Ghostly memories haunt Boots’ historic HQ

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

Home Page

An ancient steam engine drifted soundlessly across the busy road, heading straight for the front of a building. Passers-by nonchalantly ignored impending disaster and  it disappeared eerily into the facade.  Such legends are an integral part of historic buildings that have been   spruced up for modern times, and the Boots building in Nottingham is no exception.  'I saw the shunter about 10 years ago and other people have bumped into workers in pre-war clothes,' said one long-serving staffer.

 But the  headquarters for Boots Contract Manufacturing  hardly looks old enough to merit a haunting. In fact, the dark glass box  seems to have just jumped off the drawing board of some fashionable new architect  experimenting in city-centre power building.  Yet this massive block is more than half a century old and regarded as  one of Europe's outstanding historic monuments. Only a handful of buildings reach Grade 1 listing; even fewer find international recognition. The curiously-named D10 block on Boots' huge campus at Beeston has achieved both.

  In September it will receive the Europa Nostra medal for conservation, one of only seven awarded out of 160 projects nominated across the Continent. Among 40 UK entrants, D10 beat more recognisably historic projects such as  London's distinguished St Pancras Chambers. All very impressive for what is essentially a factory - or in Boots' parlance   a 'wet' building. D10 was created  to produce medicines, unlike D6 next door which is a 'dry', churning out tablets. The distinction - and listing - is because this is a pioneer of modernist glass and concrete, built in 1933 by Sir Owen Williams. And it looks as fresh as the day the building opened, which  is why the European renovation medal has come to Beeston.

 This hides the fact that  the years were not particularly kind to D10, a lable  left over from the time  Boots was  under US ownership, and the 300-acre campus planned on a gridiron pattern. Even early pictures show the elegant glazed facade despoiled with shop blinds. The dark green metal frames had been painted white, and were stained with rust and grime 'The building was still very strong. In fact it was over-engineered and could have stood up to a hurricane,' says Boots project manager John Barks. But the rain was getting in through the west wall, which faced strong prevailing winds, so something had to be done.

  Just as important, Boots was seriously considering whether the building was suitable for  the 21st century. Production  machinery had been updated over the years but this could not go on forever. Offices and laboratories were also just as important, and these were proving a problem. 'We had computers worth a quarter of a million pounds sitting on lead-topped tables,' says Barks. 'Some of the offices were so small they had been nicknamed the kennels.'

 Finding solutions was  difficult when dealing with a slice of history.   The neighbouring D6, also built by Williams, is only slightly less important a building  and listed Grade II. That was mothballed 20 years ago because 'dry' production techniques could not match modern health standards. D10 faced the same fate.  Demolition was out of the question, so the choice was renovation or  a 100 million pound bill for a new factory. But preservation brought another headache. This is working history; any work would need to go on around a 24-hour production process. Boots could not deny the world its supplies of cough medicine and toothpaste while rebuilding the place.

 Yet the company has achieved the near-impossible. The front of D10 was  stripped and transformed to its original condition without production being halted in the rest of the building. In piers leading out of the main block are  are now air-conditioned offices built to city-centre standards plus new high-tech laboratories. D6 is being fitted out in the same way as headquarters for Boots International Healthcare, with modern offices above production space.

 It has not been been easy - or cheap - not least because of the ministrations of  English Heritage.  Barks turns icy at the mention of this quango. 'I am a production engineer used to the realities of rebuilding,' he says. ' I even rebuild old cars in my spare time. Some of the people at English Heritage were plainly out of their depth when it came to practical solutions to buildings like this.'

  Initially, EH wanted  glazing reproduced exactly as built. But the steel frames  are no longer made in the same way. 'This is blacksmith technology,' says Barks. And the original technique had contributed to the leakages. The type of glass also proved a bone of contention. Shop blinds had defaced the building to mask  solar glare.   'We wanted to use tinted glass; EH wanted the original see-through building,' says Barks. 'Thankfully, we reached some compromises.'

  New frames were produced to modern standards by the original producers Crittalls - who managed to find a retired  Thirties craftsmen to offer advice. Tint and internal blinds enabled the introduction of computer-based offices without problems of screen reflection. Internal alterations were just as radical during the three-year, 20 million pound renovation. All the offices are air-conditioned and space was found for raised floors to contain computer cabling. But EH was happy to approve changes that matched the spirit of the building - and kept it alive.

 'It shows how the most heavily  protected building can be brought up to modern standards as long as planners are realistic and you have the skills available,' says Barks. AMEC  was brought in to handle all the project through its in-house design and management team. And it came up with some fascinating solutions.  Where the phantom train once ran into the building, for instance, now stands servicing plant. This kind of change  has meant leading ducts through office areas, although they are carefully aligned and painted to become a part of the decor. Air-conditioning outlets which would have defaced the building have been sited in old air-raid shelters across the road.

  'None of this cost any more. It just required a bit of extra thought,' says Barks.  Now the same care is going into D6.  Barks says that  while D10 gets medals and plaudits, the concrete block next door is even more respected by  engineers because of its cantilever design - again ahead of its time.

 There is also another  personal attraction. Boots is building again, this time a  19 million pound energy combined heat and power plant for the site, and the cranes are just jacking in the huge chimneys. Despite the sweltering weather, Barks has a cold and is constantly sucking Strepsils to fend off the worst affects to  maintain a busy schedule.

  'We still make them in D6,' he points out rather proudly, ripping another couple from the packet before striding off to supervise yet another transformation of history into high-tech.


 Boots has become a victim of its tradition for commissioning state-of-the-art buildings. No sooner had it cracked the problems of mixing past and present by transforming two listed buildings into modern headquarters than another popped up. And this time it could involve merging  past, present and future.

  The company's latest project involved  taking a long, hard look at the D90 building, headquarters for  Boots the Chemists. Part of the rethink involved considering the impact of  new methods of working such as 'hot desking' that may come in during the next century. Boots also has a large number of staff still working in the centre of Nottingham, where leases will fall in over the next decade, and must consider whether some operations may be better served at Beeston. One possibility would be an extension to D90 to create a new office complex.

 But English Heritage suddenly decided to also play a part.  Despite being built less than 30 years ago to designs by SOM, it became yet another building on the Beeston campus considered worthy of preservation. So Boots is having to think  more carefully about its future.  An extension would require special permission as it would  now have an impact on a listed building. Services in D90 also need replacing, so the existing building may be gutted.



HQ for Boots Contract Manufacturing

Largest Grade 1 industrial building in UK

Value - 100 million pounds

500 staff (production, packaging, laboratory, offices)


Built 1933 - reinforced concrete and glass

Cost - 300,000 pounds

700,000 sq ft on four floors, 70ft high.

1200 staff


100,000 sq ft front office/laboratory section

Cost 20 million pounds

36,000 sq ft of glazing and 150,000 glass roofing discs replaced

150mm raised floors installed on three floors

Production maintained without break

Contract on time and under budget

Designer/Main contractor - AMEC


                                        (pounds/m2)  % total

Superstructure                                363.5  (24)

 Including windows/doors     178.4 (12)

Substructure                                    4.1  (0.3)

Internal Finishes                             141.6  (9.4)

Fittings and furniture                        169.4  (11)

Services                                      826.2  (55)


   heating/air treatment     240.0 (16)

   electrical                238.5 (16)


TOTAL                                        1504.8