Admit it: during the height of the school-building boom, when there weren’t enough experienced architects in the UK to crank out the designs at the speed required by the programme, did the thought not strike you that some perfectly sound existing buildings were being needlessly sacrificed? Of course it did, we all thought that. With certain honourable exceptions, it was a nationwide dash for new-build.
And now, the money having long ago run out, we have the new normal. Not just for schools, but for everything. Though of course this is really the old normal: to convert, to extend, to infill rather than to clear away and start again. Some buildings may be intractably difficult to adapt, especially to new uses – and in the world’s economic hotspots nearly all buildings must be regarded as short-life. But in the UK things are generally different, and not just because of our conservation instinct. The moment you start to regard existing buildings as a valuable resource rather than as a problem, then you’re half-way there.
Plainly there is a strong moral, anti-waste, low-carbon argument for re-use where possible, but perhaps not enough attention is paid to the creative aspects of this demanding work. If there’s one thing architects are supremely good at, it’s finding ingenious and elegant ways to work with existing stock. And when the construction upturn comes – this year, next year, whenever – let’s not forget these skills. Let’s continue to question needless demolition.
David John Whitehead, 1961 – 2018
Talented and knowledgeable all-round architect