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Remade in Chelsea

Peregrine Bryant’s new berths for the famous Pensioners have brought Wren’s Royal Chelsea Hospital comfortably in to the 21st century

Social corridor reinstated to full width, west wing.
Social corridor reinstated to full width, west wing. · Credit: June Buck

When Christopher Wren designed the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1692, each In-­Pensioner lived in a 6ft x 6ft windowless cubicle just big enough for a bed, table and chair with a shutter opening onto a wide corridor with views over the hospital grounds. While there had been quite a few improvements since then, by the time architect Peregrine Bryant was asked to carry out a feasibility study for the hospital’s restoration in 2006, it’s fair to say that the 17th century accommodation did not meet 21st century expectations, in particular the not unreasonable desire for en-suite facilities. To prove it, numbers were falling due to lack of demand. Clearly, something had to be done to safeguard the hospital’s use as a retirement home for army veterans.

A decade later and it’s a very different picture. After the completion of a £20 million restoration, all the ‘wards’ and their oak-panelled ‘berths’ have been restored and enquiries are up to join the community – now there’s even a waiting list.

So how did Peregrine Bryant do it? The architect’s solution was both radical and traditional. On the one hand, the back-to-back layout of the wards has fundamentally changed, but on the other, the new design restores Wren’s emphasis on a social corridor, counteracting the concern that residents might retreat to their new, larger, rooms.

‘For the original use to continue the building had to change… the challenge was taking forward the major interventions needed in this grade I listed building and persuading English Heritage and the local authority that they were justified,’ said Bryant.

Annotated plan showing the original arrangements (above) and the refurbishment plan (below), with one social corridor removed and replaced by extended bedrooms.
Annotated plan showing the original arrangements (above) and the refurbishment plan (below), with one social corridor removed and replaced by extended bedrooms.

In the original design, the cell-like panelled bedrooms were arranged in the middle of the plan flanked by two social corridors running alongside the windows. When the lengthy restoration began, the original berths had already been enlarged from 4.18m2 to 7.52m2, reducing the corridor widths, but were still without their own bathrooms, direct daylighting or ventilation control – all key ambitions of the restoration. To create the necessary larger en-suite bedrooms, something clearly had to give, and it was decided to have just one rather than two rows of bedrooms, pushed to the perimeter to give each IP an opening window, and enlarged to accommodate an en-suite wet room and WC while retaining the open-ceilinged study area overlooking the corridor. This arrangement also allowed the architect to create a wider communal area with large easy chairs and tables.

These improvements reduced the number of berths in the long wards to 20 per floor, taking the total number from 288 to 205. However, further new accommodation for 100 pensioners has been created in a refurbished building elsewhere on the site.

  • Wren’s original timber screen has been reused on the updated accommodation.
    Wren’s original timber screen has been reused on the updated accommodation. · Credit: June Buck
  • Finished bedroom, now with natural light and ventilation, west wing.
    Finished bedroom, now with natural light and ventilation, west wing. · Credit: June Buck
  • Original west wing first floor longer view looking south. The principle of the social corridor has been maintained in the new iteration.
    Original west wing first floor longer view looking south. The principle of the social corridor has been maintained in the new iteration. · Credit: June Buck

The restoration was hugely challenging to implement due to the variations in levels and joinery that made setting out each berth a special case. First the whole ward was cleared, with each individual piece of oak joinery carefully labelled and then restored to remove centuries of darkening polish. A false ceiling was replaced with a new higher one to accommodate servicing such as the new misting system. When the oak panelling was re-installed in the new berth configuration, it was a particular challenge to ensure that the new bedroom walls lined up with the panelling on the walls when breaking through the original central spine wall. To accommodate the services required for the new wet rooms and two new kitchenettes on each wing, the redesign incorporated 21 wet vertical risers, two vertical electrical risers and one horizontal riser in the wetroom drop ceiling.

Both the IPs and the RHC are delighted. ‘Since the Long Wards were renovated we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of veterans applying to live at the Royal Hospital, and we believe many of them are choosing do so because of the newly upgraded facilities,’ said Andy Hickling, director of estates, facilities and quartermaster of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. ‘Peregrine Bryant’s design has not only preserved the historic fabric of the buildings left by Wren, but it’s also allowed us to continue a 300-year-old tradition of caring for those who have so loyally served our nation in the army.’

When RIBAJ visited, the social corridor was clearly fulfilling its function and IPs are keen to show off their comfortable new berths. Anyone nostalgic for the cell-like originals can visit the recreated ‘heritage berths’ on the ground floor, before returning to the comfort of their own deluxe suites.


 

Credits

Client Royal Hospital Chelsea
Architect Peregrine Bryant
Project manager Capita
Quantity surveyor Cyril Sweett
M&E consultant ch2m
Structural engineer Hockley and Dawson
Contractor Wates Construction
Subcontractor M&E ImtechMeica
Timber repair and joinery South Eastern Carpentry
French polisher F Bennett and Son
Dryliner and plasterer David Andrews Construction
Misting system Ultrasafe
Demolition Clifford Devlin Environmental Services, Bridgegap