Merchant House, 11 Silent Street, Ipswich IP1 1TF

The traffic problems that Ipswich motorists are currently suffering are not new. Back at the beginning of the 1980s Star Lane was being converted from a narrow passageway into the major cross-town route it is today and, by 1984, the eastern gyratory was being pushed north along Waterworks Street. Roadworks were everywhere across the south side of town. The latter involved street widening and the demolition of some old buildings. Numbers 8 and 10 Waterworks Street were unremarkable, but probably timber-framed, the studs well hidden under coats of lime render and faded paint. They were situated immediately south of the Boys Ragged School which was also scheduled for demolition.

If you drive along Waterworks Street today you will see that the School was not demolished but, being a building with a special façade, it was moved twenty feet to the west to allow two lanes of traffic to pass unhindered along the widened street. Specialist contractor Pinford’s lifted the building a few millimetres onto rails and with hydraulic jacks pushed the building back, allowing it, a few days later to settle onto its new foundations.

Interested members of the Ipswich Historic Buildings Trust were inspecting the timber framed buildings next door to the school when they decided that this was not simply a 16th Century domestic property but that it was probably an earlier industrial workshop building, albeit with Victorian lean-too extensions. The ceiling heights of the ground floor rooms were too high for simply domestic use, and the roof had been raised, on short studs above the wall plate, again to create a high ceiling workshop room. The authorities were lobbied, the building saved and it was surveyed, tagged, dismantled and moved, to Villa Farm, Tuddenham for short-term storage.

What was the Ipswich Historic Buildings Trust to do with this timber-framed ancient building?  It needed to be re-erected somewhere, preferably in central Ipswich, close to where it had stood for some 450 years. The building remained in store at Tuddenham for six years until a chance meeting with a contractor, Jackson Projects, who at the at time had just started building a large modern office block in Silent Street (today the Social Security offices). There was a corner of this plot that wasn’t earmarked for the new building but if left empty would leave a hole in Silent Street. A wonderful opportunity for the stored timber frame to be erected and re-used presented itself.

A cursory inspection found that the overall size of the stored frame would, with some careful planning (and a tight squeeze), fit into the space available. Jackson had the courage to commit, not only to re-erecting the frame but turning it into a useable and comfortable modern commercial building. The frame was cleaned whilst still at Villa Farm, repaired with replacements in green oak which were spliced into place where the older timbers had suffered rot or insect infestation. Whilst being repaired it was discovered that the original frame was cut, not only from Suffolk oak but also chestnut, pine and ash. Once cleaned and repaired the frame was re-erected on piled foundations in Silent Street. It was then clad in a lime rich render, with lime plaster internally and, in the sandwich between the two skins, mineral wool as insulation.  The internal lime plaster was reinforced, not using the traditional horse hair (which was not plentiful in the late 20th century) but a similar man-made fibre. 

Today the building is in use as intended, a commercial office in a busy Ipswich Street, perhaps something akin to its original use when it stood in Back Street, (the pre-20th century name for Waterworks Street).

Project Architect: Doug Mackenzie, Anglian Design Team

[Source: John Norman's Ipswich icons]

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