Counterculture partners Tim Ellison, Sarah Morris and Chris Potts reflect on their work over the last year to support Historic England in the latest phase of the restoration of Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings, which opened in September 2022 following a £28 million, eight-year project.
Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is home to the first known multi-storey cast iron-framed building in the world. Billed as the grandparent of skyscrapers for its pioneering use of an iron frame which not only created a fireproof structure but which also provided the strength to allow buildings to be built taller, the Main Mill at the Flaxmill Maltings opened in 1797 as a purpose-built flax mill. Since then, the mill buildings have been repurposed and adapted many times, and were most recently used as a maltings, before finally closing in 1987. Derelict for many years, Historic England bought the 2.7 hectare site in 2005 and have since led a phased project to sustainably restore and rejuvenate it. In keeping with the tradition of adaptive reuse of the site over the years, the Grade I listed Main Mill and adjoining Grade II Kiln have been restored and converted into a visitor attraction with a café and gift shop on the ground floor, and office space for commercial tenants on the upper four floors. The visitor attraction includes The Mill exhibition created by Mather & Co to tell the story of the Flaxmill Maltings and its crucial role in the industrial revolution.
Counterculture were commissioned by Historic England in 2021 to provide external support as the capital work on the Main Mill and Kiln neared completion. Our brief was to lead on Operational Readiness – helping to prepare the SFM project team to open their offer to the public, but as is often the case, the scope of our work evolved following an initial project review and as we became embedded in the project team.
Our work on the project encompassed both business and commercial planning, as well as the more practical elements of Operational Readiness, and we were able to bring our extensive experience of work on other capital projects in the sector to help develop and implement the workstreams, mechanisms and procedures necessary to ensure the site was operationally ready in time for opening.
On the business and commercial planning side, we worked closely with the project team to define the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for opening, and the work required to achieve this in line with the delivery programme. We developed a detailed financial model to forecast future financial performance and assess visitor capacity and limitations. Using our P&L calculations and modelling, we were able to support the project team’s instructions to the external ticketing provider, estimate ticketing yields and help to define opening hours and seasonal opening arrangements. We also supported the procurement of the F&B operator for the café.
In order to ensure Operational Readiness was achieved, we worked with the project team to set up and lead new workstreams for site and visitor operations. We supported the drafting of the business case to DCMS for a new site operations and trading company to manage Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings as a visitor attraction, as well as the development of the staffing structure for the visitor operation. We also worked with the client to produce risk assessments, review policies and procedures and to draft new operating documents for the visitor operation.
The project was part-funded by one of The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s largest grants to date and we supported the project team to reshape the funded Activity Plan to reflect changes in the project’s delivery. Volunteers have played a key role throughout the project and will be integral to the successful delivery of the visitor experience, and we supported the initiation of a new volunteer offer in line with the objectives of the Activity Plan.
The final year of the project was one of significant change as the project moved from the completion of the capital phase of works, during which much of the wider project team worked remotely, towards operating the site as a visitor attraction, which required the mobilisation of a new site-based visitor operations team of staff and volunteers. We worked with Historic England to overcome the inevitable challenges along the way in order to ensure successful delivery of their flagship restoration project.