Refurbishing old buildings in the historic landscape

by Martin

English Heritage have released a new volume of their ‘Constructive Conservation’ series, this one entitled Sustainable Growth for Historic Places. It’s all about the benefits of re-using historic buildings for new purposes, and the effects not only on the bottom line of the developer, but also the ability of these buildings to attract customers and tourists, and the benefits of creating an attractive and enjoyable place to work in.

I’ve always felt strongly that it’s important to create places we enjoy living, working and playing in, and that this is  just as important as ‘functional’ places to live and exist. Re-using historic buildings, and developing better quality places, has much more long-term potential than throwing up new buildings with no thought to landscape, heritage and human contexts. The new EH book (available as a downloadable PDF from the second link above) aims to provide inspiration to planners and architects, and uses examples from previous successful projects.

There’s also a summary slide-show (PDF) showing examples like St. Pancras Station, Chatham Historic Dockyard, and Tynemouth Station, as well as the Isla Gladstone Conservatory in Stanley Park, Anfield. Something to think about for those campaigning for the preservation of the Aigburth railway station canopies.

Preserving Traditional Building Skills

Another benefit of rejuvenating historic buildings is the creation of jobs in traditional building industries, which has a knock-on effect on other historic structures. For example, many medieval and Victorian churches were renovated in the 20th century (whilst remaining in use as places of worship), but using unsuitable materials.

Modern paints and plastic floor coverings don’t allow stone to ‘breathe’, and therefore they trap moisture behind them. This can lead to damage, with the surface of stone walls falling away like an onion skin (a process known as ‘spalling’). The use of modern, cement-based mortar, which is too hard, increases the rate at which the historic masonry weathers away on the outside of stone churches. This problem of using modern materials and techniques occurred  because non-specialists were used in the renovation process. Training young people in using soft lime-based mortar and non-plastic-based breathable paints, as well as carpentry and masonry skills, not only creates new jobs but will help improve the preservation of old buildings whether or not they are derelict first.

Leading by example

The range of projects on show in the English Heritage presentation is amazing and inspiring, from shopping centres, to ‘green’ office spaces, transport hubs, schools, universities, a hydroelectric power generator, baths, gyms… There really is potential for any development to try something. Even the Centre for Refurbishment Excellence (a training centre for ‘low carbon, resource efficient UK refurbishment’) is there, practising what it preaches.

Refurbishing old buildings is an attractive, context-sensitive, affordable, sustainable way to maintain our urban and rural historic landscapes. Hopefully English Heritage’s new publication, and their ongoing work in this area, will encourage more refurbishment projects to go down this route in future, to the benefit of us all.

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