As good as new

Why should refurb be seen as newbuild’s poor relation?

Remember when ‘refurbishment’ used to be deemed somehow inferior to new-build, even though its greater complexities commanded higher fees? I’m tempted to make the case that it is now regarded as of equivalent value. Today, surely architecture is just architecture, nobody draws such distinctions, existing buildings find new uses or are adapted with elements of new-build, the boundaries are thoroughly blurred. In this special RIBA awards issue, it’s notable how many of the schemes are either accomplished conversions or new buildings incorporating elements – sometimes sizeable – of the existing.

Going back into the recent past, think of buildings by a Royal Gold Medallist – David Chipperfield – and a Stirling Prize winner – Stanton Williams. Specifically, think of Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin and Stanton Williams’ Central St Martins art school in London. Nobody thinks any the less of those buildings on the grounds that they started from existing historic structures in bad shape. Indeed, plenty of high-profile practices have made their names in refurb, including the present Stirling Prize holder, Haworth Tompkins. It was notable that while its Liverpool Everyman Theatre was all-new (its first such theatre) it didn’t feel that way, not least because of the way it recycled the bricks of what was originally a chapel on the site along with other materials such as concrete shuttering boards. And in student work I’ve been critting this year, the re-use force seems strong. New? Old? Who cares, when the meeting of the two can be revelatory?

When money’s tight, new virtues are suddenly found in previously despised old buildings that surprisingly turn out to be rather well built

Certainly the recession gave impetus to this approach, as recessions always do. When money’s tight, new virtues are suddenly found in previously despised old buildings that surprisingly turn out to be rather well built. To this add the powerful sustainability argument and the fact that certain commercial developers have noticed they can reduce build times, and so start to recoup investment costs faster, if they re-use, say, existing foundations and frames where appropriate. This is especially encouraging: it obviously makes sense for what’s already there to be seen as a resource rather than an inconvenience. 

Chipperfield is at it again: his £50m Royal Academy development, once more involving his old collaborator Julian Harrap, will skilfully weave new into the old alongside more conventional re-organisation and refurb. Doubling the RA in size and transforming its activities, it is promised for completion in the 250th anniversary year of the Academy – 2018. It takes a lot of very hard work to make this job look so effortless. And there’s the rub. Yes, I’m tempted to suggest that refurb and new-build are today regarded as of equal value. But that is not true everywhere, sadly. Serviceable, empty old mills, warehouses and shops – and existing houses – still stand empty and decaying in towns and cities across much of the UK while housebuilders make hay in the green fields on the outskirts. Just because its easier. And that can’t be right.