Heritage buildings: Nothing to be afraid of

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Old Government House, QLD © QUT

Ghastly refurbishments of existing buildings are bad enough, but there have also been some high-profile examples of illegal demolition.

One example is the heritage Corkman pub in Melbourne in 2016, which saw the developers hit with over $1 million in fines.

City of Sydney has also been taking action on this type of vandalism, with two companies fined recently for the destruction of heritage elements of buildings without development consent.

“Buildings are given heritage listing to ensure they are protected and maintained for future generations,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said. 

There’s nothing to be scared of, and much to be gained on both an asset and a community level.

“It’s important that the City pursue legal recourse when the destruction of our historic built form takes place, to serve a warning to developers that heritage protections should be taken seriously.” 

Some people simply find the whole idea of heritage listing a major red flag – whether that’s a red flag to a bull stimulating an urge to knock it down, or a red flag for a potential buyer tipping troublesome development consent conditions ahead.

But experts insist heritage buildings can make great assets, both at a business level and for the community.

Director of Long Blackledge Architects, Elisha Long
Director of Long Blackledge Architects, Elisha Long

Director of Long Blackledge Architects, Elisha Long, who has been chair of the Australian Institute of Architects Awards’ jury, says many owners and developers don’t necessarily accept what heritage requirements mean.

There needs to be a broader discussion about the processes and how to seek approval, she says.

In other countries, such as the UK, there is assistance – including financial assistance – for heritage projects.

“In Australia, we have the legislation – without the assistance.”

Good governance of our built environment heritage should come with rules, advice and assistance, she says. Private owners, in particular, need support.

Australia has enough legislation for heritage but needs more assistance for owners

We also need a bit of myth-busting.

“People think if [a building] is on a heritage list, you can’t change it. But that is not the case for most,” Long says.

She explains there is a range of categories, from the World Heritage listing of the Sydney Opera House, through to National Trust, state and local government heritage listings.

The lists are “by no means complete”.

“It is an ongoing piece of work,” Long says.

Heritage might be based on the architect, the era, a building’s “story”, or its role or value to a local community.

Wilson Architects associate Phillip Lukin
Associate at Wilson Architects, Phillip Lukin

Wilson Architects associate Phillip Lukin says heritage listing is one of the strengths of some of the education and health sector projects his practice has worked on.

They have included a re-love for the All Hallows School in Brisbane. The original convent was designed by an earlier generation of Wilson Architects’ directors, he says.

As part of the re-love, an extension was added to a building originally designed by the current director’s grandfather.

Lukin says that the occupants of the convent “never threw anything out”, so a big part of the re-love process was peeling back layers of additions.

A similar approach was needed for library projects, such as one at Queensland’s Griffith University. 

“We reversed some of the stuff done 20 years ago, which was about excluding people [to make way for more books], to convert book space back into people space.

“Often, the process is to strip away and pare back.”

A “nice balance between raw original features and shiny new internals” can help occupants appreciate the original building.

In Queensland, some of the advantages of heritage buildings include their location – often on higher ground away from flood zones.

“They tend to have high ceilings, verandahs and good ventilation, which has sometimes been closed off through inappropriate refurbishment,” Lukin says.

Sometimes, a re-love will reinstate natural ventilation, and expose original thermal mass, retrieving passive performance suited to the climate. Walls may be removed to create more open-plan layouts.

Lukin says this can make dealing with acoustics a challenge, particularly as contemporary spaces tend to have a larger number of occupants than a building’s original use catered for.

Design-wise, Lukin says a “nice balance between raw original features and shiny new internals” can help occupants appreciate the original building.

The practice’s own office is inside a pre-loved Queenslander home that burnt down. The refurbishment retained as much of the original fabric as possible – even some of the evidence of fire.

“Heritage buildings are being re-loved for their ability to define the suburb and the places in which they have been built.”

The charred beams are a feature, Lukin says, and they have the added bonus of being fire-protected because the external charring protects the timber from catching alight.

More broadly, he says the whole texture of Brisbane relies on its heritage and pre-loved properties.

The curves of the river through the city have created distinctive “pockets” – Fortitude Valley, West End, New Farm and Newstead – each with its own character and aesthetic, making Brisbane a city of villages.

Retaining those unique attributes is part of what makes an area attractive to people to live in and visit.

“Heritage buildings are being re-loved for their ability to define the suburb and the places in which they have been built.”

Comprehensive resources are available for re-loving and conserving heritage buildings, at the Australia International Council on Monuments and Sites’ website

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