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Thursday, 30 June 2011

The ultimate project?: Cold War water tower up for sale

When Southern Water unloaded a portfolio of properties in 2004, architect Stephen Luxford purchased the Braithwaite water tower at the former Greenham Common airbase and then got planning permission to convert it into a house. That was a bit of a shock to the local council as they expected buyers would cut it up for scrap and put a traditional house on the plot.

We haven't heard anything for a while but Stephen has just been in touch to tell BWTAS:

"I’ve had the planning extended to 2013 and due to my business being London based, I have given up on carrying the scheme forward myself and the tower is going to auction on 27th July 2011 with – guide price £50,000. "

Stephen told BWTAS before that a build cost estimate is tricky because of unusual nature of the build but at £1200 to £1500/m.sq (quite a high rate) it would be in the region of £160k to £200k.
The auction listing is at

Water tower gets robo-clean

First Water Tower Robot Clean for Panton McLeod

29th June 2011

Water quality engineering firm Panton McLeod has completed another first in its work within the UK’s water sector after cleaning a storage tower with robotic technology.

The firm used its VR600 cleaning robot to clean the interior of a water tower in Wiltshire for Wessex Water while it was still active and in service, ensuring minimal disruption for customers in the region.

The project at Minety Tower near Wootton Basset represented the first time that Panton McLeod has ever used the innovative machine to clean an elevated water storage structure in the UK.
In order to access the facility, the firm had to hire a crane in order to lift the robot to the top of the 35 meters high tower before disinfecting the machine and lowering it into the structure.

A team of operators then manoeuvred the remotely-controlled machine throughout the interior of the structure – in order to remove any build up of natural materials on the floor of the facility. The routine work ensures that the drinking water stored in the tower remains at the highest quality levels.

Paul Henderson, operations director at Panton McLeod, said: “We regularly use the VR600 machine for cleaning service reservoirs and storage tanks across the UK. In recent years, the machine has been a vital part of our work for some of the biggest companies in the water sector, including Scottish Water and Severn Trent Water.

“However, before the project at Minety Tower, we had never used the robot to clean a water tower. It represented a big challenge for our underwater team, but we were able to use our expertise to ensure that the project was a success.

“The most challenging aspect was lifting the robot to the top of the 35 metres tall tower in the first place, so we could insert it into the facility and start the cleaning process. We had to hire a special 55 tonne crane to hoist it to the top, but once this was complete, the rest of the project was fairly straight forward.

“We’re delighted with how smoothly the whole cleaning process was carried out, and proud of our team who ensured that this challenging job was completed swiftly. We’re always happy when we identify new ways to deploy our technology, and we hope that this project will lead to more water tower cleans in the future.”

The VR600 is a special tracked robot that is manoeuvred along the floor of any water storage structure and removes any sediment build up on the floor of the structure. It can also be used to inspect the condition of the water tanks, including checking the walls and interior of the facilities for corrosion or damage.

Panton McLeod also uses a specialist ROV inspection robot which is manoeuvred like a submarine through the water in a service reservoir and is able to inspect the walls of the tank, joints, and the roof soffit for damage or leakage.

Both machines are remotely operated from the surface and fitted with cameras and lighting equipment, allowing staff controlling the sub to assess the interior of the tanks. They are also used solely within clean potable water environments and meticulously cleaned and disinfected prior to every use to ensure they can be safely used in the public water supply, and Panton McLeod conducts rigorous tests before and after each inspection.

More information about the machines and Panton McLeod’s other services for the UK water sector can be found at their


You can see the VR600 in action on YouTube

Water tower tanks are traditionally cleaned and serviced by taking them offline, draining them and then sending workers into the tank via the access hatches to sweep and flush the built-up sediment down the overflow/waste line by hand. Sometimes a small rowboat was lowered inside for inspections. We suppose the health and safety regulations now make the cost of cranes to lift robot vacuums (basically high-tech pool cleaners) into the tank a cheaper option.

Monday, 27 June 2011

East Anglia's water tower history

Water tower development is driven as much by social reforms as the progress in civil engineering and it is also driven by improvements in the technology of building materials, pumping machinery, steam engines and pipe making.

From their aqueducts the Romans used bucket-chain pumps powered by animals and slaves to fill raised cisterns with clay or wooden pipes for local water distribution. The foundations of Roman water towers have been discovered at Ixworth and in the City of London. At Vindolanda in Northumberland, wooden pipes over 2000 years old were found still working. 

Many Medieval castles and monasteries had stone towers lined with clay or lead as a strategic supply. Lendal Tower in York was once a water tower. Though many castles - like Chester - have a tower called 'The Water Tower', this is misleading. It is because they are gates accessible by water.

Wind and water driven pumps began to appear in the late 16th century. A ‘forcer’ pumping water “to the highest parts of the city” was recorded in Norwich in 1583.

One of the great early water engineers was George Sorocold (1668 - 1717) of Derby who also built water systems for Norwich, Bristol, Leeds and London but we know very little about his life. 

Many landscape artists painted the York Street water tower of 18th Century London which was pumped by a paddle wheel in the Thames.

The Industrial Revolution (1760- 1830) brought a huge demand for water and advances in iron and steel manufacturing. Water towers became landmarks alongside engine houses, chimneys and factories in our towns and cities.

Water towers present many engineering challenges. The search for affordable materials and methods that can resist the relentless force of gravity acting on water has stimulated progress to this day.

Ferro-concrete was  first invented for building water towers by the French engineer Francois Hennebique in 1892.

Water tower styles reflect the architectural movements of their time. Horstead in Norfolk was a bold experiment in 60’s modernism because its designer thought the planners and local people wouldn't want to see "another baked-bean tin on legs". The earliest of many concrete towers in Suffolk built between 1930 to 1950 by the Vibrated Concrete Company have ornamentation reflecting the new streamlining seen on ships and locomotives. Later towers, keeping to the same basic layout, have ornamentation of a more angular pattern. Plotting the dates of construction reveals that hints of Art Deco morph into touches of Bauhaus and the angular singularity of Le Corbusier.

According to English Heritage; at one time the "the water industry in England was of the greatest international importance ... many of the solutions adopted in Europe and North America were first devised in English towns."

After a fire destroyed Hamburg in 1842 because the water supply had failed, the Kaiser of the day had British engineer William Lindley (1808-1900) built several towers for the new water system. Lindley went on to work for many other European cities. A street in Budapest commemorates him. The attractive water tower in Epping High Road is his work.

The cholera epidemics of the mid 19th century and the ‘Great Stink’ of London in 1858 convinced Parliament that Britain’s water supply needed a complete overhaul. Victorian engineers like Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 1891) built large metropolitan water systems and many water towers. Meanwhile, a rapidly expanding railway network with its need for a water tower every ten miles for steam locomotives; spurred the development of large-scale metal pre-fabrication which then lead to advances in bridge and building construction.

This period up until 1930 is considered the golden age of water towers. Worldwide demand encouraged research and development as British civil engineers got plenty of orders for successful designs from Shanghai to Sudan.

Despite progress in the cities, waterborne diseases were still common in rural areas where local governments could not raise the capital investment required to prevent the pollution of boreholes or rivers supplying the community from the effluent of domestic cesspits.

Some remarkable water towers were built by landowners, schools and asylums but in 1910, two thirds of rural parishes in England still had no piped water. 

In 1944 the rural water boards obtained by an act of parliament the public investment they needed for a long period of post-war tower building but in some towns, people campaigned to stay 'dry' rather than have any increase in their rates.

During the Second World War, East Anglia’s strategic position caused a great number of prefabricated steel towers to be built for military installations, most commonly the Braithwaite system of bolted panels still made today, but there are others. Afterwards some were adopted for the public supply and remain in use but it took until the mid-sixties to connect every town and village in East Anglia to mains water. 

The future of water towers in East Anglia likely lies in their imaginative reuse. 

Opinion can vary widely if they are assets or blights to the skyline. Their visibility does give them commercial value while some styles can present challenges to convert for occupation but few people can resist an offer to see the view from the top of one and they are eagerly sought out by people looking for a restoration challenge or unique homes.

Disused towers have become homes, offices, performance venues, sports facilities and tourist attractions but their potential has yet to be fully exploited.

© Nat Bocking