VIDEO | Sneak peek inside £330m Manchester Town Hall restoration
Main contractor Lendlease is more than halfway through the large-scale project, which is geared towards repairing and upgrading the iconic grade one-listed building.
Place North West went on an exclusive tour of Manchester Town Hall on a snowy March day to see the restoration work in progress. You can see our footage inside the historic structure in the video at the top of this article, as well as on our YouTube channel.
A ‘once-in-a-lifetime project’
With more than 670 rooms to update to modern standards, the restoration of Manchester Town Hall is no simple task. The more than £330m project, known as Our Town Hall, started on site in 2020 and its completion is eagerly anticipated.
The pressure is on for all those involved because of the love those in the city have for the historic structure.
“This grade one-listed gem is a real icon of the city,” said Paul Candelent, project director for Our Town Hall at Manchester City Council. He added that the building is viewed as “one of the finest Victorian buildings in the land”.
Because of the affection held for the building, he voiced how important it is to do the job right.
“This once-in-a-lifetime project will safeguard Manchester Town Hall for generations to come while opening up the building and its artefacts to the public and elevating it to modern accessibility and safety standards,” Candelent said.
“It is also leaving a legacy of skills and inspiration through the apprenticeships and jobs created and work with schools and universities to showcase the range of role available in the construction industry,” he continued.
“When we say the building is being lovingly repaired, restored, and upgraded we really mean it. Everyone involved in this project feels privileged and proud to be a part of it.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Andrew Mackay, the Our Town Hall project director at Lendlease.
“From a personal perspective, I was born and brought up in Manchester so I’m really proud to be working on this project,” Mackay said.
He added later: “Does it put more pressure on? Yeah, it does – but in a nice way because you want to deliver your best for every client for every project.
“But I think when it is in your hometown and it’s such an iconic building – you are inspired to go above and beyond.”
Logistics have been among the main challenges for Mackay. There are only so many access points for the building and getting the roughly 390 people who work daily on the site in and out, as well as all the needed materials, has been tough.
“The logistics of something of such scale has been one of the biggest challenges,” Mackay conceded.
Those 390 daily workers include more than just Lendlease, they can be designers, supply chain members, the city council, and a series of subcontractors.
To help things move smoothly, Mackay has focused on setting a clear line of communication.
“When time is money, it’s very important that we have the structure in place where you have the right level of communication so that we know what the key issues are and that they can be addressed quickly,” he said.
Adding to complications is just the fact that this project is happening now, at this precise point in time. Since the Lendlease started on site, there has been Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Ukraine war. Supply chains have struggled, and the cost of materials has skyrocketed. Priorities have shifted on the local level as well – with a greater emphasis on sustainability.
Curveballs and other projectiles
The project itself is fond of throwing curveballs at those working on it.
“We are learning new things every day we open the building up,” Mackay said.
The roof, for example, could not properly be gauged until it was opened up. It was only then that the project team could see the actual state of the timber and how it had fared over the past 150 years – and see how that matched with what had been projected.
“There’s a reactive nature to the project,” Mackay explained. “We are poised, ready to try and open up those areas of potential discovery as early as we can so that as a team we can understand what is best to do.”
Despite being more than halfway through, that discovery process is ongoing – which meant Mackay opted not to commit to a specific project completion date.
Not all of the surprises have been bad ones. There have been plenty of quirky discoveries too – including finding sprays of air gun pellets in the paintwork of the Great Hall’s ceiling.
There are a few theories of how these got there, including a worker trying to tackle a pigeon infestation. Another theory is that the pellets are the result of zealous efforts to take down errant celebration balloons.
Then, there was the time the team found bones on the site. When that happened, the area became almost like a crime scene, Mackay recalled – that’s because when bones are found you have to assume that they could be human.
“The guys on site who found it, I think they genuinely thought they had made quite a macabre discovery,” Mackay said.
The bones ended up not being human in the end – but sheep bones, most likely discarded from a reveller at an event in the past.
The past is a constant companion to those working on the town hall. Every room tells a story and you can track how work patterns, habits, and requirements have shifted over time.
The workers are also able to see how much pride was taken in the original work done constructing the town hall.
Mackay cites the chimneys as a perfect example. There are 34 chimneys that are largely unseen from those at ground level, and even from certain parts of these buildings. But the care that went into these invisible structures is immense.
As the project team renovated the chimney, they set about finding out more about the stones that made it up.
“The feedback we had from one of our stone masons was that a piece of stone we were seeking to remove – the quality of craftsmanship on that one piece of stone was as good and as considered as anything you would find in the main entrance,” Mackay said.
“The attention to detail on this project from when it was originally built – it doesn’t matter where on the project the aspect of build was, everything was treated as if it was pride of place and was given the optimum level of attention in both terms of design and quality of build,” he continued.
His team has been trying to replicate that, giving each part of the building as much care and attention as it received when originally built.
Where are we up to now?
It will still be at least another year before the work on the town hall completes. Thanks to the work of the project team, the building is now watertight. The Great Hall has had its leaded windows restored and stone cleaned. Other rooms have been replastered.
Infrastructure to connect the building to the Civic Heat Network has been put in place and five new lifts have been installed to improve accessibility.
You can keep track of the latest project updates on the city council’s Our Town Hall website.