21 November, 2019

Skylines all over the world are changing as tall buildings compete with one another to dominate our cities in the struggle to meet the demands of every new generation. But what if we didn’t have to build from scratch all the time? What if we could just adapt and re-use what we have?

In the race for new development it’s easy to forget the rich architectural history of our cities or overlook the buildings that have been around long before we built today’s ‘Concrete Jungle’. The pressure is on society to use resources much more sparingly and to develop sustainably. That means we can no longer assume that buildings have a single life span attached to their original purpose, or that once it’s over, they become redundant. Making the case for reusing older buildings that have outlived their original purpose is vital. Often, heritage assets make a significant contribution to the townscape as well as enriching the architectural vocabulary of our cities. Allowing older buildings to retain their architectural integrity but at the same time finding a new use for them lies at the heart of adaptive reuse. The benefits of this kind of upcycling include avoiding costly, disruptive demolition and reconstruction work, as well as allowing buildings to be brought back into use again after a shorter period of time.

Business needs are changing faster than ever, so adaptive reuse has never been more relevant. Underused church buildings are being adapted into bars and restaurants. The Pitcher and Piano in Nottingham, Barluga in Newcastle and O’Neil’s Pub in London are examples. The grand gas lit Victorian banking halls that used to line our high streets before banking went online make ideal spaces for new bars. From Tate Modern, an imaginative reuse of the old Bankside Power Station, to the Flower Market in Covent Garden, now a retail destination, heritage assets can serve a pivotal role in London’s tourism, cultural and entertainment offer. It doesn’t have to be all about grand architecture. Our own mixed use scheme at One Crown Place involves repurposing a terrace of houses into space that will be occupied by a hotel and club.

Older buildings can also be converted to provide educational facilities. Many universities and colleges have acquired older Victorian, Gothic style buildings because they contain large rooms that can be used for lecture halls. The Arkwright Building in Nottingham was previously a natural history museum but is now occupied by Nottingham Trent University. This arrangement works for everyone as many older buildings are Listed and can’t be redeveloped easily, so a new use that doesn’t require major changes allows them to continue to serve a useful purpose. This architectural style has a rich history, in 1920s America entire universities were built in a Gothic style.

The Unison Centre in Marylebone Road shows adaptive reuse in action. Alongside Squire and Partners new building for the trade union, the former Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, a Grade 2 Listed building was adapted by Donald Insall Associates to form a vital part of the development of this whole site which saw both buildings linked by a new glazed atrium. Although restoration and adaptation can be complex, it can offer a much more sustainable route to providing new accommodation in buildings that come with their own character.

All these buildings have found a place in the modern world and their life has been extended, allowing them to thrive with their new purpose. So, does adaptive reuse offer opportunities to the Knowledge Sector? Heritage and history are qualities often associated with knowledge-based organisations and older buildings often come with a variety of internal spaces that don’t suit an office user or convert easily to residential accommodation but are ideal for an organisation looking for a mix of spaces for private and public use, like libraries, meeting spaces, auditoria and lecture rooms. There is an irony here that many long- stablished knowledge organisations already occupy period buildings that started their lives as large private residences before they were repurposed.

Recycling and reusing plastics, cardboard and other materials is now second nature. We need to adopt the same attitude to our buildings. It’s one of the most sustainable methods of development. Adaptive reuse offers an effective strategy to reinvigorate and extend the life of heritage buildings, and take advantage of their inherent qualities.

As project managers, our focus is always on providing flexible and efficient buildings that meet the needs of an organisation’s members, staff and the public. Heritage buildings come with ready-made architectural and historical character. For Knowledge Sector organisations they offer the perfect opportunity to express their own history and values in an old, but interesting building, adapted to provide a modern working environment.