Oct 23, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

Newcastle Uni’s Boiler House transformed

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The King’s Road Boiler House, acknowledged as being “the finest in the kingdom” when completed in 1923, is strategically located at the heart of Newcastle University’s historic campus, adjacent to the students’ union, Armstrong Building and the student forum.


Originally built to house the university boilers with enough space to expand as the university developed and the estate grew, the university’s decision to demolish the adjacent Museum of Antiquities to create the student forum in 2012 – an open public square at the centre of campus for students and staff – led to a greater focus on the surrounding buildings and landscaping.

This resulted in the redevelopment and reimagining of the Boiler House and its surrounding landscaping into a high-quality events space for congregations, receptions, musical performance, exhibitions and award ceremonies.

This £2m project has involved the restoration of the building’s exterior and a full internal refurbishment of the eastern half of the building, using high-quality design and materials.

The brief

Multi-award-winning architecture practice, Howarth Litchfield (HL), was appointed as the architect in 2016 to work with the university’s Estate Support Service (ESS) to develop the project. Its brief was to convert the redundant half of the Boiler House building into a large multipurpose events space, which, when combined with the recently-completed ground-floor refurbishment works within the adjacent Armstrong Building and its internal courtyard, would form a processional route through the university for ceremonial events.

Howarth Litchfield's appointment involved providing architectural, building surveying as well as conservation services in coordination with the university’s Estate Support Service to develop the proposals further through to developed design and technical design, as well as the preparation and submission of all planning and Building Regulation applications. The Howarth Litchfield team was also involved in the preparation of the tender documents and remained involved throughout the entire duration of the construction works on site, dealing with contractors’ queries on a day-to-day basis until completion.

Project challenges

Prior to commencement of the contract works, the diversion of an existing high-voltage underground cable had to be accommodated into the building contract which meant that works in the construction programme had to be resequenced to avoid delaying key milestone events in the overall project programme because it was essential the overall completion date remained unchanged.

The relocation of the Emerson Cavitation Tunnel was also challenging. Located in the building since the 1950s and owned by the School of Marine Science and Technology, the tunnel had great historical significance as a unique propeller experimental testing facility which necessitated its removal. This was relocated to its new home in Blyth by Newcastle University prior to the appointment of HL.

The other half of the Boiler House remained in use throughout containing fully working modern boilers and calorifiers, while the resulting space in the north-east side of the building became vacant, along with the first-floor offices.

This was a somewhat challenging project due to its location. As a live construction site at the heart of the campus and in full use by students throughout the redevelopment programme, the highest standard of health and safety protocols was required on and around the site, together with the ability to coordinate multiple stakeholders and engage efficiently to design and achieve client and end-user sign-off at each stage.

Best conservation practice on site

From the early concept stages, accessibility into and within the building were strongly considered with the aim to have full level access at all three entrances since each entrance would be likely to have varying degrees of prominence depending on the event being held.

The university strives to go beyond making its estate not just ‘accessible’ but totally inclusive, therefore, the option that some entrances may not be accessible was never an option.

During the summer of 2017, conversion works got underway. The existing offices at first-floor (originally roof) level were removed and the original castellation was reinstated. These works returned the building to its original proportions and scale.

Existing timber-framed, single-glazed roof lanterns were replaced with new powder-coated aluminium-framed double-glazed roof lanterns. The existing roof was recovered with tapered insulation to meet current thermal requirements and a modern single-ply membrane laid over it. The existing windows were retained, overhauled and decorated.

A new full-height structural opening was formed in the gable wall to accommodate a fully-glazed curtain walling facade with a sliding folding door at ground-floor level to open up the space for events.

Solid ash acoustic timber wall panelling was installed to enhance the acoustic properties of the space. A large drop-down projection screen was installed for events, together with a new floating ceiling.

A mezzanine floor level was constructed, complete with a new staircase, to accommodate male and female WCs along with a new plant room dedicated to serving the events space.

New mechanical and electrical systems were installed with temperature sensors that link to the university building management system (BMS) to provide set-point adjustment.

From the building layout and inception through to the detailing and reuse, Newcastle University's King’s Road Boiler House is a perfect example of using the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) guidance to the full.


The client was committed to the retention and reuse of an existing structure. Demolition was a possible option but this option would have destroyed a building of character and style. However, Newcastle University's Estate Support Service had the vision and foresight to see a further reinvention of the building form.

Its conversion, along with the external works and the adjacent Armstrong Building refurbishment, have given new life to the centre of the campus. Through this scheme, the university has redeveloped the central campus with a series of bold strategic urban interventions to benefit its wider plan.

The whole design concept from Newcastle University's King’s Road Boiler House was to reuse and enhance an old building form and create something new within the existing shell, which is the perfect definition of sustainable design and architecture.

The client, Clare Rogers, former Director of Estates of Newcastle University, commented: “It’s been wonderful to reinvent this old building, creating a modern event space in keeping with its surroundings at the heart of our beautiful city centre campus.

“It shows that the university is investing in student experience and its activities by creating state-of-the-art buildings and preserving its heritage.”

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