From brownfield to leftfield: what happens to closed cement plants?

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Plans for the former Shoreham cement plant on the south coast of England took an exciting turn towards the end of 2014. Zero carbon design firm Zedfactory announced its plans to regenerate the brownfield site into an eco-resort featuring holiday homes, performance space, affordable homes, a hotel and conference centre, a watersports venue, wildlife preserves and more. Or, ' hobbit homes' as the Daily Mail put it when it covered the story six months later.

This raises the question of what happens to cement plants when they close?

In the UK, where a housing shortage in certain areas collide with NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes and strict planning regulations, former industrial or brownfield sites are prime sites for new housing developments. Subsequently, old cement plants are attractive to builders to build houses. Two examples of current sites heading this way include the former Cemex plant in Barrington, Cambridgeshire and the former Lafarge Eastgate plant in County Durham. Both sites have gained planning permission and were still in the pre-building stage according to local press reports in mid-2015. Dylan Moore's website 'Cement Plants and Kilns in Britain and Ireland' provides a good resource on former plants in the UK and Ireland.

One of the jokes about classic UK science-fiction television series Dr Who was that during the 1970s it was either filmed on cheap studio sets or in quarries. Endless encounters with alien beings took place in cement plant quarries including Lafarge Northfleet (alien in spacesuits), Lafarge Aberthaw (tentacle faced aliens), Hanson Ketton (Arthurian knights who may in fact be aliens...) and many more. Indeed, one of the conditions of the proposed Lafarge Eastgate sale in March 2015 was that a television production company could continue to use the quarry to film an adaptation of Beowulf for five years!

On the more imaginative side of what to do with old plants, La Fabrica near Barcelona is a spectacular example. Architect Ricardo Bofill converted a 19th century plant into his firm's head office, La Fabrica, and his own personal residence. As Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura's website puts it, "Eight silos remained, which became offices, a models laboratory, archives, a library, a projections room and a gigantic space known as 'The Cathedral', used for exhibitions, concerts and a whole range of cultural functions linked to the professional activities of the architect." Architecturally the project refers to Catalan Civic Gothic style with surrealist elements.

This sense of entertainment from industrial architecture was continued by sculptor Bob Cassilly in St Louis, USA who decided to build Cementland. Cassilly purchased the former plant and slowly assembled his clinker-themed version of Disneyland. Unfortunately he died in 2001 following an accident with a bulldozer at the site before he finished.

More and more former cement plants will be seeking new purposes as Europe rationalises its cement industries and excess capacity is eliminated. China too faces similar issues as it consolidates its industry. Most will probably lie fallow before eventually being knocked down and then turned into something following the cheapest economic path forward. With luck though, some will follow the dreams of Zedfactory and people like Ricardo Bofill and Bob Cassilly.

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Last modified on 09 September 2015

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