Never let it be said I don’t know how to have a good time.
I’m standing 66 feet below street level in the largest underground building site in Birmingham.
Big enough, I’m told, to place the Town Hall or 600-odd double decker buses with ease.
Joining me on my subterranean expedition are a merry band of builders, architects and a Birmingham Post photographer. We’re all kitted out in high-vis gear to learn more about an epic engineering project going on above us.
Around us is a network of strategically-placed temporary steel structures and frames securing the sides of this vast pit. Take them away and there’s every chance the surrounding buildings would come tumbling in to where we are right now.
And at the heart of all this there are two giant cranes moving the steel components in place with pinpoint precision, slowly piecing together a six-storey underground car park called B4.
B4, however, is no ordinary car park.
Its developers, Chatham Billingham Investments, and designers, Associated Architects, say it will ‘stand out from any other car park in Birmingham’, offering ‘a unique car parking experience’.
The ‘Taj Mahal of car parks’ is another grand description I’ve heard, with the latest technology such as automatic number plate recognition and a dedicated website where members can load multiple number plates, negating the daily glovebox scramble for loose change each time the car park is used.
And this is no ordinary hole in the ground.
The site’s Printing House Street address will give away its importance to journalists and media workers as the former Post & Mail offices which used to look over Colmore Circus and reached six storeys underground, housing the newspaper group’s presses, its ‘goldfish bowl’ newsroom and assorted offices and shared spaces.
The John Madin-designed Post & Mail tower was a well-known landmark on Birmingham’s skyline before its demolition in 2005 to be replaced by Colmore Plaza. The remaining neighbouring two-storey office which formed part of the complex was sold to Chatham Billingham by Post & Mail parent company Trinity Mirror in 2008 and the newspapers moved to their current Fort Dunlop office.
The former press halls reached down six storeys below ground to accommodate the vast machinery and ink and newsprint stores needed to print thousands of newspapers seven days a week, and the space they left behind lends itself perfectly to a development such as this.
The Post & Mail site is split into two phases: Phase One will deliver the car park, a two-storey mixed-use ‘podium’ above and a retail arcade. Contractor Balfour Beatty is half way through a two-year contract with a completion date of winter 2014.
The second phase will be a multi-storey building sitting above the car park. Outline consent has been obtained to establish the height and massing of the building, which could be more than 20 storeys high.
The scale of the building work, most of which takes place underground, presented unique challenges for Balfour Beatty, to guarantee neighbouring buildings are undamaged.
Before any demolition could take place, a new structure was built around the existing one to retain the walls, a feat of engineering in itself.
Leading our guided tour is Steve Young, Balfour Beatty’s site agent for the B4 development.
“There will be six floors of basement parking up to ground level. Above that will be two floors of mixed use development,” explained Mr Young.
“We’ll build a roof on the second floor and then when the next stage of development is confirmed, the developer can take the roof off and carry on upwards.”
The B4 development will feature all the modern parking conveniences needed for both safety and functionality.
“We’re going to have one central corridor that will have fire sprinklers, CCTV and data cables for control points,” said Mr Young.
“If you want to have your number plate registered you can park where there is a bay available and be sent a bill at the end of the month. LED lighting will show available spaces.
“The lift areas will have plasma TVs and each floor will offer wi-fi,” he said.
As we reach the lowest point of the site Mr Young explains how some original features will be kept.
“The old drainage pit for printing ink and other waste is still there and will be kept to house a new pumping station,” he said.
“And even though we’re 20 metres below street level there’s another four metres of crawlways below us that give even more access.”
Mr Young had no shortage of archive material for building research, considering the former occupant of the building employed dozens of photographers and librarians. “We have lots of photographs showing the original building work. It has been great to go through the Post & Mail photography archives to see how the original building was made and this helped our demolition and building work,” he said.
Construction manager Norman Spence, who has travelled the world working on building projects, explained how this sort of development is a one-off.
“It’s been a really interesting job,” said the 66-year-old.
“We’re putting a new building in but we haven’t taken away the old Post & Mail because the four surrounding walls will be kept.
“You’ve kept the heart of the Post & Mail to create a new development and it’s incredible that the original structure will potentially support a 30-storey building when you add the six storeys of the car park to the new tower.
“This is my 51st year in construction and you’d be lucky to do three of these in your career. It’s not an everyday project.”