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BATH HERITAGE WATCHDOG

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Southgate News

The public photograph album and forum website Flickr has a section for photographs of Southgate that you might like to browse.

The Fire

At around 5pm on Tuesday 23 September, while bitumen was being heated for the roof of B Block (the one that will be occupied by Boots), a fire broke out.  The fire officer interviewed by the local TV reporter thought that the bitumen heater developed a fault which caused it to overheat and catch fire, and the fire then spread to the gas cylinders fuelling the heater, and two of them exploded, about a minute apart.

The explosions were heard over a mile away.  Flames shot 50 feet into the air, followed by a plume of black smoke.

The first explosionThe thickest smoke

The biggest flameThe area around was evacuated amid fears that other gas cylinders might explode, but the fire brigade managed to keep them cool enough to keep them safe and had the fire virtually out in an hour.

Those living and working in the area were evacuated, and an emergency shelter was set up in the Pavilion.  A small number of people had nowhere else to go and could not return to their homes until the next morning, so spent the night there.

Everybody was accounted for, and only one person, a crane driver, had been injured, but not seriously enough to need hospital treatment.

 The fire brigade continued to work on site for the rest of the night, ensuring that there were no hot-spots and keeping the remaining bitumen cool.  It is not known how much damage has been done to the building, but the fire officer interviewed on Tuesday evening thought the fire was limited to the roof area where it started.

Pour on waterCredit is due to the fire brigade who were onsite promptly and deployed their turntable ladder to gain enough height to pour water on the fire from above the building in front of it, thus bringing the blaze quickly under control. 

Credit is also due to the police who evacuated everyone in the danger area so efficiently, and maintained the exclusion zone with good natured refusals to the many photographers who would have liked to get just a little bit closer.

On the Wednesday, the workmen were back on site, and a spokesman said the damage had been "Minor" so it seems that the fire officer was right and the fire had been contained to the roof area of one building.

There will be an investigation into the cause, but the first impressions are that this was just an unfortunate accident that looked and sounded worse than it turned out to be.

LATEST

New[17/9/08]  The council has announced the completion of the stone panelling on Southgate's Block B (the one opposite the side door of Marks & Spencer).  That doesn't mean that the building is finished, but it now looks complete from the street.  You can see the progress towards that milestone on the Flickr website (see the box on the right).

[3/8/08]   Now that the "Busometer" has been constructed sufficiently to have the mounting for the centre of the roof in place, it is possible to see just how big it is.  From a train the "Busometer" is very clearly significantly taller than the remaining Southgate buildings and the new Southgate Centre currently under construction, some of which have their roof structures in place and are as tall as they are going to be.

But even more significant is the view from across the city.  Below is an actual photograph taken from Lansdown Road, and below that our "artist's impression" of what it might look like when the "Busometer" and Southgate is finished.

View from Lansdown

Artist's Impression

Multi are still producing their newsletters to inform the public.  You can read the Spring 2008 edition in the second window.  We notice that the newsletter refers to the station as listed Grade II, yet English Heritage show it as a Grade II* listing.

Previous Photos  [1/6/08]

New claddingWe are aware that the sample panel behind Argos faces the wrong way to be badly affected by the prevailing weather, and that most of the photos taken so far show the new cladding in dry weather (see first picture), so we went along with a camera last week and photographed the cladding that faces south west after it had been exposed to three days of almost continual rain.

stained claddingIt looks as though the decorative mouldings made of reconstituted stone are going to weather rather differently to the plain parts of the facade made of slices of natural Bath Stone.  It also looks as though some of the slices of stone are going to absorb water more than others.  Whether this will lead to frost damage in the longer term remains to be seen.

It is amusing to see in the Building Research Establishment report on Bath stone cladding, in the section assessing the risk of frost damage that "the site is sheltered from wind-driven rain by the valley sides to the south and west."  We agree that to the south, Beechen Cliff is such a valley side, but the nearest valley side we can find to the west is in South Wales, which seems a long way to be exerting an influence.

[19/4/08]  Some of you may have noticed the article in the April 10th issue of the Chronicle (no longer on-line), which had an illustration of the new transport interchange.  It was misleading.  The bus station and "Busometer" were shown undersized.  We asked our graphics artist if it is possible to produce a more realistic image.
Our artist prefers to start with a photograph and superimpose any new structures on it.  And that is how we discovered that the picture is a fake.  It is not possible to put a camera in any position where the railway station is in the photograph, and where the buildings in the distance are in the positions shown. So the picture is a figment of somebody's imagination, and they imagined the layout wrongly.

The Cladding

[16/3/08] We were concerned about the thickness and fixing methods for the stone cladding for Southgate, and arranged a meeting to discuss these concerns with the planning office.  It appears the Council were as much in the dark as ourselves regarding the manufacture and fixing process, so the Major Projects Officer agreed that the council should know, and undertook to find out and report back to us.

Thus it was that the Officer went on a fact finding mission to Techcrete in Scunthorpe. He went with an open mind to fully familiarise himself with the process involved in producing the cladding panels for Southgate. He also wanted to allay any concerns that he and ourselves had about the suitability of this process.  On his return, he met with us again to discuss his findings.

We were shown pictures of a building in London where this method was used using a mixture of Bath/Portland stone, although it was not on the scale of Southgate. Techrete also agreed to provide locations of where this method of fixing using Bath stone and Portland stone had been trialled before. The 12 year guarantee was industry standard and the minimum life was at least 60 years. This was largely dictated by government planning regulations. We were also told that the British Standard had been revised to take in to account the method of fixing involved in this process and that the thickness proposed now met the BS standard.

We were assured that the stone is locally produced Bath stone and were reminded that this was now a limited resource. The specification agreed between Multi and Techrete meant a high rejection rate if the stone failed to meet a number of quality criteria. It was confirmed that the stone had been sent to Italy to be cut. The Officer said he was at a loss to explain why this was done.

It was agreed that the manufacturers would produce a document showing this cutting and bonding process and that the Building Research Establishment would release their own findings regarding this. This document will be sent to us in due course.

We were then talked through the process aided by photographs taken at Techrete's factory, this is as follows.

•  A timber mould is produced, windows, doors and other details are also formed in this.
•  The stone is laid face down in the mould, the pieces are pre cut and shaped and are numbered to follow a template, the stone is pre -drilled ready for the fixing pins.
•  The holes are injected with resin and stainless steel pins are inserted at a 45 degree angle, spacers are inserted between the stone pieces to ensure evenness and the stone is adjusted to ensure there are no unequal gaps.
•  A polyethylene seal is laid over the stone and a rubber seal cut at a 45 degree angle is slid over the pins.
•  A reinforced steel mesh is formed over this and the concrete poured; this also includes the reinforced concrete locating lugs for fixing the panels.
•  When set the panels are lifted from the mould, a quality control check is then carried out by a stone mason, this includes replacing damaged blocks, and hand finishing details.
•  The joints are then pointed with lime mortar and hand finished and the whole panel is checked again for defects.

From this, we learnt there are over 1,100 panels for Southgate using over 400 moulds. The level of detailing is very high and the window cills, pediments and cornices appear to be of the correct proportions. The panels are fixed using the concrete locating lugs. These support the weight the stone and the panels themselves are not load bearing.

We were also shown a single damaged stone block being removed and replaced using a different steel fixing and this could be repeated without removing entire panels. Techrete are responsible for the panels until they are fixed in place. Once fixed the responsibility becomes Multi's.

We were shown samples of stone, both forms of stainless steel fixing, the rubber collars and the spacers.  If this level of detail is repeated through the scheme, then our suspicions of corner-cutting appear to be unfounded.

Watchdog complements Mr Webber on the depth of his research, and we feel all our questions have been satisfactorily answered.

Amendments

The new planning application for the extension of the underground car park has been approved by the Head of Planning on 28th September, on the recommendation of the Major Project's Officer, although neither of these gentlemen were sufficiently familiar with the planning regulations to know that any application in an area with a history of flooding must be referred to the Environment Agency for their comments before it can be decided.  The various conditions attached to the approval to ensure some measure of flood protection is an attempt to bolt the stable door after the horse has bolted, but is no substitute for the proper process.

Similarly the new planning application for changes to Blocks E and F were approved by the same two gentlemen on the same date, and again with the same lackadaisical attitude to the normal planning process.

Could it be that they were rushed through before any substantial objections could be made? If so, then there is a lesson to be learned: Get your comments in early in future!

Earlier News

A trench for an archaeological dig has been dug through the concrete floor of the Churchill House basement, and digging that trench has revealed a spring running just below the concrete, which was steadily filling the trench with water every time the drainage pump was switched off. In the middle of September, that spring was sealed off and a smaller pump set up to deal with any residual leakage. The archaeologists are waiting for the electrical cables that run near that trench to be isolated before they can start work. But meanwhile the trench is slowly refilling with green slime!

There is hearsay evidence that the Dorchester Street pavement will be moved forward in order to build the bus station.  There are some doubts whether such a realignment was shown in the drawings given planning permission, and this will be carefully checked when work starts and the actual pavement line being used becomes apparent.

Multi's Summer 2007 newsletter is now on-line.

Sample wall photoIn the space behind the Argos car park off the Upper Bristol Road, a model of the Southgate shops wall construction is on show. The picture on the right is a photograph of it. We believe that the 50mm skin of Bath stone is too thin to provide weather resistance and thus it will not have the longevity of full sized ashlar. We now have confirmation of that in a letter to the Chronicle (no longer on-line).

There is a new planning application for alterations to the design of part of Southgate (Blocks E and F) to make two large restaurants in place of several small kiosks, to make internal alterations to the layout of some units, and to replace the leisure facilities with a public library.

The committee has not had a chance to study this in detail, but at first sight there are a number of features which it wishes to oppose. Specifically the loss of small units in favour of two large restaurants means there is virtually no opportunity for small businesses, and the library on the second floor is even worse than the current situation where the library has been criticised for not being on a ground floor. The loss of connecting bridges could be a problem for disabled shoppers, but this aspect has not been examined in detail yet.

There is a new planning application for alterations to the design of the car park.

The committee has not had a chance to discuss this and reach a complete view yet, but at first sight this change appears innocuous, and the committee sees no need to comment either for or against it.  For those who are interested in archaeology, among the documents lodged for this planning application there is a document explaining what has been found so far in the archaeological survey.

Graphics Oddities

The composite picture below shows how some details have apparently been changed between the images released in 2005 and those in the "fly through" video in 2007.  Multi Development have been asked to clarify this and have said that the 2007 images have "graphical imaging" errors and that the design has not changed.  We will have to wait and see what is built, but apart from specific 2007 changes to the Debenhams building, only the 2005 images have planning permission.

Subtle architectural changes

CHURCHILL HOUSE

Now GoneUnfortunately, all the protests and lobbying were not enough to protect the Churchill House building from a developer who was not prepared to listen to any level of compromise. As you can see from this picture taken on 12 July, nothing remains of the building.

All the counter arguments made, that the accommodation could not be adapted, that buses couldn't gain access, that modern building regulations could not be met were proved to be false.  Scale models were made to show how First could have all the facilities they wanted without demolishing the quadrant.  We can only assume that either Multi and/or First really want the transport interchange to look totally out of place in classical Bath, or (more likely) the planning permission granted is not a sound as everybody is claiming, and the developers don't  want to open that can of worms.

There is no news yet on whether the validity of the planning permission will be tested in the courts.  If there is anything happening along those lines, I will add the news to this website as soon as I hear anything.

We can also take comfort from the fact that the fate of the building has attracted a lot of attention to what is happening in Bath. Churchill House has been photographed, filmed, painted, drawn and written about locally and nationally, and its sad loss will not be easily forgotten. Or repeated with another building.

The Bus Station

BusometerAs some of you may be aware, members of the group met with Multi to be told it would go ahead as planned with no modification. The voice of the people would not be heard. Pictures of the transport hub were published in the Bath Chronicle  which met with the expected response.

Members of the group are still talking to the relevant parties. Letters have been written to Don Foster MP on this subject (see also What you can do below). If he receives 20 separate letters on a specific subject, he must raise this in Parliament.

Concern has been voiced about the railway station end of the design, in particular the removal of Brunel’s ramp and the alterations to the old goods yard and vaults (also by Brunel). These are both listed. English Heritage and the Victorian Society should be made aware of these concerns.

Bus StationAccess for the disabled and those with luggage/pushchairs, etc will be a nightmare. In a spectacular "own goal" the council has managed to grant planning permission to demolish the existing ramp which could provide wheeled access to the platform, and then it refused planning permission for a replacement wheelchair ramp because it didn't want the structure of the station, a listed building, changed.  Unless something is done, anybody in a wheelchair will be trapped on the platform whenever the lift is out of order. This is being taken up by members of the group.

A report by Building Design, the architects’ website, entitled "Bath Interchange Reverts to Glass" is worth reading and you can post online comments.

The Shopping Centre

Southgate demolishedIt’s full steam ahead for this part of the development. The old and much hated shopping centre has gone, Ham Gardens car park has been reduced to rubble and the old bus station will join it shortly. IPL have put a webcam on the roof of their offices in Henry Street, so it is possible to see the current state of Southgate, and from other links on their site, a set of time-delay photographs showing the demolition.

Multi Development have produced a quarterly magazine called Focus on this development. It is available from the Council and online: Spring 2007 and Summer 2007 and Autumn 2007 and Spring 2008. The Winter newsletter appears to have been omitted, because these four issues are numbered 1 to 4.

Incidentally, we got off lightly with the Southgate design. The architects, Chapman Taylor, won Building Design magazine’s ‘Carbuncle Cup’ in 2006 for the worst crimes against architecture for the Drake Circus Shopping Centre in Plymouth.

What You Can Do

There are some things that you can do which could influence the decision.

  1. Write to Don Foster MP at 31 James Street West, Bath, BA1 2BT. If he receives more than 20 complaints about the design of the busometer, he is obliged to report that fact to Parliament.
  2. As the railway station is a Victorian building, it may be worth writing to the Victorian Society, 1 Priory Gardens, London, W4 1TT, asking them to agitate to save Brunel's station ramp from destruction.
  3. As the railway station is a Listed Building, it would be worth lobbying English Heritage, Heritage Protection Dept, 1 Waterhouse Square, 138-142 Holborn, London, EC1N 2ST, asking them to agitate to save Brunel's station ramp from destruction. Although in 2002 they supported its removal continuing public pressure might eventually cause them to doubt the wisdom of that.