There is a huge store of hidden history and sustainable value in old buildings, which shouldn’t be wasted to make way for the new, say experts.
In an economy built on stoking our appetite for shiny new things, existing buildings can quickly lose their lustre. However, design, sustainability and heritage experts agree there are few buildings that can’t be transformed into high-performing shining stars.
The “re-loving” of a building is a win for owners, the wider community and the planet. According to principal and director of GML Heritage consultants and co-convenor of the Australia ICOMOS National Scientific Committee on Energy and Sustainability, Rachel Jackson, all buildings can be re-used.
For buildings with heritage values, she says re-use is especially important, because when these buildings are unoccupied for extended periods they can lose their heritage value.
Some asset owners don’t believe there is any value in some of the more recent architectural styles, such as 1960s and 1970s brutalism. But Jackson says no era is better than any other when it comes to adaptive and refurbishment potential.
“All buildings should be considered for re-use,” she says. Demolition and re-building from scratch is neither realistic nor sustainable, while re-use can help combat climate change, she says.
Re-loving and repurposing buildings can also help us retain a collective history; existing buildings “add something” to our community and cultural identity that can’t come from a new building.
Historic buildings also have some advantages in performance terms, Jackson explains.
Buildings from an era before the advent of widespread use of mechanical heating and cooling, such as the 80-year old buildings designed by Beni Burnett in Darwin, had to “respond to the environment”.
The use of natural light, natural ventilation and passive strategies such as solar access for winter warmth and shade to protect from summer’s sweltering heat, were business-as-usual practises before air-conditioning was invented. And yet, as Jackson explains, these days a lot of people tend to destroy original features in buildings to install mechanical heating and cooling solutions.
1950s buildings are experiencing a revival of interest because of their open-plan designs and larger windows, even though many people don’t consider the buildings particularly beautiful, Jackson says.
The Australian National University (ANU), for example, has been “re-loving” its 1950s properties, some of which were at the cutting edge of design when they were built, she says.
Designed from scratch, Canberra was a living laboratory for architects, with many experimental and innovative design solutions finding a place in the new capital. Some of those buildings have more recently been given a second life.
At ANU, the former John Curtin School of Medical Research, which was built in the Modernist style in the 1950s, has been carefully refurbished with its heritage in mind, and renamed the Florey Building.
“It was coming to the end of its life but has continued now through adaptive re-use,” Jackson says.
Some adaptive re-use projects in major cities have demolished and rebuilt almost all of an original building, retaining only heritage façades, an approach Jackson dismisses. She and other experts The Fifth Estate spoke to stressed the importance of retaining as much of the original fabric and features as possible as a starting point for designing an old building.
The original materials represent a store of embodied carbon, for a start. Each skip of demolition waste is an impost on the planet.
Jackson says we can learn from the past and start reusing materials such as stone, iron, timber and brick. Some of these are non-renewable materials and should not be wasted.
“The idea of demolishing an old building and taking bricks to landfill is criminal,” she says.
We’ve got to start “being creative” with waste from our building sites.
Jackson also points out that many older materials have non-toxic finishes, and these and the traditional materials they are partnered with are better for the survival of buildings and the health of occupants than many newer, more toxic materials.
A “conservation approach” is key.
“When someone is adapting a historic building, to reduce construction and demolition waste, it’s important to take a cautious approach,” she says.
Director of Long Blackledge Architects, Elisha Long, was chair of the Australian Institute of Architects Judging Committee for the Heritage category of the 2018 Awards.
Long tells The Fifth Estate that one of the key things about heritage buildings as a prospect for re-use is that “the greenest building is one that’s already built, because you don’t have to extract new natural resources”.
There is a lot more than just the façade to consider in terms of what should be retained to “get it right”.
It’s important to “understand what you’ve got” in terms of the building’s fabric and performance qualities, whether it’s a 19th century building or a contemporary asset such as a Harry Seidler-designed commercial tower.
“You need to look at what’s working, what’s not working, and look at what’s good about it before you propose changes,” Long says.
The crux of re-loving is working with the building.
“If you don’t look at buildings carefully before you start designing, you can miss out on good qualities.”
Many buildings have been changed numerous times over the years, in line with commercial property trends. Many of these changes were perhaps “unnecessary,” Long observes, and reversing some of the modifications can be valuable.
The bones of any historic building are likely to have helped the building “work with the environment”. The re-love design process should aim to “enhance those qualities”.
There is frequently a lot of mass for heat management, so the goal would be to identify exactly where more insulation is needed.
In warmer parts of the country, lightweight approaches were often used, so older buildings cool quickly in the evening.
“It is about enhancing the character [of the existing building] to achieve current expectations and needs,” Long says.
Good contemporary design includes looking at how new and old parts of the building interconnect and interact; managing the detail is vital for success.
Importantly, fire management and fire protection systems in re-loved buildings have to be upgraded to meet current safety requirements. In the past, old buildings were often gutted of potentially flammable features such as timber staircases but modern technologies can allow developers to keep those features while upgrading fire safety.
Improving performance and comfort in line with sustainability imperatives means there is also potential for adding sustainable systems, such as sun-tracking louvres.
To get the best outcome, Long says an architect needs to plan these details early in the process rather than leaving them for the builder to do.
The rewards can be great. For example, the Mint Building in Sydney’s Macquarie Street was redesigned by FJMT in 2005, resulting in a “careful balance between contemporary and original,” says Long.
When converting an older building it is also possible to design fitouts that can be easily disassembled and reassembled, another positive sustainability initiative. Making changes reversible not only reduces waste in the future, it also helps with conservation of buildings because when tenants move out, the historic elements of the building “sit there ready for the next stage of life”.
“It is a good fit with how we need to conserve historical buildings,” Long says. “Changes should be reversible, which makes good sense in terms of sustainability.”
The adaptive re-use and refurbishment of heritage buildings is guided by the Burra Charter, a best practice standard for managing cultural heritage places in Australia. The core principle is to “only do as much as is needed” to a property.
Long says that in recent years we have seen a rising trend of retaining as much of an original building as possible, and a growing confidence in “placing good contemporary design in a historic context”.
“I hope we maintain the balance with careful retention of historic fabric.”