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Bridge 5 Mill

Bridge 5 Mill is a retrofitted 5 storey mill in Ancoats, named after the fifth bridge on the adjacent Ashton Canal. It provides a focal point for debate and action around sustainability. As well as offering space for workshops, Bridge 5 Mill is home to a range of sustainability groups, social enterprises and charities. It was established by, and is home to, the environmental charity Manchester Environmental Resource Centre initiative, or MERCi.

Bridge 5 Mill opened in April 2001. There is, though, a much longer history to the development of Bridge 5 Mill and the initial idea of developing an eco building that would be eco in its construction and eco in terms of the activities and conversations that took place inside it.

MERCi sought to build and establish a Centre for Sustainable Living in Manchester that creates a context to support individuals and organisations promoting sustainable living and which provides a working demonstration of sustainable living in Manchester.

To demonstrate that the building is eco in its construction, Bridge 5 Mill has the following features:

• a turf roof
• it is PVC free
• a reception area constructed using only straw, with reclaimed wood for the flooring, chicken wire for the windows and doorway and adobe to coat the straw
• radiators reclaimed from various sites
• almost all of the timber required for Bridge 5 Mill is reclaimed

So that the building is eco in its activities, Bridge 5 Mill offers conference and meeting rooms, a library, equipment hire and offices for voluntary groups and social enterprises. It has publically accessible meeting rooms, a resource area including an information library and a computer suite which offers free internet facilities. The building is home to MERCi and other third sector tenants. 


An Alternative?


Bridge 5 Mill is illuminating in that it tells us about the time it can take to design and establish a wide-ranging vision for a sustainable sustainability centre. It also tells us that, in many ways, sustainability is a process that is always being achieved.

Initial ideas were developed in conversations in 1995 between Helen Woodcock and Chris Walsh. By 1996 office space was found in the Friends Meeting House and the Manchester Environmental Resource Centre initiative name was chosen. What followed from this point until the building opened were processes of consultation of over 1000 people and groups and efforts to build support for the idea amongst a range of interests that included individuals, activists, charities, voluntary groups, NGOs and local government. From this a feasibility study was produced.

MERCi’s self-stated view is that 2001 was a turning point where its focus shifted from the creation of a building to streams of work and activities. By 2002, 10 staff were employed. Within the mill building, MERCi has a commitment to streams of work on education, community and enterprise. These streams of work include workshops, projects and the housing of relevant groups within Bridge 5 Mill. Though the main retrofit activity had been undertaken, retrofit activity was still ongoing until 2004.

Around late 1999, MERCi achieved charitable status. The main retrofitting of the building, between 1999 and 2001, was undertaken by a combination of a green construction company from Huddersfield but also through volunteers and a New Deal training scheme where 15 local young men were trained by three skilled craftsman to work towards an NVQ Level 2 in Site Joinery. By 2006, there was a ‘separation’ of MERCi and Bridge 5 Mill. This re-positioned Bridge 5 Mill as a project of MERCi and efforts to re-brand Bridge 5 Mill as B5M.

B5M is based in the Ancoats area of Manchester close to the border with Beswick.
The scale of operation is within the building. But it is also external to the building in that projects encompass different scales: for example, the project Herbie was established in 2004 to provide affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables to residents in East Manchester. MERCi has a focus on Manchester.

Funding has been acquired from UK national and EU funders. Funding for B5M has been acquired from various sources over time. In 1998, £115,000 of funding was confirmed from ERDF and an additional £70,000 of private trust funding received. Subsequent to this £370,000 of further funding was received from the National Lottery Community Fund and £100,000 from the Esmee Fairbairn Trust. Funding was secured in 2004 from the Tudor Trust and in 2005 from Comic Relief.

On the face of it, B5M appears to be a successful initiative. It offers a relatively long-term perspective on how to construct a centre for sustainable living. It sets out the challenges of sourcing funding and also of engaging with and bringing together a wide range of sustainability groups and interests. These success factors are also likely to be ongoing challenges: i.e. how is the financial and social sustainability of B5M maintained?

B5M highlights something important about the ‘retrofit’ agenda and the remaking of the material fabric of the city. That is, retrofitting buildings is important not just in terms of the physical structures of the building but also how these changes (a) relate to the activities that take place in the building and (b) how retrofitting can act as a catalyst for engaging with a variety of interests and groups.


This article has been written using publically available sources.

This article is published here as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform’s aspiration to raise the visibility of different community innovations, grassroots projects and activities in the city-region.

It also draws on SURF's involvement in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant, 'Retrofit 2050' and contributes to understanding of the Remaking of the Material Fabric of the City.

Find out here about the background, purpose and content of ‘The Alternative?’ series of articles on Platform.

Main image courtesy of Flickr user Archangelus Gabriel, published here under a Creative Commons license.