century offices by Urban Splash and Shed KM, is a sign of Liverpool's growing self-confidence and commercial clout. A round-up of the city's regeneration starts with the story of its conversion.
A Former Match Factory Close to Liverpool's speke airport has been refurbished in that modern industrial minimalism that is the vogue style for historic building conversions. The redevelopment of the derelict factory into office space has been carried out by developer Urban Splash and architect Shed KM with the panache for which both are famous, yet the astonishing thing about the project is the original Bryant & May match factory itself. It was built in 1919 in precisely the same style as Shed KM's conversion, with the big difference that this was the original Machine Age functionalism, which has now come back into vogue 80 years later – just in time to meet itself.

The original building is perhaps the nearest thing in Britain to Walter Gropius' seminal 1911 Fagus Factory in Germany and is a classic of early modern functionalism. It is an oblong two-storey edifice with a flat roof, exposed concrete frame and floor-to-ceiling steel-framed glazing. Its concrete water tank was formed into a landmark drum-shaped tower on four legs bestriding the main entrance.

Internally, the building is pure light and space. The open-plan interiors are sandwiched between flat soffited concrete floor slabs, while two colonnades of cylindrical concrete columns with mushroom capitals march from one end of the block to the other.

This amazing industrial building was "discovered" as recently as 1996 by English Heritage, which had it listed grade II. Paradoxically, its architect, Mewes & Davis, is best known for the neo-baroque Ritz hotel in London's Piccadilly and the design is largely attributed to a relatively unknown engineer, Sven Bylander, who had worked in the USA.

Faced with such a pure work of architecture in a derelict but relatively unaltered state, Shed KM took the only sensible approach to its refurbishment. It has restored the fabric and left the simple open-plan building form much as it was. The modern accoutrements of toilets, kitchenettes and services plant have been provided in a series of six semi-detached pods at the rear.

The pods are as pure in form and as industrial in character as the old building, though quite distinct from it. Their cylindrical form in corrugated stainless steel counterpoints the flat, glazed facade of the old building while echoing the water tower.

Daylight is admitted to them through horizontal slits and the narrow links to the main block, which are clad in flat panels of obscure glass.

The only changes to the front facade of the building have been to add a minimalist rooftop sign of scarlet neon lettering and the series of slim free-standing steel portals that form the entrances to the individual office units. From further away, a row of scarlet rooftop funnels that channel daylight into the top floor can also be seen. Shed KM also designed banks of external louvres to shade the south-facing window wall at the rear, and these may be added at a later date if necessary.

Internally, the main alteration has been to insert a mezzanine in the double-height ground floor. A lightweight steel floor deck was simply supported on steel pins inserted through the original concrete columns. Slots have been cut into the floor to make way for new staircases and for the small circular rooflights.

The two lower floors have been split vertically by partitions into six office units of 230 m2 each. The top floor has been left as two vast open-plan spaces on either side of the central stairwell, and Urban Splash is negotiating to lease it as a call centre.

And that's just about it. The balustrading to the lightwells is minimalist flat panels in clear glass or steel plate. The lighting is suitably industrial, and is simply suspended from the concrete soffits with exposed trunking. Heating is taken care of with fully concealed underfloor coils beneath fitted carpets.

Less obvious is the radical restoration of the building fabric. All the windows frames have been replaced in updated Crittall W20 steel frames. And, particularly on the rear, which is buffeted by southerly winds sweeping off the Mersey, defective concrete has been extensively repaired by stripping it down to the steel reinforcements, grit-blasting the rust and replacing the concrete.

At Speke, Urban Splash and Shed KM have proven themselves as the true successors of the pioneering Bryant & May match company and Bylander. They have sensitively restored a stunningly pure industrial building of the early 20th century. And, without compromising their contemporary design approach, they have converted it in precisely the same spirit to an office building of the 21st century.


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