Building Secrets: Turner Street’s Giant Refrigerator

"I guess this building sums that up…form and function."

By Manchester's Finest | 28 April 2020

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At the beginning of 2014, husband and wife team Debra Burns and Chris Urwin were looking for a new, permanent home for their businesses.

Debra’s business you will know: Boss Model Agency. Founded in 1988, Boss has become known in the great fashion capitals of the world.

Chris’s business you may not have heard of. An engineer by discipline, he runs Sustainability Leadership, which help organisations to implement best practices for sustainable operations.

As Debra said when we met, “Chris and I are opposites in so many ways. I guess this building sums that up…form and function.”

The interior of 33 Turner Street is as stylish and stunning as you would expect. Form. But what I was really interested in when I chatted with Debra and Chris were the eco credentials of the building. Function.

The building – virtually derelict, pigeons, damp and rats as Debra said – was bought at auction in early 2014. By the end of 2016 – and so an almost three year project – they were in occupation.

“It’s not really coming into work,” Debra told me, “it just feels like a home.” And it must be gratifying for people who work there, as it is for visitors.

Built in 1853, this Grade Two listed building had contributed to the industrial heritage of Manchester. The couple were very aware of that and deciding to make their new home carbon neutral was, as Debra said, “Trying to contribute something to that innovative heritage for the future.”

The beauty of the building, designed by Stephenson Studios (previously featured on Manchester’s Finest) is apparent and reflects Debra’s flamboyant and eclectic taste. But the ‘engine room’ brought out the engineer in Chris, with remarkable results. And there really is an engine room that turns 33 Turner Street into what Chris describes as a ‘giant fridge.’

“It’s not new technology,” Chris told me. Told me two or three times actually, as I struggled to grasp the context. “Basically we have three giant heat pumps on the roof. Those heat pumps take in a large volume of Manchester air at say, 10°. When that air goes out again it’s probably about 7°. The heat pumps have put the air into a compressant liquid which then releases the 3° of heat extracted from a large volume, turning it into say 15° or 20° in a small volume.”

Following this? It took me several goes.

Chris saw my initial confusion and tried to summarise. “A small temperature differential in a large volume, turns into a large temperature differential in a small volume.”

Got it. I think.

So how is the heat distributed? As this is an aesthetic as well as a practical issue, Debra took up the explanation. “A radiator runs at a temperature of about 90°. This building has heating pipes throughout the ceilings, which we put in during the refurbishment and so could accommodate. Under floor heating would have caused the original timber floors to shrink. That, of course, we didn’t want. In the basement we laid a new concrete floor, so there we could put the pipes under the floor.

“Overall the heat we extract runs through the pipes at around 35° and so there’s an overall warmth, rather than hot spots.”

Chris again. “But the system is driven by renewable electricity…wind turbines, solar, hydro electric. Effectively it is just a big fridge. If you feel the back of a fridge it’s hot. That’s the air volumes being compressed to extract the heat. That heated air then effectively circulates into your kitchen, providing some latent heat.

“We actually sell a small amount of electricity back to the National Grid. We only get a fraction of a penny per unit, it’s micro power generation, but over a year that adds up to about £1,000, which helps to offset the original installation costs.

“And of course over a long period our energy cost savings pay for the expensive installation. If the Government’s target of being carbon neutral by 2050 is to be met, all new builds will have to utilise this technology.”

At which point Debra smiled and said, “You wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Chris…”

But it is fascinating and, although I’m by no means a technology or engineering geek, the ‘engine room’ – the back of the fridge – is a thing of beauty. More akin to the inside of a NASA power plant, than simply the back of a fridge.

In 1853 the power in 33 Turner Street was supplied by a giant wooden wheel that converted manpower into a goods hoist. The wheel is still there – and it still turns by hand. It’s fitting that nineteenth century Mancunian engineering is still there in a building that shows a way to powering the future.