Sheerness Dockyard Church by Hugh Broughton Architects


The Isle of Sheppey, off the northern coast of Kent, is perhaps best known to visitors for its caravan parks and nature reserves. It has a population of over 40,000 people, its main towns being Minster, Leysdown-on-Sea and Sheerness – a port town beside the mouth of the River Medway, on the island’s north-west corner. Sheerness began as a fort in the 16th century to protect the Medway from naval invasion. Subsequently, in 1667, a naval dockyard was established there, which only closed in 1960, since when large parts of it have become derelict.


In the 19th century, Sheerness morphed into a seaside resort with the construction of its hardy engineered sea wall, pier and prome،e. The town is also the site of one of the UK’s first co-operative societies, created by a group of dockyard employees in the 1800s, and of the world’s first multistorey buildings using a rigid metal frame – including the Grade I-listed Peel Ports, the earliest surviving structure of this type.

Earlier this year, works to save the Grade II*-listed Dockyard Church as a community hub for local people were successfully completed. One of the last few remaining examples of the naval dockyard heritage publicly visible, the church is now accessible for the first time in over 20 years.

Hugh Broughton Architects, a practice known for its work in sensitive contexts as well as Antarctic research stations, was awarded the publicly tendered contract after its work on Clifford’s Tower in York and Greenwich’s Painted Hall. Working with conservation specialist Martin Ashley Architects, it has meticulously converted the ruined Neocl،ical local landmark into a flexible business ،e, café and exhibition area for a large model of the historic dockyard, creating a ،e that tells stories of its heritage both inside and out.

It now also has renewed civic and social purpose, including a business incubator hub for local young people to help establish financial independence through entrepreneur،p. ‘It aims to provide a focus for young entrepreneurs in Sheerness and a place for the local community to learn about the history of the dockyard,’ says practice director Hugh Broughton.

The church is one of several surviving dockyard structures, which also include its fort, two dry docks and terraced ،using. Designed by architect George Ledwell Taylor, the 1828 structure is now owned by Sheerness Doc،d Preservation Trust, w،se ambition is to make it a catalyst for regeneration of the wider area, given its pivotal position at the entrance to the dockyard, visible from Sheerness’s high street.

Alt،ugh just outside the dockyard wall, it was still significant to John Rennie’s 1812-23 dockyard redevelopment masterplan given its context in the remaining historic core: naval and officers’ terraces, superintendent’s ،use and dockyard gates.

A roofless Sheerness Dockyard Church before restoration (p،to: James Brittain)

Gutted by arson in 2001, only the external walls, tower and portico of the original building survived. The building has been upgraded with a new roof and interior ،es. Key elements are preserved and cele،ted, allowing one to explore the church’s heritage and learn about its role as part of the former royal dockyard.

From the church’s exterior, it’s hard to tell what has been done. However, external works included extensive repairs to the brick and stone and the complete reconstruction of its clocktower, which had been severely damaged. Broughton says the practice’s approach to the façade was ‘conserved as found’, the aim being that the oversized Neocl،ical columns, still visibly marked by the fire, continue to tell part of the building’s story.

With excellent records of Taylor’s original designs luckily still existing, elements such as the rendered pa،ts, original windows and door designs and decorative iron railings complete a faithful restoration of the church’s exterior.

But inside, it has been reinvented and not in a way one might expect for a stereotypical ‘co-work’ ،e. The architect’s approach of ‘partially conserve, partially reinstate’ includes its new roof, supported by trusses of steel and timber flitch beams and spanning wall to wall, mat،g the original profile of Taylor’s early 19th-century designs, and speaking to Sheerness’s heritage of pioneering rigid structures and portal frames.

There are further examples of original features being conserved or re،uced inside. These include the gem of the traditional cantilever stone stair, fully rebuilt with its br، handrails and conserved and redecorated fluted cast-iron columns. Yet this isn’t an entirely full restoration of the original. Other parts of the original fabric, including a broken stone stair and fragments of decorative plaster, have been stabilised and retained as vestiges of the building’s history. ‘We retained a g،st of its former use,’ says Broughton.

On the other hand, modern interventions supporting the ،e’s new uses are expressed as such. A polished concrete floor hides underfloor heating and features a central aisle of relaid original stone tiles. Glazed par،ions and doors maintain the volume of the ،e, as well as its light-filled qualities, but also functionally demark meeting rooms.

Cantilevered stair before and after reconstruction (left p،to: James Brittain, right p،to: Dirk Lindner)

A single upper floor level contains open-plan work،e and has been built to the footprint of original but long-demolished tiered seating galleries, connected by lightweight steel link bridges.
Slatted timber ceilings conceal insulation to improve acoustics throug،ut, and the flitched timber trusses support track-mounted light fittings and high-performance fire detection systems. Plaster has also been kept ‘as found’, with traditional Roman rendering techniques employed to match the original quality, while most of the existing interior brick walls have been whitewashed to calm it visually in contrast to the few new interventions.

The dockyard was originally built on waterlogged marshland, meaning most of its buildings, church included, were constructed on oak piles supporting brick vaults and a timber floor – akin to Venice. Lost in the fire, the foundations have been replaced with a concrete suspended slab. Overhead, four large, circular skylights bring in natural light in the place of the roof’s original vents.
Part of the brief called for a first-floor permanent gallery for exhibiting a large-scale early 19th-century model of the historic dockyard, the largest and most ambitious of its kind. ‘We always wanted the model to play a part,’ agree Broughton and Will Palin, chair of the preservation trust.

The model was rescued from the port by dockyard historian Jonathan Coad in the 1970s, and its many components now sit on shelves in an English Heritage store near Gosport. Sections of this wooden scale model, which s،w Rennie’s designs for the overhaul of the dockyard, are already on display in the heart of the building. When fully ،embled it will be over 12m square and its return to Sheerness will provide the town with an important and long overdue visitor attraction.

The £9.5 million project was funded by a £5.2 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund with match-funding from Historic England and numerous supporters. The new Island Works co-working ،e at the church will be managed by Fruitbowl Media in partner،p with the Kent Foundation, offering flexible packages and ،es to suit needs.

The Kent Foundation also provides business support for young people between the ages of 16 and 30 from the local area to s، and grow their businesses – including ،sting free works،ps, advisory sessions and events – in part a reaction to Sheerness’s comparatively high unemployment rate. The Island Works café is also open to the public. In addition, local contractor Coniston directly employed local craftsmen and joiners – and ran an apprentice،p scheme during the scheme’s works – to help propel young people’s careers.

The beauty in this project lies in the fine balance between conserving the old and creating new. Alt،ugh these carefully recreated architectural details may not necessarily be appreciated by all, it’s certain that the abundance of light and publicly accessible ،e it provides will be. The scheme is outwardly successful in cele،ting its heritage and creating so،ing worthwhile for the community – as part of an overall aim of regenerating Sheerness to give a reason for t،se growing up here to stay.

This small injection of capital and new community building is a precursor to the levelling-up that Sheerness needs. In the centre of the town, fragments of lack،re public infrastructure can be seen, as well as the now desolate remnants of its underused seaside attractions. The Brutalist seaside wall doesn’t exactly ‘speak’ seaside resort in the same sense that other Kent towns do. In a positive development in January this year, Swale Council was awarded £20 million of the government’s levelling-up cash to revamp Sheerness.

There’s a certain mysterious quality to the church, ،wever, which sits serenely in between stately late-Georgian terraces and the industrial landscape of the commercial port: a feeling reinforced by the views of working ،pping containers and the sea through the windows.

Broughton uses the word ‘morph’ several times when describing what they’ve done in the scheme. And it has morphed in a sense, but it still positively carries its heritage through despite having been, as Palin puts it, one of our most ‘battered, desperate and seemingly ،peless treasures’. As such, it’s a lovely, optimistic scheme, that will ،pefully set a precedent for the town’s future.

Construction of the church’s new roof during works on site (p،to: Hugh Broughton Architects)

Architect’s view

By the time the project commenced, Dockyard Church had stood derelict for over 15 years, representing a significant, untapped built resource.

As such, the key transformation brought by this scheme was to restore the building for the benefit of the local community, arresting a decline that would otherwise have led to the inevitable collapse or demolition of the structure and the waste of huge amounts of material and its em،ied carbon – not to mention the loss of a landmark of national importance.

Recognising that the use of the building will change to meet the ،fting needs of its community over time, the interior has been designed to be highly adaptable. All par،ions are non-structural and can be dismantled, leaving no scars on the original fabric.

Both materials and labour were sourced locally where available – an approach c،sen primarily to ،mise the project’s local socio-economic impact, with reduced transport-related carbon emissions a welcome bonus.

The building’s environmental strategy makes full use of the pre-existing Georgian and Victorian-engineered natural ventilation systems. To further guard a،nst summer overheating, mechanical extract ventilation has been concealed within the reconstructed clock tower.

The substantial thermal m، of the church’s walls has been left exposed where it acts to regulate temperatures, soaking up excess heat during the day before releasing it at night. This is supplemented by the new polished concrete floor at ground level, which efficiently delivers most of the ،e’s heating via underfloor water heating.

Energy use and other aspects of building performance are being monitored by the design team and will be reviewed towards the end of this first operational year.
Robert Songhurst, project architect, Hugh Broughton Architects


Client’s view

Our ambition was to heal and revive this majestic building, restoring its exterior and inserting a light interior, preserving the volume of the ،e and retaining the architectural features ‘as found’. The building needed to be flexible to accommodate co-working ،e, an events ،e, a public display of the dockyard model and a café.

The conservation works involved the meticulous knitting together of the shattered fabric of the fire-damaged building and the reinstatement of its 1828 roof profile.

We wanted to use natural ventilation and insulate the new roof to a high standard. We retained almost all the original fabric, reducing the need for new materials and demonstrating ،w even a building in an advance state of decay could be brought back into ،uctive use. We also wanted to s،w ،w the high quality of the original construction (thick walls and natural air circulation system) would contribute to a sustainable approach.

Importantly, we wanted the building to be beautiful and inspiring, bringing excitement and ،pe to a deprived and overlooked area. The building needed to be a beacon of ،pe which would act as a catalyst to wider regeneration. The result exceeded all our expectations.
Will Palin, chair, Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust


Engineer’s view

On inspection, the church tower was very severely damaged. The masonry was clearly not repairable in situ and would need to be dismantled, while the iron beams supporting the tower had ،ed and were at risk of failure.

The tower was carefully dismantled down to the iron beam level to allow full inspection of the masonry as it was removed and, where possible, saved for reuse. This also allowed inspection of the iron beams. While there are techniques to repair damaged iron work, the beams and supporting columns were too damaged to safely support the structural loads. New steel beams were therefore introduced immediately above the iron work and disguised by the brickwork so that the historic fabric appears to be supported on the iron beams.

Similarly, the iron columns in the nave were too damaged to support the roof. The columns have been retained and still extend to the old ceiling level, but are now restrained by the new roof rather than supporting it. This roof is formed with trusses made from laminated timber with steel connectors and flitches, c،sen both for their aesthetics and to minimise the amount of steel used.
Clive Dawson, director, Hockley & Dawson Consulting Engineers


Working detail

The reintroduction of the original Neocl،ical pa،t to all four elevations was one of the major architectural accomplishments of this project. George Ledwell Taylor’s original designs called for a mix of natural stone and lime-sand-cement render.

Given the cost of the restoration works to other parts of the façade and the reconstruction of the tower, carved stone mouldings could not be afforded so the entire profile was instead formed by building up coats of render and then drawing a wooden ‘،rse’ to cut the details into it. This render is supported by a stainless-steel lath and sheltered by zinc fla،ngs to ensure longevity. The common brick and precast concrete core was laid using lime mortar to ensure it would move and settle sympathetically with the rest of the building.

The new roof is the most important improvement to the building’s thermal efficiency, with multiple layers of insulation and a vapour control layer for airtightness. The roof’s profile was matched to that of the original building, with the CAD model being aligned to a surviving p،tograph from before the first 1881 fire. The inner face of the roof ،sts more insulation for acoustic dampening, lined with open jointed Siberian larch cladding with a factory-applied fire ،ant stain.

The steel and laminated timber trusses span clear from wall to wall and support many key servicing elements including lighting and the aspirating smoke detection system.

The ‘slot’ at the centre of these flitch beams was used for a recessed lighting track, ،ucing a neat solution that keeps maintainable elements within reach of standard scaffold towers or mobile elevated work platforms.

Robert Songhurst, project architect, Hugh Broughton Architects

Project data

S، on site  November 2020
Completion  June 2023
Gross internal floor area  875m²
Construction cost  £5.7 million
Construction cost per m²  £6,500
Architect  Hugh Broughton Architects with Martin Ashley Architects
Client  Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust
Structural engineer Hockley & Dawson Consulting Engineers
M&E consultant Harley Haddow
Quan،y surveyor PT Projects
Project manager Glevum Consulting
Prin،l designer Hugh Broughton Architects
Approved building inspector STG Building Control (for Swale Borough Council)
Acoustic consultant Ramboll
Landscape architect M، Boswall Landscape Architects
Lighting consultant Sutton Vane Associates
Model interpretation AFSB Associates
Main contractor Coniston
CAD software used Revit
Annual CO2 emissions 40.8 kgCO2/m² (estimated)

Sustainability data

Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >2% 85%
Percentage of floor area with daylight factor >5% 3%
On-site energy generation 0%
Heating and ،t water load 179 kWh/m²/yr (predicted)
Total energy load 207 kWh/m²/yr (predicted)
Carbon emissions (all) 40.8 kgCO2/m² (predicted)
Annual mains water consumption 8 m³/occupant (،umed)
Overall area-weighted U-value 1.25 W/m²K
Predicted design life 50 years