An eye for prize work

The hardest jobs are often the most rewarding. That was certainly true for the team at Pilbeam Construction when it was tasked with building a new restaurant dining room extension for Gravetye Manor Hotel, West Sussex.

For one thing, Gravetye Manor is Grade I listed, and it sits within 35-acres of Grade II* listed gardens created in the late 1880s; the building itself was originally constructed in 1598. The new dining room, however, is a thoroughly modern affair, consisting of floor to ceiling glass walls to offer diners an uninterrupted view of the stunning grounds. Ensuring the contemporary complemented the historic was, of course, quite the challenge – but it wasn’t the only one. Gravetye Manor is a 17-bedroom luxury hotel, with many international awards; it’s in high demand, so it was essential that the work was completed before the summer season began. Then there was the weather to contend with.

“The hotel was shut in January 2018 and we had to have it ready to hand back and be fully functional by 11 May, so we had less than five months to complete the project,” said Zoe Wilson, business development manager. “It was quite challenging, digging the excavation for instance, and we had quite a harsh winter this year. There were a few things weather-wise going against us.”

A further spokesperson for the Brighton-based company added: “Access was difficult, and a 350-tonne crane was used to lift all plant, materials, spoil and the like, around rather than over this Grade I-listed building. To meet the programme requirements, the building was designed, and products measured and manufactured prior to commencing work on site.”

The company worked with architect Charles Knowles on the multi-million pound project. The works took in the demolition of the basement structure within the courtyard, enabling works, and the construction of the new restaurant, the basement plant room, stores, a flower room, and toilets. Despite the difficulties inherent to the project, Pilbeam’s team got the job done and made the deadline. The results speak for themselves, and by all accounts the new restaurant has gone down a treat with the hotel’s guests. “With a difficult timeframe, Pilbeam did an excellent job,” said Andrew Thomason, managing director of Gravetye Manor. “They managed the project well, liaising with myself and the team. The two managers, Glen and Tom, were outstanding from the start and very accommodating to our requirements.”

Pilbeam prides itself on such a can-do attitude and a collaborative approach. “We have a proven track record in delivering challenging projects on time and within budget, including those in demanding live environments,” it says. As a company, Pilbeam is a family firm that was established back in 1955. It employs 34 people and last year had a turnover of around £15 million. Its contracts have ranged from £400,000 to upwards of £5 million. It works across East and West Sussex, into Hampshire, parts of Surrey, and into west Kent.

At its core is a team of management professionals – directors, contract managers, site managers, surveyors, estimators – and support staff. On site labour is provided by its network of tried and trusted subcontractors. “Our friendly, approachable team is backed up by a wideranging supply chain,” a spokesperson said. “If specialist technical or conservation skills are needed, we have trusted people immediately to hand.” The company has won awards for its work. One of the most recent wins was in the Sussex Heritage Trust awards 2018, winning in the Building Crafts and Best Commercial Building categories for its work at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum.

Working with architect ABIR, the £3.5 million project involved Pilbeam in the construction of a new gateway building for the Grade II* park and garden museum. Timber was used throughout the building, with a Green Oak frame; it was very much designed to showcase innovation and best practice in the use of such construction techniques and materials. For Pilbeam, it’s a project that not only shows off its awardwinning efforts, like Gravetye Manor, it also shows something of the company’s eye for melding the new with the old in a sympathetic manner.