15th October 2021

Raise a glass to Retrofit – the solution for the recovery of our towns and cities


As published recently in New Civil Engineer, Co-founding Director Julian Broster takes a look at why retrofit projects such as Escape to Freight Island at Mayfield that we are working on, could be key to the hospitality industry’s covid recovery.

With pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues beginning to reopen their doors, and theatres and live music venues soon to follow, engineering and design considerations will probably be the last thing on the minds of most customers eager to spend some quality time outside of home with their friends and family.

Yet as we do come together to share our winter lockdown stories, laugh (hopefully), escape for a few hours and no doubt speculate how the rest of the year could unfold, it is highly likely that our chosen meeting points will hold one or two secrets in terms of how society might adapt to meet some of today’s greatest challenges.

Let’s take ‘Escape to Freight Island’ at the Mayfield Depot in Manchester city centre as an example. Over the summer months people will return to this huge space next to Piccadilly Station to enjoy a choice of food and drink from various vendors and bars, as well as music, immersive art, festival takeovers and family-focused events.

Less than five years ago permanent entertainment on this scale simply didn’t exist in the city and The Depot, a former goods warehouse and train station, had been dormant and in a sorry state of repair for decades.

The Depot in its wider context of the Mayfield Manchester regeneration programme has been gradually retrofitted to facilitate Manchester’s physical and cultural growth.  It provides answers for both how we can develop tourism, hospitality and leisure – some of the industries hit hardest by the global pandemic – and what will be required to accelerate towards a Net Zero carbon economy.  Its latest lease of life is a reminder that we can do this by making much better use of the resources that we already have available.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there was much debate about the future of our towns and cities, and especially our high streets, as consumer habits change and online sales increase exponentially, as well as how such challenges are intrinsically linked to the global climate crisis.  While not to understate the sheer magnitude of these issues, an engineering perspective (which by default is about problem-solving) can offer some level of reassurance.

To get serious about reaching Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, many of our existing buildings and assets will be the key. 80% of the buildings we will have in 2050 have already been built in the UK.  A better future is not necessarily about thinking entirely brand new. We need to consider what can we renew?

At Escape to Freight Island, recycled shipping containers with minimal structural interventions have been added to form a number of food vendor units and facilities for its Platform 15 and Ticket Hall locations.

With their robust structure and design for maintaining good head height, shipping containers have proven to be a helpful resource for various purposes, whether serving as makeshift offices for business start-ups or tackling homelessness by providing shelter and security for vulnerable individuals.

And why not?  They are globally abundant and often by making use of their integral strength with minimal framing of the structures – as is the case at Mayfield – this limits intervention and avoids using unnecessary steel for new projects. Should the venue space no longer be needed or change use, the shipping containers can be easily dismantled and repurposed to another site to fulfil another life.

Mayfield Depot also reuses much of the existing drainage networks and foundations, with considered spatial planning for future repurposing. This may not be something you want to think about when you’re eating or drinking on site but every small detail really does matter.

As Mayfield Park is created around the former depot, our hope is that it will remain part of the area for a long time to come.  Escape to Freight Island is a relatively low-tech and light touch medium-term (5-10 year) solution to make the best use of the fantastic Depot space whilst the park site develops into its longer term form.

By making the Depot accessible to the public, Freight Island reintroduces a city landmark to the people (for years it has been closed to the public) helping them engage with their surroundings and linking the historical and industrial usages of the building with the modern day.

While reviving underused spaces as cultural attractions cannot alone solve complex issues like the climate crisis, it is an integral part of the retrofit revolution and a discipline that points towards a better and much more resourceful way of doing things.

It might be a cliché but as we’re once again enabled to spend time putting the world to rights over drinks, meals and celebrations in the company of others, we should focus on the positives of the various built environments that we will find ourselves in this summer.

So raise a glass to retrofit. Our future way of life will need radical solutions and innovations to ensure less reliance on carbon use, but if we pledge to make better use of the buildings and assets that we already have, it doesn’t have to be as different as you might think.

Raise a glass to Retrofit – the solution for the recovery of our towns and cities