'Breathing new life into a former industrial site as a spiritual retreat and ecological sanctuary.'

Once a site for heavy industry, we are working closely with the client to breathe new life into Millom’s Old Ironworks as a spiritual retreat and ecological sanctuary in south-west Cumbria. As an enormously complex project spanning 4 acres and multiple structures, the persistent question for us is how best to connect the site’s spiritual and practical functions in ways that are ecologically sound, historically sensitive and commercially pragmatic. While the site borders an SSSI and benefits from the same ecological richness as the adjacent protected area, it also bears the human-made traces of past industrial processes which have literally become part of its landscape. Responding with balance and humility to this abundance of inter-tangled histories and influences continues to prove one of our studio’s most stimulating and fascinating projects.

Following a minimal intervention approach that treads lightly on the earth, no material may leave the site and any coming in is carefully assessed for its potential to destabilise the ecological balance. Those materials that are already present are used extensively and in innovative ways that minimise ecological disruption. Living roofs accommodate the vegetation displaced by the retreat’s structures and diminish the downward force of the Lakeland rain. This reduces erosion and preserves the balance of nutrients in the soil. Open ditches and rivulets called swales channel rain water round the site to where it is needed, while ponds called scrapes collect the excess, forming the ideal environment for the protected Natterjack toads, rare plants and birds that are found along the Cumbrian coast.

Millom Ironworks, which opened in the mid-19th century and closed at the end of the 60s, was once one of the world’s largest ironworks and famed for its innovation. The site still bears visible traces of its history of heavy industry. The steep hill at its edge is a heap of slag from smelting that has now been reclaimed by native plants and grasses. Newly laid paths follow the railway lines which once carried material around the site and the reservoir used to contain the water that cooled the blast furnaces. A metallic boulder composed of the waste that remained at the base of blast furnace No.1 stands as a powerful synecdoche for the ways human activities have shaped the Cumbrian landscape and its ecologies.

Beyond Millway, which acts as a civic convening point and the site’s public gateway, stand the retreat’s internal structures. At its heart, the Octagon offers a pure space for reflection and growth while the ancillary building with which it is partnered contains the necessary services such as loos, heating plants and kitchen facilities. The sunken hearth provides another spot for bringing people together, this time around fire. The placement and form of these structures is determined by the philosophical beliefs of the client and governed by conceptions of how Qi, or energy, flows through the site.

Masterplan / Well-being
Collaborators: Structure Workshop, Max Fordham LLP, Sustainably Built, Barnes Walker, M&P Gadsden