5 reasons re-loving old buildings makes dollars and sense

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Phillip Lukin, Rachel Jackson and Elisha Long share five things you might want to factor in if you want to make a business case for re-loving a building.


1. Spend less on branding

These days, property is all about placemaking. But if you are creating a new asset, you might spend thousands of dollars on advertising and marketing to create a unique identity that positions the building in the marketplace.

Re-use can “reawaken the public’s perception and experience of the building”

In contrast, existing buildings already have an identity and a place in the local mental map of an area. As Phillip Lukin, Wilson Architects Associate explains, the re-love process is often about pushing a building back into the forefront of the public’s mind.

Heritage-listed buildings already have significant historic, community and aesthetic value, he explains. And all buildings hold some place in the local built context.

The job for architects is to help clients “appreciate the significance” of a building, and to redesign it in ways that “peel back layers [of additions] to reveal the original significance”.

The process of re-use can “reawaken the public’s perception and experience of the building” and leverage the “authenticity and credit the building already has”.

He cites the example of the Redcliffe Fire Station. His practice helped convert the building into a community arts space hub for the Moreton Bay regional Council in Queensland. It wasn’t a particularly old building but many people drove past without registering its presence, Lukin says.

Council decided to save the building from being demolished to make way for a new apartment complex, and instead respect the original building, which in turn generated community respect for it.

Lukin says we need to “make something of public infrastructure” in the form of our existing buildings. That infrastructure includes the intangible stuff – the innate attachment and recognition factor.

2. Proven materials

The stone, brick, timber, tiling and cast-iron elements of old buildings have already proven their durability and suitability for purpose. The same can’t be said of some of the more modern materials such as aluminium composite cladding, high-formaldehyde composite boards and asbestos fibro.

“We have to appreciate we can’t just keep extracting materials”

As Rachel Jackson, director of GML Heritage notes, the clay brick and tile, and stone and timber used in some of our older buildings have some of the “best properties” in terms of aesthetics, robustness and thermal performance.

Older timber from the 1940s and earlier, found in window frames, door frames and other elements, is likely to be old-growth wood. This not only makes it important to re-use it from an ethical and conservation point of view, but old-growth timber is often far stronger than newer, fast-grown plantation timber.

Director of Long Blackledge Architects, Elisha Long, says sustainability can be a “lever in terms of the business case” for a re-love project, and reusing existing materials gets a big tick of approval.

“We have to appreciate we can’t just keep extracting materials,” Long says.

In some cases, the quality of existing materials such as older timber is far better than new products available in the market today.

Careful repairs in-situ are the secret to retaining as much of a building’s original material as possible, Long says.

That brings us to another benefit:

3. Keeping skills alive

Long says architects like her know which craftspeople and heritage tradespeople can work on older buildings. Skills such as stonemasonry, decorative ironwork, decorative plasterwork, cabinetry and stained-glass repair are also part of our building heritage, she says.

Even in a building industry downturn, demand for refurbishment, re-use and repair services keeps their business activity constant, she says.

“We have some very good craftsmen in Australia,” Long says.

“[Architects and others] need to be advocating for doing refurbishment work properly, so when people commit to learning those skills, there is ongoing work for them.”

4. Supply-chain footprint

It’s a bit of a no-brainer that if you want to reduce the carbon associated with a supply chain for a building project, using materials already onsite and procuring local labour to repair them will win hands down compared with importing new materials.

Long says architects can help connect building owners with craftsmen. The profession also needs to pay attention to “how we procure” for projects, and proactively look for Australian-made products.

5. Live with the climate

Long says older buildings needed to work with the environment in the days before mechanical heating and cooling was invented. She says we may see a return to this if building occupants can get used to a greater variation in indoor temperatures to reflect the seasons and local conditions.

“A temperature of 26 to 27 degrees [inside, in summer] is not going to kill us,” she says.

In the interests of energy-efficiency and lowering built environment emissions from energy used for HVAC, Long thinks we “have to be ready for a wide range [of conditions] in indoor environments”.

““A temperature of 26 to 27 degrees [inside, in summer] is not going to kill us”

She hopes we are already seeing more emphasis on the use of natural light and natural ventilation, which was normal for older buildings.

“Australians are very interested in that narrative, and it enhances the sense of place.”

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