A restorative swim

A listed riverside Edwardian lido has been painstakingly restored to modern standards, adding new features while retaining the building’s heritage and idiosyncratic style. Project architect Sam Kendon explains all to Jack Wooler

After standing derelict for 40 years, Reading Lido has been refurbished to modern standards, and is now a location for both leisure and dining in this aspiring town. Originally constructed in 1902, the revitalised lido offers new elements to the semi-outdoors experience, including a spa and a highly-rated restaurant. The Lido gets its name from its location by the River Thames in King’s Meadow, a large park in central Reading. Designed by architects Marshall & Kendon, the refurbishment has taken advantage of the scenic setting, introducing openings in the surrounding walls, which allow views of the nearby riverside. The building itself is listed, and many steps had to be taken to ensure the Lido stayed true to its original character. Being empty for so long however, extensive repairs had to be undertaken, with new building fabric constructed in many areas, and an extension built in place of the demolished 1950’s plant room. After a successful 2008 project restoring Clifton Lido in Bristol the architects and their joint clients – chef Freddy Bird, and Swedish developer Arne Ringner – had useful experience working together that they could apply to this somewhat similar lido refurbishment. This has been demonstrated clearly in this heritage project’s careful execution and delivery of a practical and meticulously finished result.

Getting started

Sam Kendon, partner at Marshall & Kendon Architects, takes up the story of how the project began: “In 2008, we completed a restoration of Clifton Lido. With a similar story to Reading, it was an 1850s lido that had been derelict for some time.” Although Marshall & Kendon learned a lot from Clifton, Kendon says Thames Lido is a “very different” building. “This is much bigger, and is in a completely different situation; in a park next to the river, whereas the Bristol one was buried deep in a dense part of the city.” “There were a lot of things that were different, but we had about six years of experience from Clifton, which showed us what was working well, and what was not working so well.”

The building

Built as a women-only pool in 1902, the building had substantial brick walls on all sides shielding swimmers from onlookers. While the project largely retains the architectural heritage benefit of these walls, gaps have been introduced at intervals, affording intermittent glimpses of the river to pool users. “It’s not a building that flaunts itself to the outside however,” says Kendon. “It’s only really when you get quite close that you can peep in.” Formerly sitting in an open space, the 25 metre heated pool has been enclosed with glass on all sides except for the roof. This provides new internal spaces, with the original walls on the perimeter side. These include a spa, sauna as well as a high quality restaurant and bar, with views into the pool from much of the building. “It’s basically a rectangular doughnut shape, with the pool in the middle and a monopitch roof running all the way round on four sides,” explains Kendon. On the south side, which faces King’s Meadow, the original octagonal entrance pavilion is retained. At some point in the intervening years between 1902 and today, “somebody knocked a great big door in the side.” So, as was done at Clifton, two entrances were constructed, one for people using the pool and spa, and one for the restaurant and bar. These sections are both connected, but each entrance leads you first to the intended destination. The south entrance leads into the octagon, where visitors can pick up their towels and flip flops, and book in for a massage or treatment. The new entrance built on the west side, which is next to King’s Meadow Road, is where the meeting rooms and kitchens were constructed, with the entrance taking you first to a reception, and then to the bar and restaurant. Beyond that, you can connect into the spa or the pool area, and vice versa. “Basically,” says Kendon, “with the doughnut plan you can walk all the way around the pool either outside or inside, so you can get from anywhere in the building to anywhere else with ease.” A lean-to corridor runs aside the restaurant. “The restaurant is long and thin, and so it’s actually a big advantage to have a corridor along the back of it, which means that you can service the restaurant without barging through the tables too much,” explains Kendon. One of the largest structural alterations was digging a new basement. The ground underneath the site is gravel capped with clay and, as a result of being so near the river, there is a large amount of water in the gravel. Kendon says, “As soon as you dig a hole, it fills up instantly.” To counteract this, a dewatering process was undertaken, which, while expensive and complicated, worked successfully. “After that, it was pretty plain sailing.” He says the restaurant is “an ordinary two storey brick and block building with steel beams and a timber roof, nothing terribly complicated.”

Restoration

In order to retain the building’s historic although dilapidated character, as much as possible of the building fabric was either preserved, or replaced ‘like for like.’ “We decided pretty early on that we would keep as much of it as we could,” said Kendon. With the building being listed, this was popular with the planning department’s conservation officers. He details the practicalities of the refurbishment process, saying the contractors had to remove a “hell of a lot of rotten fabric,” while repairing what they could of the existing. “We took off the roofs and chopped out huge swathes of rotten roof trusses and brickwork, pulled out bushes, and then re-roofed it with insulation.” The builders spent “about a year” fixing up the fabric across the building. In the meantime, Marshall & Kendon designed and applied for another listed building consent to do the new work and the modifications. “So, by the time they’d finished fixing it up we were ready to do the new work, which involved demolishing a 1950s extension, and constructing a new building in its place, which includes the reception, bar, kitchen and WC’s at ground floor, and a big function room above.” This section was demolished rather than reused, partly because it was the wrong shape, and partly because of the restrictions around building on the surrounding flood plain. “In order to build new, we had to take out the old. That’s why we demolished both the old plant room and the old sports field changing rooms. The only bit that we really lost of the historical fabric was the 1950s plant room.”

Materials

With preservation in mind, as little of the materials as possible were changed. The architect says: “We used the same palette of materials on the new building as existed on the old building. “Most of the materials that have gone into the Lido would have been familiar to people who used it 100 years ago.” According to Kendon, the only elements that are ‘genuinely’ new are the glazed screens with aluminium sliding windows. The rest are restored in some way. Replacing materials had its own complications however: “A lot of the timber had to be replaced,” said Kendon. “The main cast iron column structure was braced with steel beams. Several of those, although they’re encased in timber, had rusted right through, going from being 12/15 mm thick to nothing.” He continues: “We found some imperial bricks, chopping out the rotten ones and putting new ones in, and we found big soft wood members and added those.” Engineered timber was used in places, for cost efficiency reasons. “Sometimes we used glulam instead of the very largest pieces of the timber, simply because they’re much cheaper and they look the same when you paint them. “Also, we took out some of the steelwork from the old building and replaced it with structural timber, because it’s easier to deal with really.” As well as this, there was a corrugated iron roof on the back of the building, and plain clay tiles on the front, which were replaced ‘like for like.’ Some old timber had stood the test of time. A lot of the ornamental timber used is soft wood but, as Kendon explains, “the soft wood that was around 100 years ago is generally better that soft wood that you buy now.” Because of this, the well-preserved pieces of ornamental timber were taken down, soaked for three weeks in linseed oil, given a thick coating of linseed paint, and then placed back in the building. All the mouldings and fretwork were treated in this manner. Some of it however, was “too far gone,” says Kendon, “so we ran up new mouldings and new fretted panels in soft wood, and treated them in the same way.” He continues: “Because a lot of that detail was quite high up, it’s pretty difficult to tell which ones are new and which ones are old.” As well as the soft wood, the carpenters used decorative hardwood in various areas of the building. “They used hardwood nosing on the stairs, for instance, where you have to make something that’s both durable and visually contrasting.” This was done in part to satisfy disability regulations, which for example require a stair’s nosing to contrast with the treads. “We did that by using two different colours of hardwood. There’s also nice cherry handrails on the stairs, and little bits of fine timber inlaid around the place.”

Ecological properties

While there were no particularly radical approaches to environmental benefits, as would be expected in such a refurbishment, improving insulation was a key factor. Kendon explains: “In its original incarnation, it didn’t matter if the walls weren’t insulated, because none of it was indoors. “We’ve gone round the whole of the building, attempting to bring its insulation values up. For instance, we took off the old timber sarking boards and metal roof, and put a big layer of insulation between the two. “Now we’ve done the north side of the roofs, they’re all pretty well insulated too.” The new building to the west is built to current standards, and so is heavily insulated. On the other two sides, all the changing areas, spa, treatment and sauna rooms are built as separate pods, and so all have their own insulated walls. “There’s very little of the old 13 inch solid brickwork left that is exposed on both the inside and the outside,” said the architect. He added: “It’s a listed building, so we were a little bit nervous about putting large amounts of renewables on the roof.” In the Clifton project, the water bill was found to be substantial, largely due to the water used for clearing out the filters being metered. In order to avoid this costly process in the new lido, the architects specified “enormous” underground rainwater storage tanks, which recycle rainwater and use it in the pool. “One of the first things we did in Reading was to make sure that there’s a (35 x 3 x 3 metre) rainwater storage tank, which means that when they want to flush out all the filters this time, they do so with water that’s come off of the roof for free.”

Future restored

The project has already been well-received by both locals and critics, as Kendon reveals: “There are a lot of complimentary comments from residents of Reading on social media, saying that it should have been done years ago.” He adds: “Most of it revolves around the fact that while we’ve modified a bit, it is still the nice old building that it was. Its character is still very evident. “What we’ve done to it, I would say, doesn’t compromise what it was, it just makes it a bit more 21st century.” The architect believes that the “real test” for Thames Lido is whether or not it can be a “catalyst for regeneration in Reading on a larger scale.” While Reading is a prosperous place, it’s know mainly as a commuter town, as well as for its annual music festival. Kendon believes the Lido could be a catalyst for change however, assisting the town’s desirability. A key example is the new restaurant being lauded by critics as the ‘best in Reading’. He concludes: “If the pool contributes towards changing people’s perception of Reading, that would be a great thing. There’s a lot more to the town than some would have you believe, and I believe Thames Lido will convince people of that.”

PROJECT FACTFILE

  • Bricks: Furness Brick
  • Clay roof tiles: William Blyth
  • Glazing: Fineline Aluminium
  • Lift: Stannah
  • Pool: BOS Leisure
  • Tiling specification advice: ARDEX
  • Timber Flooring: Chaunceys