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Reinventing old buildings layer by layer

Michèle Woodger

Reimagining existing structures by adding layers to their fabric was the theme of this year’s RIBA Journal/Norbord Europe competition

dVVT’s PC Caritas takes a derelict psychiatric building and dramatically brings it back into use.
dVVT’s PC Caritas takes a derelict psychiatric building and dramatically brings it back into use. Credit: Filip Dujardin.


Hilder's Yard by Paper Architecture with Bethan Watson

Tricorn Pods by Harriet Stride
Dead in the Water by Colin Sim, Malcolmson Architects
Co-working (with cats) by Facture Architects Ltd

Kreft by Megan Coe
Fixed Fashion by Matthew Cooper and Sarah Rogers
Inhabited Walls: Reimagining Kirkton Steadings by Reuben Roberts and Lucy Maughan
Sancta Civitas by Charles Wellingham, Fergus Connolly and Joe Franklin


Oriented strand board (OSB) is a material of layers. It derives its distinctive texture, appearance and strength from compressed and bonded wooden strands which visibly crisscross and overlap across the surface of the board. So it seems apt that the Second Skin competition should call on entrants to peel back, subtract, strip, swaddle and substitute dilapidated building elements, layer by layer, with Norbord’s SterlingOSB Zero. 

Reimagining old buildings by adding or removing layers of their fabric is a theme common to several successful recent projects.  Notable examples include the Matsuzaki Kindergarten Playroom (2019) by Shigeru Aoki, which incorporates a semi-dismantled 100-year-old Japanese house within an outer steel frame; and Second Home London Fields (also 2019) – Cano Lasso’s Frei Otto-inspired adaptive reuse of a drab 1960s concrete structure into a co-working space, which drapes it in a translucent EFTE membrane. Such projects work with and augment the existing materials, injecting the building with renewed vitality.

Norbord Europe and RIBA Journal’s competition, now in its sixth year, sought proposals to give run-down buildings a new lease of life. The brief challenged candidates to take a ‘considered and imaginative approach’ to a building conversion, updating environmental credentials and supplanting elements with Norbord SterlingOSB Zero so as to maximise the material’s capabilities as a high-strength, precision-engineered, structural board, devising a contextual and better-performing building. Ultimately, as RIBA Journal senior editor Jan-Carlos Kucharek explained, the entrants should ‘find joy in the context’.

Designs and material choices that prioritise sustainability, occupants’ wellbeing, ethical supply chains and versatile uses have never been more crucial

The concept couldn’t be more topical. With home-working rapidly becoming the new norm and the government’s controversial extension of Permitted Development Rights in England allowing certain buildings to be converted into homes without needing planning permission, repurposing moribund structures may well become a common theme for architects. Designs and material choices that prioritise sustainability, occupants’ wellbeing, ethical supply chains and versatile uses have never been more crucial.

The entrants responded to these topical challenges with a range of concepts which varied enormously in scale, function, cost, practicality and seriousness. Three schemes were commended and a further four made the long-list. The judges found Facture Architects’ already-built homeworking space, Co-working (with cats), timely and practical, and its entertaining yet precise Ikea-manual-style illustrations ‘enchanting’ (in the words of judge Hana Loftus). In complete contrast was the provocatively titled Dead in the Water by Colin Sim of Malcolmson Architects, which was admired for its ‘Scandi noir’ aesthetic (Kucharek’s observation). Harriet Stride’s reinvention of Tricorn House, a dismal brutalist office block in Stroud, into co-working pods, was praised for cost-effectively bringing ‘warmth’ to a dreary building while demonstrating a clear understanding of material properties. 

The judges unanimously stood behind the overall winner, Paper Architecture and Bethan Watson’s designs for Hilder’s Yard. The disused site of a former garage in Sevenoaks, Kent, is transformed into a mixed-use retail scheme for small local businesses and social enterprises in a supportive commercial model. The integration between the original Victorian structures and a prefabricated Norbord SterlingOSB Zero insertion was ‘seductively presented’, said judge Jim Reed, and managed to be both ‘extremely atmospheric’ while also conscious of details. Fellow judge Stephen Proctor found the project’s ‘temporary nature and evolving proposition’ particularly suitable to economically challenging post-pandemic times. As Norbord Europe’s marketing manager David Connacher nicely summarised: ‘Hilder’s Yard made measured use of OSB, such that it was not overwhelming, and made appropriate use of the material in the most innovative context; it is a fair, worthy and right winner.’ 

David Connacher, marketing manager, Norbord Europe Ltd
Jan-Carlos Kucharek, senior editor, RIBA Journal 
Hana Loftus, director, HAT Projects
Stephen Proctor, founding director, Proctor and Matthews
Jim Reed, director, Reed Watts Architects
Christina Seilern, principal, Studio Seilern Architects
Gurmeet Sian, director, Office Sian Architecture + Design

Lockdown spurs creativity

This is the sixth year that Norbord Europe has teamed up with the RIBA Journal for a competition that challenges architects to use Norbord’s flagship OSB brand, SterlingOSB Zero. And what a year it has been so far! Firstly, I hope you are all safe of course; and secondly, I hope your business is thriving and even booming as the building and planning landscape heads for a new future.

Since we have all learned how to use Zoom, Teams and TikTok, nothing was going to stop us continuing with our ever-popular competition with its £2,500 first prize. So, remote was the way to go in terms of the judging process. This proved as engaging as ever, and technology made it almost as much fun as in ‘normal’ times.
The Second Skin idea is particularly relevant today – though we did not know that when we chose the theme. The use of buildings may change – offices to residential for instance – so the challenge was to come up with proposals that ‘take existing, dated, energy-profligate buildings and give them a 21st-century reboot, repurposing them with Norbord’s SterlingOSB to generate both a new functionality and improved environmental performance’.

We looked for imaginative responses and we got them; the entries comprised a variety of innovative, quirky and contemporary designs. It seems home-working and lockdown certainly got the creative juices going.

Thanks to everyone who entered and we hope to ‘see’ you next year! Stay safe.

David Connacher, marketing manager, 
Norbord Europe

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