Historic buildings embrace the future

Sensemaking / Historic buildings embrace the future

Our buildings have been adapting to survive over centuries of modernisation. Now, they are facing up to new challenges, writes Fiona King.

12 Jan 2012

Our buildings have been adapting to survive over centuries of modernisation. Now, they are facing up to new challenges, writes Fiona King.

As a self-confessed enthusiast of all things heritage, I love the stately homes, ancient churches, and many of the other beautiful historic buildings that Britain has been building for centuries.

But I’m even more excited when I discover that these buildings are not what they seem: when they reveal adaptations and additions that are surprising, creative and even challenging. And this is happening more and more. Once considered static, sacred and untouchable, the rhetoric around our heritage buildings has moved towards one of managed change and conservation, rather than simple preservation.

This can only be good for their long-term sustainability. Buildings – all buildings, regardless of heritage status – must adapt to survive, just as they have always done. Historic houses are often displayed and interpreted as if frozen in time – but the truth is that the buildings we see now are the products of centuries’ worth of retrofit. Take lighting. It’s progressed from candles to electricity, involving the embedding of wires and cables in precious historic fabric. Heating, meanwhile, has developed from wood and coal to oil or gas. Buildings have to adapt to survive. And with 3% of Grade I and Grade II listed buildings in England at risk, sensitive retrofitting might be their only chance to do so.

The Churches Conservation Trust is doing exactly that with All Souls [pictured], a redundant Grade II-listed church in one of the poorest parts of Bolton, Lancashire, which is to be reborn as a community centre. Its pews and floor are being removed to make way for separate pods to create a ‘building within a building’. The design leaves the historic fabric untouched, while enabling huge savings by heating individual pods as needed, rather than the whole interior.

Such radical transformations can be controversial, and there is a balance to be struck in maintaining what makes an historic building special and what can be done to ensure its long-term sustainability. The best starting point to reach such a decision, believes architect Simon Erridge, Director at Bennetts Associates, is to carry out a robust historical analysis of the building, and identify the especially significant elements. The firm led the refurbishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Grade II*-listed theatre building – which saw Bennetts nominated for the 2011 RIBA Stirling prize. “[We] performed major surgery inside”, Erridge explains, while retaining the original façade and foyer. “There are always opportunities to intervene [while retaining] the building’s character”, he adds.

There are also opportunities for less visible retrofitting of heritage buildings that can nonetheless contribute towards their sensitive adaptation. Lafarge worked hard to create a concrete product based on locally-sourced recycled rail ballast, that would blend in aesthetically as part of Nottingham Trent University’s regeneration of some of its Grade II* listed buildings. “The key here was that the product was both local and green but also achieved the architect’s vision”, says Felicity Jelly from Lafarge A&C UK. “Hopefully legislation will push clients and contractors in the direction of developing more products like this for heritage work.”

And who knows? Perhaps our contemporary additions will be the heritage of the future that our descendants fight to enhance and conserve.

Fiona King is a heritage consultant at Barker Langham.

Photo: Churches Conservation Trust; Andy Marshall

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