Love in an elevator.... testing mast: The National Lift Tower
El Reg shows where you can go and get truly shafted
Geek's Guide to Britain The Tower rises above the flat plain of the Nene valley near Northampton - for centuries home of Britain’s shoe industry, but these days better known as the home town of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, comics auteur Alan Moore and El Reg operations manager Matt Proud - like some kind of latter-day Barad Dûr or Orthanc.
The sinister cylinder, reaching 128 metres up from the ground, isn’t cut from black stone, but formed from concrete as grey as the Midlands sky. Its smooth surface is punctuated only by a series of viewports, black against the smokey wall - they hardly warrant the word "window", with its connotations of illumination. The peak is terminated with a series of jutting steps and gaping maws like some massive crenelation from which a Dark Lord might gaze forth across his domain.
Concrete and steel
In fact, this monument to 1970s design and 1980s construction was built for far more mundane purposes. Now called the National Lift Tower, it was originally raised by the Express Lift Company for testing elevators prior to installation, and for training the engineers who would tackle the lifts’ maintenance.
Express had been manufacturing lifts in Northampton since 1909 when one of its founding firms, Smith Major & Stevens, moved out of London and established the Abbey Works, so called because it was constructed on the site of a Medieval monastery. Construction work on the factory was frequently interrupted by the unplanned exhumation of many a cenobite’s skeletal remains.
Like the monks of the Augustinian Abbey of St James, Express has long since shuffled off its mortal coil. Its original owner having gone to the great winching room in the sky in the mid 1990s, the NLT is now no longer used for testing elevator rigs before they go into buildings, but rather for R&D across industry and academe. These days it’s as likely to welcome a group of weekend abseilers as a team of elevator maintenance trainees.
Located just a conversion kick from Northampton Rugby Football Club’s Franklin’s Gardens ground - go, Saints! - the Tower’s facilities include six lift shafts of varying heights and speeds, one of which is a high-speed tube with a travel of 100 metres and a theoretical maximum speed of ten metres per second. The Tower also has a drop-test facility with a height of 30 metres and a lifting capacity of 10 tonnes. The building also encompasses what the current operators sinisterly describe as a “void used for research” - it’s 77 metres deep.
I peered through the foot-diameter hole used to send smaller objects on their way down, and it’s not a view for those with a fear of heights. The tower isn’t generally open to the public, but I was kindly shown around by Ed Wright, one of the three-man team that now runs the NLT. In a former life, Ed was a server wrangler, and one of his many tasks as the Tower’s administrator and factotum is implementing the facility’s IT network and AV set-up.
When the NLT partnership took over the Tower five years ago, there were almost no facilities remaining within the concrete shell. The building wasn’t derelict, but in the years since Express Elevators’ collapse, the firm’s subsequent acquisition by US lift colossus Otis and the eventual sale of the land on which the Abbey Works had been established, the Tower saw little use.
Winch control de nos jours: to upgrade your motor, just download a firmware update
Not so now. Ed and partners Pete Sullivan - the building’s owner - and Matthew Fenn had the Tower reconnected to the grid and other key utilities, fitted out workshops and training rooms, and began to pitch the building to the elevator world as a unique research and development facility in the UK. The NLT is currently being rigged with the latest in winching systems - one of which will allow ascent speeds of 17 metres per second or more, using a gearless magnetic mechanism and microprocessor control - and the buffers used to arrest carriages descending at such high speeds. It’s getting a hi-tech hydraulic lift system too.
And it’s not just the lift industry that has expressed an interest in the old Express tower, says Ed. Boffins and engineering companies from across Europe now use the Tower to test and evaluate safety systems for technicians working at great heights - and miners working at great depths, since the Tower’s voids can simulate shafts descending into the Earth’s crust just as well as they can the side of a mast supporting a power-generation turbine.
If it’s dangled or dropped from a great height, or has to move up and down the space in between, the Tower has room to test it.
And its cheaper, says Ed, briefly donning his sales hat, than specially rigging up a tower crane to do it.
The gaps at the top prevent the Tower swaying in high winds
This is today - back in the mid 1930s, elevator people had to make do with Express Lifts’ first tower, an 18-metre job rising up through the roof of the Abbey Works plant. This erection satisfied Express engineers’ needs for the following 40 years, but in the late 1970s it was decided they had to have something rather larger - a building tall enough, in point of fact, to give high-speed lifts the space not only to accelerate up to speed but to run for a suitable distance and then decelerate and come safely to a stop.
Planned with an operational life of 25-40 years, the new tower would contain not only test shafts each running at various speeds, but service lifts and training rigs for maintenance crews and rescue personnel. Should the power be lost, workers could ascend and descend the Tower using a staircase running up the full, 20-storey height of the building, lit by daylight, and zigg-zagging its way up through the structure.
Source: Express Lift Company/The National Lift Tower
The Tower’s design, by architects Stimpson and Walton of Northampton, was finalised in 1980 and work began shortly afterward, with London-based Tileman and Co handling the construction work. Raising the tower took just over two weeks, with concrete being poured into a series of moulds which would rise up on the dry concrete below as the tower’s height increased. The peak rate of growth: 300mm an hour, or 7.2 metres a day.
Pausing only to curse Windows 8’s Modern UI - once an IT pro, always an IT pro - Ed shows me the company’s collection of photos taken during the Tower’s construction.
The Tower was built on a 24-metre wide, three-metre thick concrete "raft", set down in two separate pourings. The raft allows the 4,000-tonne Tower to float on the soggy soil prevalent in these parts. Ed describes the set-up as a “pencil balancing on an aspirin”. From the raft, the tower tapers through roughly half of its height before rising as a cylinder from then on, its diameter shrinking from 14.6 metres at the base to 8.5 metres. The tapering helps the Tower withstand the buffeting of the wind.
Britain’s lift capital, once
The Tower’s unusual peak helps too, acting to dampen lateral movement in high winds. The trick was to leave the concrete outer cover off the upper section, exposing the lift shafts and walkways to “reduce the suction force on the leeward side by virtue of the through-holes and irregular shape breaking up the vortex effect”, as Express Lifts’ own description of the facility puts it.
Above and below are glass-sealed decks, but the top level is open to the elements. It provides a splendid view of Northamptonshire and surrounding counties, but most of the folk who go up there these days immediately go sliding down the outer skin on ropes after climbing out over a gantry that originally held a BT point-to-point microwave transceiver. A second dish, aiming south, is still there, but unused.
On completion, the Tower was “one of the tallest lift testing towers in the world” and one of only two of its kind in Europe, was formally opened by the Queen on 12 November 1982.
Lozenge lounge: the Tower’s windows were designed to match Express’ lift controls
Express Lifts itself was formed in 1928 through the merger of Smith Major & Stevens (SMS), GEC Elevators and Easton Lifts, though the firm could trace its history back to the 1770s thanks to SMS’ long history as a maker of hoisting gear.
In the early 1990s, Express merged again, this time with fellow UK lift company Evans, but the partnership was not successful and the combined company soon went bust. It was acquired by US elevator giant Otis, which still uses the Express & Evans brand in some installations.
Otis may have been keen to keep the brand, but it wasn’t interested in the Tower. The American company quickly sought to capitalise upon its acquisition by selling off the land on which the Abbey Works was situated. The area was soon in the hands of property developers, who wanted to pull the Tower down. The building’s safety was called into question, and scare stories appeared in which it was claimed it was suffering from “concrete cancer”.
Local protest saved the Tower from demolition, even though Express’ Abbey Works was razed to the ground to make way for the housing estate in which the Tower sits more or less in the centre. Clearing the factory site at least finally allowed, in 1999, for a proper excavation of the Abbey by Northamptonshire Archaeology.
Mind your step
The Tower is now a Grade II listed building. As for the “concrete cancer”, it’s true, there were some parts of the building with a high level of ironstone in the mix, leading to rust staining on the exterior, but Ed and his colleagues were able to have them cut out and refilled, so that key modern building regulations could be met.
There’s no reason, then, that the National Lift Tower - not merely a monument to Britain’s modern industrial heritage but also, pleasingly, a working building once more - won’t gaze out across the Nene valley for many, many years to come. It can now continue to do its bit for the British light industry renaissance, at once defining Northampton’s skyline and giving the thousands who pass by on the M1 motorway something to ponder: “What the bloody heck is that for?” ®
From Junction 15A of the M1, take the A5123 North and then the A5076. Turn right onto the Weedon Road (A4500) toward Northampton Town Centre. Turn right onto The Approach, which runs right up to Tower Square.
Northampton can be reached by train from London Euston or Birmingham New Street.
The Tower is not generally open to the public, but the exterior is readily accessible for exterior photography.