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Preserves and jams

Jane Duncan

Don’t get bogged down in the debate over conservation, reuse and new build

How will we know it’s us without our past? – John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

Buildings have always been altered to suit changing needs. Delve deeper into ‘adaptive reuse’ and you’ll meet controversy over the benefits of renovation vs façadism or an uneasy compromise between preservation and demolition. But retention and reuse of older buildings can play a pivotal role in the sustainable use and enjoyment of a city. 

All our cities have unprotected buildings which have artistic, cultural, architectural or local historic merit. Many are well-constructed and remain fit for further use; and contribute to the character of a place. In Dublin, the City Heritage Plan put this  into practice by ‘promoting environmental, economic and cultural sustainability’, including an economic review with case-study buildings, where the cost of demolition and rebuilding was compared to the cost of retention and re-use, in relation to building costs, environmental analysis and whole life costs. 

Demolition and new build are often still seen as a more straightforward way to develop, and there is a misconception that new build is always more economical than adaptation. Energy efficiency is often cited for new build, but the reasons for keeping, maintaining and reusing buildings are manifold. 

A study by the Empty Homes Agency however found that a refurbished house gave off 15 tonnes of embodied CO2 compared to the 50 tonnes given off by a new one. The BRE found that for offices, refurbishment is always environmentally more beneficial and cheaper than demolition and rebuilding, as long as air conditioning is not used. 

The Dublin study was clear: re-use of buildings is ‘a viable alternative to demolition and new construction, with additional environmental and cultural benefits that translate to more profitable buildings in the long term’ except where a very high degree of repair and refurbishment is required. A study on UK rental returns for listed buildings also showed that they consistently outperformed new build structures for the last five years.

A study on UK rental returns for listed buildings also showed that they consistently outperformed new build structures for the last five years

Regeneration includes change, and conservation is the management of that change, but a building’s survival must rely on its being suitable for a relevant new use. Existing structures offer exciting opportunities for architects’ creative thinking. Imaginative interdisciplinary interventions are needed. 

The knowledge, principles and philosophy of conservation are thus not just relevant to very special historic or listed buildings, but to most of our urban and rural fabric, with about 50% of all architects’ work including repair, maintenance, adaptation and conservation of built heritage in all its diverse forms. With its Conservation Register, and hugely popular Conservation Course, the RIBA continues to support both members and the wider industry to gain and develop vital skills for both reuse and conservation.

It’s not possible or even desirable to reuse all older buildings, so part of the renewal process must include new buildings. Despite wonderful award winning examples, public debate continues about the appropriateness of contemporary architectural insertions into historic urban areas. Change in our cities is however inevitable, and necessary if we are to avoid living in a museum. Contemporary buildings will play a role in creating the heritage of the future. 

We’ll be remembered more for what we destroy than what we create – Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters 

This article was written using 100% recycled words (With apologies to Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters)

Doric Club lunch 3 July

New Doric Club chair, Richard Saxon, invites all RIBA members who are retired or over the age of 65 to join us for the annual Doric Club lunch this summer. The lunch offers an opportunity to remain in contact with the Institute and come together in the Florence Hall among friends, former colleagues and contemporaries to celebrate the past, present and future of architecture.  Find out more here