A grand Victorian General is rehabilitated for luxury Bristol living

In September 2014 developer City & Country opened ‘The General’ and unveiled the first part of the restoration of the Grade II Listed Bristol General Hospital.

An exclusive and partially gated community, The General provides the perfect residential retreat being only minutes from the bustling centre of Bristol and yet set within a peaceful location.

The General is located on the south side of the River Avon and in the heart of Redcliffe, an area with a growing reputation and ambitious regeneration plans.

When complete the new community will offer a range of unique conversion properties as well as contemporary new built homes. There will be a total of 205 one to four-bedroom apartments and houses, and residential properties will link with a collection of individual waterfront commercial units. Together they will create a new, vibrant destination on the Bristol harbourside.

The vision
At the heart of City & Country’s vision for The General is the provision of an asset that breathes new life into the community with new shops and cafes, as well as a range of homes. However, the development will go further than this. City & Country also wanted to restore the building’s historic detail, and reinstate the features that originally characterised the hospital as an iconic Bristol landmark.

Over the years, the functional needs of the working hospital were not always conducive to the building’s architecture with the addition of unsightly extensions and unsympathetic ‘renovations’ which architecturally scarred the buildings and their setting. To address these challenges, City & Country employed a team of specialist craftsmen, who used traditional skills and materials to nurse this architectural treasure back to life.

The General is already playing a vital role in revitalising the Redcliffe area and supporting the local community by providing an active link between the surrounding communities of Redcliffe, Bedminster, Spike Island and the Harbourside. It is also uniting the south side of the city and providing an alternative to the established residential sites in the north.

An interesting history
Bristol General Hospital began life in 1832, located in modest dwellings in Guinea Street, between the Redcliffe and Bedminster Parishes. The new facilities were the initiative of a group of local Quakers, who were appalled by the lack of health provision offered for the growing industrial poor and the fact that in those days, only local residents were allowed access to medical treatment.

Bristol General Hospital first opened on the site in 1858, making a grand statement with its Italianate stonework and French Renaissance rooftops. The new hospital cost £28,000, with much of the funding coming from local workers, who gave a penny a week towards building and running costs.

The original building began as two four-storey blocks joined by a central tower. One block faced Bathurst Basin, while the other faced the New Cut. In 1873, the northern block was extended, then in 1886 a new nurses’ home was wrapped around the corner to Guinea Street. This was subsequently extended again in 1907. These four phases largely represent the work of W.B Gingell, a local architect known for his elegant warehouses and churches, and George Herbert Oatley, Bristol’s most renowned architect.

During World War II the hospital suffered severe bomb damage, which irreversibly damaged the mansard roof over the octagonal tower in the southwest corner of the building. As a result the roof and top floor, including that of the octagonal tower, was removed entirely and replaced with a flat roof. The 1916-1919 metal balconies were also removed due to bomb damage.

After an additional accommodation block was added to the east of the site in 1925, the final expansion took place in 1931 with construction of the William Lloyd Unit on Commercial Road. The remainder of the 20th Century development of the site has been characterised by ad hoc additions, infills and extensions, which lacked any sense of vision or formal masterplan.

Bristol General Hospital finally closed its doors in 2012 after the planned South Bristol Community Hospital opened and the services were transferred. In June 2012, City & Country acquired the site.

Bringing a much loved but badly damaged community asset back to life was never going to be easy. It was a highly demanding brief, which required an expert team of construction professionals with an in-depth knowledge of the building and an appreciation of its unique character.

From the outset, a detailed demolition and removal programme was devised to strip away modern additions, which included shipping containers affixed to the first floor of the 19th century building. After careful planning and preparation, work began in September 2013. This included removal of asbestos, the external lift shafts and the unsightly water tank, which had been added in place of the original Ogee Dome.

Other external additions to be removed included redundant steelwork staircases, railings and associated components. Removing later unattractive additions was the first challenge, the second being to repair and restore where they had been attached to the listed building with little or no care. Substantial sections had to be rebuilt and repaired and the team paid attention to ensure that repairs blended seamlessly with the original building. A new drainage and communal heating system has also been installed to serve the new development.

The Ogee Dome, destroyed during the war, also presented a huge architectural challenge with plans for it to be replaced with a zinc-clad replica this year. City & Country believe the reinstatement of the Ogee Dome and other features are fundamental in restoring this iconic building. The mansard roofs are also now in part reinstated.

Further challenges lay in structural instabilities in the basement areas. This included the chapel and scorched roof trusses, which remained unrepaired after the WWII roof fire. The traditional Lodge House, situated at the entrance to the development, also required significant stabilisation.

Stoneworks to repair existing stone vaulting was required to allow the subdivision of the commercial units planned for the ground floor. The dark basement is now taking on a currently in-vogue industrial feel, and has been designed for a range of commercial uses.

Internally, the existing ward floors in the oldest part of the building were constructed from an early form of beam and pot flooring. This used concrete beams to support the terracotta tubes and then the pouring a screed on top to set the tubes in place and provide the surface of the floor. This was the first time City & Country had dealt with this type of floor structure, which required considerable strengthening with sensitive steel beams to bring it up to allowable deflection standards.

City & Country’s team of professional’s also paid particular attention to the building’s historic details by studying original photographs and historical documents and trialing various methods to carry out works. This included researching the most effective way to clean the exterior’s Pennant and Bath Stone, steam bathing the original window frames, and restoring fireplaces as well as stone vaulted ceilings, masonry, joinery, stonework and mouldings.

The central courtyard of the hospital has always provided the main vehicular access to the building. Unfortunately as modern vehicles developed in size and shape, the original fountain, which acted as a ‘roundabout’ for traffic, had to be relocated within the site. Rather than creating a new focal point for the beautiful fountain it was relocated behind the King Edward VII Wing and left to deteriorate.

The stone fountain has now been cleaned, restored and carefully transported back to its rightful place in the central courtyard.

To help local businesses benefit from the restoration and conversion of the iconic buildings, City & Country recruited a locally based management team to ensure that the project is delivered to the company’s high standards. City & Country also made sure that the work was undertaken by a wide range of specialist contractors from across the South West to bring the landmark building back to life. This included demolition experts, scaffolders, slate roofers, window remedial specialists, structural groundwork engineers, grit blasters and external decorators.

Externally, the building combines Bath and Pennant Stone dressings, arched sash windows and stained glass roundels. The stone has been carefully cleaned using a gentle restorative technique which soaks the elevations with a fine mist spray of water, before brushing with a bristle brush to lift away the deposits and clean the stone work. The local community has been amazed by the intricacy in the stonework and contrasts in colour that had been hidden behind hundreds of years of soot and dirt, but is now revealed.

Originally the hospital had iron balconies, which were removed to make way for some unsightly 1960s extensions. As part of the restoration these are being replaced in a modern interpretation. As a result, many of the converted apartments feature their own terrace or balcony, which is a luxury that listed conversion properties do not often offer.

The new mansard roofs are to be slate-covered with metal clad dormer windows and details derived from original photographs of the building. The roofs facing the inner courtyard are being replaced with modern structures, clad in standing seam zinc to match the materials used elsewhere in the buildings.

The General boasts beautiful timber framed windows which over the years have not been maintained and needed significant intervention to restore them. Each of the hardwood windows which do not require entire replacement has been carefully removed, de-glazed and then placed into a steam box to remove layers of lead paint, putty and filler. This process takes up to two hours per window. Once removed the windows are treated, primed and their sash counterweights reset before reglazing in preparation for re-decoration. Patience has been a requirement, but it has paid dividends, with a real transformation having resulted.

A new community
When complete The General will offer a number of idiosyncratic properties, including a converted chapel, triplex apartments, with glazed upper floors, and a penthouse apartment located in an octagonal tower. Views will include the harbourside and across the Somerset countryside.

A hallmark of all City & Country developments is the unique nature of the homes on offer and The General is no different. Original panelling and joinery, intricate plasterwork and cornices, ironmongery and brassware will all be retained, creating a distinctly different offering to standard new build fare.

With its city centre location and distinguished character, The General offers a selection of chic urban homes, juxtaposing modern interiors with classic exterior building work. Its stylish interiors complement the Italianate facade, Pennant and Bath Stone dressings as well as the arched sash windows stand out among the building’s architectural highlights. This bold combination provides residents with a unique blend of old and new, while forging a new identity for the historic site.

Contemporary interiors have been achieved through a neutral colour palette consistent throughout the homes, with contemporary matt finish handle-less linear kitchens from Ballerina.

Bathrooms are modern and understated. They feature sanitaryware from Laufen, Brassware from Crosswater and showers from Simpsons or Kermi. Bathrooms are finished with porcelain tiles as well as heated towel radiators.

Oak engineered brushed flooring was researched to provide a product that was bespoke hand finished within the UK in a warm grey wash, both stylish and practical and used in most living areas and some kitchens.

All homes include intruder alarms, mains operated smoke detectors, chrome shaver sockets and downlighters, pendants or lighting tracks. There is voice activated door entry, where applicable, to communal areas.

No two layouts are identical. This ensures that residents feel as though they are living in a unique home rather than a standard apartment. The General also offers large room sizes. When designing the scheme the interior design team recognised that no scheme in Bristol had spent time to make communal spaces feel luxurious and special. The team put a lot of thought into planning the ambience, colour scheme and lighting and even made the decision to lay a bespoke carpet to make the communal areas really special and welcoming. In some of the staircases historic photographs of the hospital are being framed and hung on the walls as a testament to the building’s historic importance.

All car and bike parking for the properties is now hidden in secure underground car parks but presented an additional development challenge. Located 12 metres below ground, on the corner of Commercial Road and Lower Guinea Street, the car park perimeter is also close to the Bathurst Basin and below the water table, demanding particular care and attention.

Additional facilities for a stress-free lifestyle include voice activated door entry, maintained communal areas and an on-site caretaker.

At the lower street level are the commercial properties, which have been included to create an active street frontage, promote investment and to create facilities for the local community as well as residents of The General.

The commercial units open onto Lower Guinea Street, which was identified at the project’s public consultation stage as a dangerous rat run. City & Country subsequently changed the use of the road to a one-way system, against the existing traffic flow, which has alleviated this issue. However, City & Country has also submitted a further application to fully pedestrianise the street. This would allow the commercial units to spill out onto the pavement towards the waterside, creating a safe and vibrant community space for both residents and locals.

With The General’s Phase 1 fully sold, Phase 2 was launched earlier than anticipated.

Design-led approach
City & Country takes an entrepreneurial and design-led approach, anchored by common sense and a feel for the creation of value. The team is adept at spotting opportunities and evaluating them, which allows them to act quickly, decisively and effectively.

Simon Vernon-Harcourt the firm’s design and restoration director, commented on the importance of the project to City & Country and Bristol itself:

“It strikes me that what we have done at The General perfectly encompasses the true meaning of ‘sustainability’. What could be more sustainable than the recycling and repair of a cultural icon, built of local material by local folk, thereby preserving its heritage for future generations?”

He added:

“It is truly rewarding to now see the roofs, balconies and new Ogee Dome re-emerge at last from the 75-year-old scars of the Blitz. Bristol as a city will at last see this iconic building rise from the ashes and have the opportunity to not only observe from a distance but to play a part in its renaissance. The General is so much more than just a building.”

In conclusion City & Country managing director, Helen Moore explained:

“The conversion of The General marks a new era for this striking historic building, from its origins as a city centre hospital to its reinvention into a collection of cosmopolitan waterside apartments. Through the restoration and conversion of the listed buildings, the reinstatement of the internal courtyard and the addition of eclectic new homes City & Country is delighted to be playing a part in adding a new layer of history to this nationally important heritage asset.”

Case study by David Mote