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Retro Future – How Adaptive Reuse Revives Awesome Architecture

30th September 2020

One of the most exciting aspects of working in construction and civil engineering is the opportunity to contribute to innovative projects which transform towns and cities for the better. 

As bricks, mortar, steel, glass and other materials bind together to rise skywards in endlessly inventive ways, they don’t just change the physical appearance of their environment – they can breathe new life into underdeveloped neighbourhoods, stimulate economies and unite communities. 

And while focusing your skills on an entirely new project can be inspirational, regenerating old buildings in innovative ways can be even more fulfilling. 

Since structural adaptation and reuse of buildings is one of the most interesting modules on our popular Construction and Civil Engineering Management MSc, lets take a look at the complex yet fascinating challenges of regenerating classic buildings. 

The case for adaptive reuse

To most of us, it’s easy to understand why an obviously ‘historic’ building, or one that’s officially listed by authorities for preservation, should be maintained and perhaps even respectfully recycled to serve the needs of modern businesses, civic organisations or citizens. 

But there’s often a heated debate around whether other buildings which may not have the official seal of approval, or even be that old, should be slated for demolition or rescued from the wrecking ball and repurposed for future generations. 

Some buildings built within the last century quickly went out of style but that doesn’t mean that their lifespans should be shortened to 50 years or so. The brutalist office block which is regarded as an eyesore by some might inspire happy memories for many who once worked in it or have simply embraced it as part of a distinctive city skyline. 

So the drive towards adaptive reuse can have economic and environmental benefits, but it also taps into psychogeography – the unique ways that built environments influence the emotions and behaviours of the people who encounter them.

Heritage-led regeneration

If you pass a historical building in your town or city centre that is still in daily use, it’s likely that it’s been saved and repurposed thanks to heritage-led regeneration, and these types of buildings have become the centrepieces of some of the most successful urban regeneration projects. 

In its Heritage Works Toolkit, the British Property Federation states that heritage-led regeneration serves several purposes; it can attract tenants who prefer distinctive buildings, contribute to sustainable development objectives, create a blueprint for new builds in the project which can borrow elements of the historical design for a blended aesthetic, and maintain a sense of place and community. 

Crucially, when reuse is applied sensitively it can also increase community involvement and engagement, as was the case with high profile historical regeneration projects like Deptford Market Yard in London and Newcastle’s Boilershop

As you can see, if you’re a construction or civil engineering manager involved in historic regeneration, your plans have to cover several diverse bases as well as exhibiting your creativity and technical expertise.

Environmentally-friendly building reuse

Repurposing old buildings can also contribute to tackling climate change and reducing our collective carbon footprint. When a building is reused, it reduces the carbon needed to build a replacement from scratch and preserves the embodied energy in the original structure. Additionally, when an older façade is preserved for the main parts, a contemporary interior can be designed that’s much more environmentally-friendly than the original, and exterior features which have fallen out of favour, like lead pipes for instance, can easily be replaced with retro-styled modern alternatives. 

Burmieston Steading in Perthshire is a fine example of an unlisted rural building skilfully repurposed for use as a complex offering accommodation, cuisine, and craft and wellbeing courses to visitors – and it’s won a Gold Green Tourism award for its adherence to eco-friendly building principles. 

A major challenge of pulling off this type of project is subtly converting a property which has been previously used for agricultural purposes for residential or commercial use, while retaining and even enhancing original features which hark back to its first incarnation. Furthermore, when additional features are added to an older building in an area of natural beauty, it’s important to blend them not only with the original edifice, but also with the surrounding countryside. 

Inspirational projects

If your construction career cards fall the right way, you might get the chance to work on large-scale adaptive research projects which ingeniously reclaim iconic buildings for future generations. Here are a few pulse-quickening projects that must have been immensely satisfying to sign off:

  • Gasometer Town in Vienna, Austria is a spectacular example of successful residential reuse. This late 1990s project converted four huge disused gasometers dating from 1896 into steampunk-style apartment blocks and the panopticon-esque internal sections are perhaps even more impressive than the beautiful brick exteriors. A prerequisite of the project was that each gasometer should contain zones for living, working and entertainment, effectively creating self-contained miniature walled cities. 

  • Battersea Power Station will be familiar to Pink Floyd fans as the austere industrial building which a pink pig flew over on the cover of the Animals album, and although it has been abandoned for many years, it’s now at the heart of a huge £5.5 million central London regeneration project which aims to create 3700 homes, alongside offices, shops and restaurants with outstanding views of the Palace of Westminster on the opposite bank of the Thames. 

These types of projects can be years (or even decades) in the making but when they come to fruition, driven by visionary and determined architects, engineers and construction managers, they can contribute immeasurably to quality of life as well as stimulating economies in oft-ignored areas. 

It’s evident that while there’s always a magnetic attraction to the blank slate of a new build, some of the most creative minds in the industry have gone back to the future to (re) create some of our most mind-blowing buildings. 

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