Viewpoint: Re-use of model factory as new neighbourhood

First published on PlacemakingResource (June 2018) and reproduced with kind permission. 

The food company Kraft’s takeover of chocolate manufacturer Cadbury led to the closure in 2011 of Somerdale Factory in Keynsham, a market town between Bristol and Bath. The loss of such a big employer to the town was significant, and also raised questions over the future of the factory’s extensive social and sports facilities. It was conceived in 1923 as a model garden city, although only a couple of residential streets were ever built.

The 89 hectare site has the makings of a new model neighbourhood. It is close to Keynsham’s railway station and its high street, and has easy access to – and views of – the River Avon. The mixed use scheme being developed by retirement village provider St Monica Trust and housebuilder Taylor Wimpey retains three of the 1920 factory buildings, which have been converted into office space, a care home and retirement apartments. These opened earlier this year. Around 700 new homes are being built alongside a new school, other social facilities, shops and restaurants.

Reinventing the factory

It is a significant achievement that each of these elements is brought together to reinvent the factory as a place to live, work and play.

The ground floor supports a high specification office lobby, café/bar, gym and health centre, while the Brookmead Arcade within the St Monica’s assisted living accommodation offers a plethora of additional activities that helps activate the buildings. The detail of the architectural restoration and use of materials has been executed to a high standard.

The three blocks were once interlinked as a figure of eight. However, the removal of some elements has led to problems with wind funnelling and confused permeability, and diminished the sense of enclosure to streets and spaces.

Square or street

After walking down the tree-lined avenue from the station to the former factory you arrive at a long street. This links the three blocks, primary school, social club, sports pavilion and play areas. The variety of uses creates lot of activity and a sense of community. However, their dispersal on a length of street does not create the strong sense of place that an enclosed square, or a cluster of uses, could provide.

The active uses in the factory blocks are at times hidden, such as the health centre to the rear. Ultimately, the more public uses could be better related to adjacent spaces, such as the play space to the school and the formal square as an arrival space for the social club.

An understanding of the industrial architectural language, which has been so well developed in the factory’s reinvention, is lacking in the new housing. The selective Arts and Crafts influences within some of the housing contradict the clean simplicity of the former factory buildings. A more contextual use of materials and greater massing could have added the richness and urban feel that the development’s name, Chocolate Quarter, suggests.

Artistic curation

Overall, the development offers a successful reinvention of the factory, which through a combination of inherited and new facilities will provide a well-rounded neighbourhood and significant new amenities to the town as a whole.

However, while the factory conversion works well, the relationship between the uses, architectural treatment and the function of different spaces could be better thought through; and the design of the new housing could be better related to the factory aesthetic (see photo below, by Neil Harvie).

There is a science to assembling all the ingredients of a successful place, which this scheme has achieved, but an eye for detail beyond the masterplan level is also required. The artistic curation – between the architecture of the factory, the new housing and the surrounding neighbourhood – could be much stronger to ensure the place, not just the building, is robust, adaptable and ultimately successful.

Neil Harvie is Senior Urban Designer at Nash Partnership.