Towering powerhouse

Manchester’s highest Grade II listed building is to be saved and reclad in solar panels, making it Europe’s tallest solar-powered generator.

In a novel blending of listed architecture rescue and modern technology, Manchester’s tallest building, the CIS Tower, is to be fitted with solar panels, converting it into Europe’s highest solar-powered generator.

Three sides of the building’s service tower will be clad in photovoltaic panels capable of generating 180MW hours/year — enough to power 1,000 desktop PCs or make nine million cups of tea. Construction has started with a view to begin installing the panels by August, and the project should be completed in December.

The 25-storey, Grade II listed building is over 40 years old and the service tower, which is clad in 14 million mosaic tiles, needs maintenance work to stop the tiles from becoming detached.

Andrew Simpson, head of the project for the building’s owner CIS, explained that these tiles will be stabilised with concrete and then held in place by wire mesh. The solar panels, each containing seven modules, will then be placed over the mesh and mounted to a frame fixed to the tower. Manufactured by Sharp in Japan, the panels have been designed to match the shape of the tower.

Simpson said that ensuring the tiles were not removed was critical to being granted permission to carry out the renovation. ‘As a Grade II listed building, the sustainability angle was the key in securing consent,’ he said.

He acknowledged that at a cost of £5.5m — plus an £885,000 grant from the Northwest Regional Development Agency (NWDA) and a further £175,000 from the DTI — the project is more expensive than other methods, but he believes this is offset by environmental benefits and public acceptance.

‘As this is a Grade II listed building, to change its appearance without there being a benefit would obviously be objectionable to others,’ he said. So the panels provide an opportunity to restore the tower to its original state.

‘Although we are delighted to be producing green electricity through our building, the other reason for doing this is that it’s the most sustainable way of recladding the building,’ said Simpson.

While some may question the idea of the effectiveness of solar panels in the north of England, the panels will produce electricity in overcast conditions. So even if it were raining, the panels would generate electricity, which would be transferred to direct current in the building.

It’s thought that the development, one of 17 solar projects currently receiving £1.4m of government funding, may signal a change in the function of similar buildings, replacing functionless cladding with solar cladding.

A similar scheme is planned for King’s Meadow House in Reading, the Thames regional headquarters for the Environment Agency. The funding will enable the installation of 176 solar-powered modules to be fitted to the east and south sides of the house, forming two curved arrays.

‘We very much hope the CIS Tower will be a demonstration project to show other organisations that it is possible to gain green electricity on a large scale,’ said Simpson.