Delapre Abbey – preserving 900 years of history

Woodhead’s specialist conservation team, Woodhead Heritage, were appointed to carry out the restoration of Delapre Abbey in Northampton. The 24 month project saw Woodhead Heritage undertake restoration works on the Grade II* listed Delapre Abbey and also associated out buildings.

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Overview

The area around the house is significant, in that it is the site of the battle of Northampton in 1460, and is a Scheduled Battlefield. Furthermore, one of the three extant Eleanor Crosses stands at the edge of the site.  The building was used as the County Records Office until 1992, since then the building has stood empty. The project is the culmination of plans which have been 20 years in the making to give the Abbey an economically sustainable future. It offers office, conferencing and events facilities, including a significant wedding offer with exhibition, interpretation and learning spaces to celebrate its history.

The works were both significant in scale and varied in scope, requiring significant conservation expertise and a strong conservation focused supply chain willing to work together to deliver a complex project.  The works included the repair of the external envelope of the building.

Masonry was repointed, and some stone replaced, using carefully sourced local ironstone. All sash windows were stripped, repaired, returned to full working order and redecorated. Extensive repairs were also required to the heads of windows to the south range, where the corrosion of wrought iron lintels installed in the 19th century was causing the walls to bulge.

Further repairs were also required to the east gable of the south range, where the failure of the core of the solid wall had caused a significant bulge in both internal and external walls. This required the installation of Cintec anchors, and the re-build of the internal skin. Inappropriate 19th Century Cement render has been removed from the brick built south range, and replaced with a lime render, which allows the structure to breathe effectively and has addressed the damp present.

Integrating state of the art M&E services (under contractors CDP) into historic fabric was a key challenge and included underpinning the main load-bearing spine walls of the main building, significant excavation of c200 tonnes of rubble, by hand under archaeological supervision within a cellar to provide space for Building Management Infrastructure and a Cat 6a data system. Four passenger lifts are also installed, providing access to the building for the disabled and able bodied. Ultra-high quality preservation of historic interiors and decorative finishes were delivered, this was a significant £600,000 package.

A new build Conservatory re-connected the main building to the Billiard Room and acts as an open plan function space. The new build glazed link corridor overlooks onto Delapre Park and provides access to the new restaurant which will feature glazed flooring to reveal historic pipework.

There was a clear imperative for this to be an honest intervention, clearly readable as a new part of the building that it sat comfortably within the GII* listed building. Finally, the project has engaged hundreds of people in the repair and conservation process. Working with multiple stakeholders and volunteers all with differing needs including Delapre Abbey Preservation Trust (DAPT), Friends of Delapre Abbey (FoDA) the team delivered an ambitious engagement programme, which included:

  • A documentary film of the project was made by local schoolchildren, facilitated by the site team.
  • 26 talks on the project delivered to local groups such as the local Blisworth Art Group (pictured).
  • 4 Public Heritage Skills open days
  • Over 600 people were taken on hard-hat tours

The Conservation works included;

  • Groundworks
  • Removal and reinstatement of brickwork
  • Underpinning of abbey basement – excavating 200 tonnes of soil by hand
  • Structural Reinforcing
  • Rebuilding Wall
  • Asbestos Removal
  • Demolition works
  • Diesel Storage Tank Removal
  • Joinery
  • Stone Masonary including, Stone replacements, Window Heads, Window Jambs, Raking out and re-pointing.
  • Mechanical and Electrical works
  • Decoration of Sash Windows

In addition to the conservation works, a new conservatory was built, linking the Abbey to the Billiard Room. A kitchen was also built to provide catering services for functions taking place at the Abbey.

When complete the buildings will be multi-functional, providing the following services:

  • A hub for tourism and culture in Northamptonshire Tourism
  • Commercial office sub-lets
  • Venue for functions e.g. weddings and events

The project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and other contributers will culminate in the building being open to the public in summer 2016 for the first time in the site’s 900-year history.

Challenges & Solutions

A Nationally Significant Historic Site: Delapre Abbey is a Grade II* listed building, defined as being of more than special interest, and placing it within the top 8% of listed buildings nationally. Moreover, it also stands on the site of the Battle of Northampton, one of only 46 Registered Battlefields nationally. In keeping with conservation requirements, a Conservation Management Plan was developed, with a proper assessment of the significance of various elements of the building. This allowed the team to plan and undertake works in a way that minimised the impact on the building. For example, services were routed in such a way that that irreplaceable historic fabric wasn’t damaged, lifts were sited in less historically sensitive locations, while building plant was located in a newly excavated basement.

Specialist evaluation, archaeology & research:  was undertaken of the decorative scheme within the South Range & Billiard Room. This informed the restoration of these spaces to their 19th Century form, with absolute confidence in their authenticity. Due to the sensitivity of the site, extensive archaeological evaluation was undertaken with the team working closely with archaeologists once underway. Works were carefully planned so materials were selected on the basis of their suitability. New build elements used conventional construction methods, while works to historic fabric used methods suitable such as lime mortar, lath and plaster, which is historically authentic.

Underpinning of the basement: Underpinning to the basement has been a large structural risk to the project and has required careful management and monitoring to ensure the structural stability of the south east part of the Abbey remains sound. This also enables the basement to accommodate a new plant room within it.

Preservation of trees: This project involved working in a live public park on a significant historical landscape. At the southern end of the Delapre estate lies Delapre Woods (adjacent to the project site). The site access and egress on a single track road is lined with significant greenery, therefore weight restrictions have been imposed on vehicles to protect the landscape from damage, in particular tree roots which have grown beneath the access track.

Live site, ensuring project works do not clash with the live events taking place at Delapre Park: With the public park holding a number of live events, it is important that any deliveries do not clash with the set-up of the events taking place, such as the beer festival, and ‘Alive at Delapre’. Regular contact between Woodhead and Northampton Borough Council enables Woodhead to schedule works at a time that does not conflict with the events.

Added Value

Woodhead want to make building a better experience for all, and every project Woodhead are involved in brings unique opportunities to do so. This project has been no different, and to date Woodhead have delivered;

  • Open Evenings – Woodhead carried out periodically throughout the duration of the project to update interested parties and stakeholders with how the works are progressing. This also allows the aforementioned a chance to meet the team and designers and ask any questions so that they feel part of the project.
  • Open Weekends – This takes place over a full weekend and is carried out periodically throughout the duration of the project to allow the local community to see the works for themselves.
  • Local Primary School Involvement – A number of local primary schools have visited the site to carry out filming of the Abbey, including interviews with site management and contractors.
  • Local College Involvement – Woodhead have offered a number of local colleges the opportunity to gain work experience with trades and site management to allow students to get some hands on experience within the construction industry, more specifically the trades in which they are studying.
  • Interpretation of the hoarding – Woodhead have painted specific areas of the hoarding in white to allow local artists to showcase their artwork relating to the project.
  • Local Councillor Visits – The project forms an important part of the Councils ‘Northampton Alive’ programme of regeneration, and it is important that the council are able to see first hand how the project is progressing. Woodhead have collaborated with the council to ensure that councillors are able to gain access to the site as and when required, and as a result councillors can keep the local community regularly updated.

Local Spend

  • KPI’s & Local Spend – The project has specific key performance indicators, these focus on local labour engagement. To date approximately 70% of all labour is within a 25 mile radius of Delapre Abbey.

Feedback

It’s been great working with Robert Woodhead they have made it really easy to be working on a construction site. They are able to facilitate whatever we need to do. We want to make sure the public are involved, we want to hold open days, paint the murals, have children come into the Abbey to do filming, and Robert Woodhead every step of the way have been willing and able to facilitate that, and they can’t do enough to help us.

-Vikki Pearson- Delapre Abbey Preservation Trust (DAPT)

Collaborative lessons learned review improvement workshop with the HLF

With a focus on supporting process improvements from within the team to help deliver better HLF projects we held a project team review workshop.  A pre-workshop survey indicated focus areas such as handover and operation, project close out and reporting and controlling for collaborative “break out” sessions to identify solutions.