A five-storey building designed by Samuel Stevenson for the Belfast Corporation and built by W.J. Campbell & Sons between 1902 – 1906 to accommodate the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute. The college continued to operate from the building until Belfast Metropolitan College relocated to a new campus at Titanic Quarter in September 2011 and the building was placed on the market. For a more detailed history of the building scroll further down this page.
The building was acquired for £3.5m in July 2014 by a joint venture between Lacuna Developments and Watkin Jones & Sons. The consortium submitted a planning application (Z/2014/1172/F) in September 2014 proposing to refurbish and extend the building to provide 292no. en-suite bedrooms and 121no. studio bedrooms alongside a reception / management suite, outdoor and indoor communal amenity areas, plant and storage areas, and cycle parking. The application was approved in January 2015 and O’Hare & McGovern began work on site in February 2015. Work on the £16m project completed in September 2016.
John Bell House was officially opened by Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton MLA on 15th September 2016 and the first student residents moved into the building on 17th September 2016. Fresh Student Living operate the building.
History of 1a College Square East
Prior to the formation of the Municipal Technical Institute, Belfast had a number of small, private schools and colleges in operation. In the late 18th Century, Belfast Academy opened near the present day St Anne’s Cathedral (then St Anne’s Church) on Donegall Street and the Linen Hall Library was established as the Society for Promoting Knowledge. Moving into the 19th Century, the Academical Institution was established around a Georgian Square in the city (College Square) and Queen’s College (University) was constructed in the late 1840’s. College Square housed a museum, college and School of Design, and nearby at Hastings Street (current Belfast MET Millfield Campus) the Belfast Weaving School and Technical School operated.
In 1889, the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, citing inadequate facilities, a fragmented system and a lack of public funding, believed the time had come to establish a technical college in Belfast. Belfast was a developing industrial city and some of the leading figures at the time lobbied directly to the City Council to establish a technical college that would bring everything under one roof. Meanwhile in London, the Agriculture and Technical Instruction Act 1899 was being introduced. This would financially assist the City Council with establishing a college.
At the time proposals for the new college were being considered the Trustees of the Royal Academical Institution were looking to raise cash to move away from their city centre location. Previously the area behind Inst was green fields, but Belfast had expanded rapidly from around 30,000 people when Inst was established to over 300,000 in 1901. The rapid industrialization of Belfast came at a price – pollution. Inst wanted to move their students away from this and to do so they sought funds from the sale of the north lawn. In December 1899, the City Corporation’s offer for the plot on College Square East was accepted by Inst.
Construction of the new Technical College by W. J. Campbell & Sons began in November 1902 and lasted four years. Construction work, to a design by S. Stevenson, required 2,756 forty-foot wooden piles and 4,500,000 bricks. In 1904, with three of the four floors completed, a decision was taken to extend the building by adding a fifth floor to accommodate the School of Art. With alterations, the costs would rise initially from £57,000 to £81,000 – and on completion the final cost was £100,000. The building opened to students in 1906 and the following year in October 1907 a formal opening ceremony was held in the Central Hall. Among those attending the opening event were Thomas Andrews, James Craig MP, Thomas Gallagher, Lord Pirrie, Sir Otto Jaffa and Sir William Whitla.
When it opened the building was one of the first in Belfast with electricity, and phones were fitted throughout. The building even had its own radio station for communications with ships and every room had a centrally controlled clock.
Following Belfast MET’s move to a new campus at Titanic Quarter in September 2011 the building was placed on the market. A series of planning applications were also submitted to change the use of the building to hotel, residential and office uses (Z/2011/1032/F – Office / Z/2011/1033/F – Hotel / Z/2011/1043/F – Hotel & Residential / Z/2011/1044/F – Residential). This process was undertaken by Belfast MET with Consarc Conservation to make the building more attractive to potential purchasers.
In May 2012 it was reported by the BBC that Belfast MET was close to agreeing the sale of the building (along with a former MET building at Brunswick Street) in a deal worth between £4m and £5m. In March 2013 Belfast MET confirmed that negotiations were still ongoing with a number of potential purchasers. One year later in March 2014 the Belfast Telegraph reported that a deal was imminent to sell the building for redevelopment as a hotel.
In July 2014 the building was sold to a consortium comprising Watkin Jones & Sons and Lacuna Developments for £3.5m. The new owners intend to redevelop the building to provide managed student accommodation comprising 414 rooms with ancillary accommodation including ensuite bathrooms, kitchens and living accommodation.
A planning application (Z/2014/1172/F) submitted in September 2014 proposes to create 295 cluster bedrooms and 119 studios within the building. Each bedroom will have its own en-suite shower facility and a communal kitchen / lounge area for the cluster bedrooms. The living and kitchen spaces in the studios will be contained within the same space as the bedroom. Other proposed ancillary accommodation includes a reception / management suite, outdoor and indoor communal amenity areas , plant and storage areas, and cycle parking. The grand staircase, central hall and key features of the library within the Grade B+ listed building are proposed to be retained.
In November 2014 it was announced that the building will be renamed ‘John Bell House’ after Belfast Scientist John Stewart Bell who studied in the building in the early 20th century.
An amended application was submitted in December 2014 proposing “conversion, refurbishment and extension of the former college building for managed student accommodation, comprising 292 no. ensuite bedrooms with shared living rooms and kitchens and 121 no. studios, and other ancillary accommodation including a reception / management suite, communal areas. plant and storage areas and cycle parking.”
The application was approved in January 2015 and O’Hare & McGovern began work on site in February 2015. Work on the £16m project completed in September 2016. John Bell House was officially opened by Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton MLA on 15th September 2016 and the first student residents moved into the building on 17th September 2016. Fresh Student Living operate the building.