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A low-carbon refurb makes a better place that’s better for the planet too

Cristina Monteiro

As DK-CM’s Harrow Arts Centre demonstrates, reinvigorating public buildings doesn’t have to include carbon-intensive interventions, just some imagination and an ambition to put refurbishment first

Historic buildings at Harrow Arts Centre
Historic buildings at Harrow Arts Centre Credit: Neil Perry

A decade of austerity measures has led to the near bankruptcy of many local authorities, hitting those in deprived areas the hardest. DK-CM’s work in the past nine years has supported regeneration teams in various London boroughs which are facing large financial challenges and significant pressure in relation to growth targets. Our work takes multiple forms, but is largely concerned with adapting and interpreting existing conditions – spaces and structures – in order to bring positive change in collaboration with communities. We aim to balance respect and care for existing buildings and for the communities that use them with responding appropriately to climate emergency.

As a recent example, we were commissioned by Harrow Council to write a strategic masterplan to make Harrow Arts Centre (HAC), a suburban arts venue occupying a series of historic buildings in Hatch End, a financially autonomous campus. HAC is an invaluable asset that brings culture and wellbeing to the borough – from hiring out rooms for music practice and to clubs and societies through to auditorium-scale performances. Our analysis clearly showed a substantial local need for bookable and studio space, so we developed a phased masterplan that would enrich its offer through providing new bookable space in the centre’s underused buildings, linked by reinvigorated public spaces that, with a little imagination, could also become programmed.

Inside Dk-CM's refurbished Harrow Arts Centre
Inside Dk-CM's refurbished Harrow Arts Centre Credit: Neil Perry

Housed in a series of listed and curtilage-listed buildings, HAC has often resorted to adding new, temporary buildings as a cost-effective solution to providing bookable space, especially when compared to the challenges of maintaining its richly historic fabric. Listed buildings bring with them an intrinsic character and richness, but also a much more complex, bureaucratic and costly care regime. Unchecked, this can lead to irreversible loss of the historic fabric as buildings fall into disrepair and become increasingly energy-intensive, further forcing up maintenance costs.

Our proposals sought to challenge this by developing a ‘refurbishment first’ approach. This would use light-touch, heritage-sensitive ways to turn underused buildings into good quality, bookable space, environmentally upgraded to make the most of the embodied quality and material properties of the existing structures. We were subsequently commissioned to deliver this first refurbishment phase and then to evaluate the whole campus to support HAC’s application to the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which provides grants for public sector bodies to fund energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation measures. This was about looking at the buildings imaginatively and re-evaluating the campus, seeing great spaces in structures considered ‘only fit for storage’, and integrating new technologies and materials with a historic context. Our hope is that careful transformations of the campus will significantly reduce the centre’s running costs while enhancing its income, physical setting and facilities in a way that is closely responsive to the historic character which is so valued locally.

We know that 80% of the buildings we'll have in 2050 are already built, and that the vast majority will require retrofitting. We also know that the work is not solely in the hands of technology innovation, and in fact a lot of the technology is already available. To undertake this careful balancing act between respecting the historic environment and updating our stock in a way that acknowledges the climate emergency requires design intelligence and imagination, and for the industry to adjust and value this intelligence and imagination. The recent award of the Pritzker Prize to Lacaton & Vassal is a big step forward in this, valuing work which understands unnecessary demolition as violence.



Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) recently hosted a series of lectures on the circular economy. It asked the built environment industry to think of buildings as ‘material resources’, and this has resonated a lot with DK-CM’s recent work. Understanding, valuing and diagnosing the fabric of existing buildings as spatial and material constructs is the logical first step, while also operating within – and mediating the needs of – planning, building control, funding streams and clients to achieve significant improvements that can be measured in terms of carbon, spatial quality and social value. 

Looking at our work on HAC from a Covid-recovery perspective, we feel that its approach could be widely applicable in terms of retrofitting existing public and community buildings to provide a richer, more generous offer to local communities and which arrests the loss we have seen in recent years of these spaces. A growing number of local authorities are declaring a climate emergency and setting pledges for carbon neutrality by 2030. This needs to be matched with a greater commitment to public space and social infrastructure. Much of this commitment can and must be delivered through seeing and transforming our existing buildings with greater design intelligence.

Cristina Monteiro is co-founder of DK-CM