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Richard Griffiths seeks a better name for the architecture of adaptation

Richard Griffiths

The architects that redesign buildings need a title worthy of the work

Lambeth Palace, redesigned by Richard Griffiths Architects.
Lambeth Palace, redesigned by Richard Griffiths Architects. Credit: Dennis Gilbert.

In response to global warming, the redesign of existing buildings has become the most compelling preoccupation of architects. The general public has also begun to appreciate the carbon cost of demolition, notably through the campaign to retain the Marks & Spencers building on Oxford Street.

Architects who specialise in altering buildings may have been pioneers in minimising embodied carbon, albeit unwittingly, but we also seek to contribute to residents’ lives and the attractiveness of surroundings: the full Vitruvian triad of commodity, firmness and delight. I therefore do not like the description ‘retrofit’, which seems to limit our role to one of thermal upgrading. I also dislike the term ‘conservation architect’, which suggests a narrow technical focus on materials and repair.

Naming what we do has been a source of confusion for decades. First it was called ‘preservation’, in reaction to wartime destruction and later comprehensive redevelopment. Then it became ‘conservation’, recognising the need for continuity and change. Americans call it ‘adaptive reuse’. Others have called it ‘refurbishment’, ‘renewal’ or ‘renovation’ – all clunky words that deny its place as a branch of the art of architecture.

I think we should be known as ‘redesign architects’, just as architects for new buildings are called ‘design architects’. Names inform perception, and altering buildings should be recognised as equal to the creation of new ones – as it has been throughout most of history. We must welcome a new focus on redesigning buildings for a sustainable future, but let us ensure that the new layers and the totality are worthy of the name of architecture. 

Richard Griffiths, director, Richard Griffiths Architects


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