Chairs lined up at a bar in a high-ceilinged room with iron pillars and a red brick wall.
Bar inside hotel at Stanley Dock, Liverpool
Bar inside hotel at Stanley Dock, Liverpool

Reusing Industrial Sites

Finding an alternative use for functionally redundant industrial sites presents one of the best opportunities of securing their long-term future.

What is a suitable solution depends on many factors - the nature of the site, its location (including infrastructure, the wider built environment, population and other socio-economic factors), and an assessment of the costs and risks associated with the development.

Historic England research has identified the following successful solutions:

Space for small business (especially creative businesses)

The Custard Factory in Birmingham houses over 100 businesses, the majority creative enterprises. They were attracted by its city centre location, co-location of similar businesses and attractive rents.

People are attracted because it is a creative environment and would like to be part of a community that has a sense of identity.
Bennie Grey, Developer and Operator The Custard Factory

The Paintworks in Bristol was developed by Verve Properties. The area was designated by the Council as a protected employment site and a solution was developed which used the existing Victorian buildings to provide office and workshop space.

The shape of the building provided the character, although the purchase of the building was for a bare shell, which we fitted out internally. As it was very open there was lots of scope to tailor the interior to our liking in a contemporary way
Business Occupier

Hotel space

Nadler Hotel is located in a former engineering works in the Ropewalks area of Liverpool. It was chosen because of its location, in the middle of an area earmarked for regeneration. It opened in June 2010 as Base2stay. Nadler Hotel is currently the number two rated hotel on Trip Advisor in Liverpool (16 October 2015).

Historic buildings converted get a very good response from purchasers but there is a cost that goes with this.
Developer, Taylor Wimpey

Residential use

The Wills Building in Newcastle was a former tobacco factory converted to residential use. Derelict at the time of purchase, its location 10 minutes from Newcastle city centre meant there was scope to turn it into residential use.

As a centre piece in a larger new-build development

Farnborough IQ is a business park in Hampshire, built on ex Ministry of Defence land and developed by SEGRO. The historic buildings on the site contain a number of occupiers including the site restaurant and small knowledge based industries, with a Grade I listed airship hanger acting as a landmark gateway to the site. However, three historic wind tunnels remain empty.

Building Preservation Trusts

Building Preservation Trusts have successfully taken on a number of industrial heritage buildings including Richmond Station (restaurant, cinema and manufacturing units) and Dewar's Granary Berwick (Youth Hostel and Gallery). 

They often tackle buildings where there is no commercial solution and are able to apply for grants which are not necessarily open to commercial partners. However the lessons from the case studies show that to be a success, there must be a viable end commercial user. 

Re-using historic industrial buildings is not without problems. They are often in areas where economic conditions are not favourable and their physical form which sometimes includes important fixtures, fittings and internal spaces can make them difficult to adapt to new uses.

The following key lessons can be taken from the case studies:

  • Many of the schemes were led by determined individuals with vision
  • Mixed use developments are relatively successful
  • Industrial buildings are suitable for small businesses especially creative industries
  • The adoption of a minimalist approach often respects the original structure and helps to retain its industrial character
  • Phasing and taking a long view can be important. Some developments take many years to complete
  • A change in the wider area may be necessary before a site becomes commercially viable
  • A clustering of activities can build up a critical mass which may involve development over a long period of time
  • The presence of public sector funding can help to kick start a solution

Additional information on the research project can be found in the report below. This summary report forms part of a wider research project that considers how developers can be encouraged to invest in historic buildings. It includes a detailed assessment of 14 industrial case studies based on interviews with developers and occupiers.

A report on the Conservation and Re-use of North Light Weaving Sheds in Pennine Lancashire by Design and Heritage Pennine Lancashire, Historic England and others also contains information of relevance in other areas where similar structures are found.

Finding temporary uses for a building

Where it is difficult to find a permanent solution for an industrial building due to current market conditions it may be necessary to consider temporary uses and/or mothballing. 

Our publication: 'Vacant Historic Buildings: An owners' guide to temporary uses, maintenance and mothballing' provides advice on looking after buildings which are under-used and/or without a current use.