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Adaptive reuse: defining new purpose for existing buildings

Ever since buildings have been built, they have been repurposed. How can existing building assets remain relevant in a changing world?

12/10/2021 7 min read
Symes Mews

Words: Lauren Teague

As early as the 4th century, the basilicas of Ancient Rome – built for formal public functions and containing the city’s courts – became adopted as places of religious worship when the state religion officially turned to Christianity. Although these buildings often remained structurally the same, this change in societal need gave the basilicas a new life and, subsequently, saved many of them from destruction.

Sometimes, it takes a defining moment in time like this to initiate a shift in architectural typology or use. Following the ‘end’ of the industrial revolution, an abundance of warehouses, mills and other forms of manufacturing works – originally built for specific industrial purposes – became slowly redundant and, in many cases, were abandoned altogether. Those that avoided demolition now stand as a reminder of a legacy rooted in place; the memory of a local identity. The significance of these buildings to their communities takes their repurposing beyond architectural merit to advance social needs – ensuring that existing building assets remain relevant in a changing world by questioning what they were designed for and what they want to become going forward.

In Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley, the repurposing of the Toffee Factory – from a disused Victorian sweet factory to a hub for creative businesses – reignited not only the building itself, but also the identity of the wider area. Completed in 2011 by local practice Xsite Architecture, the project retained the integrity of the existing brick structure while adding a contemporary rooftop extension to increase its floor area, enabling conversion into 27 serviced offices and flexible workspaces for SMEs.

The reinvigorated building has become a catalyst for the regeneration of the Ouseburn area. It prompted its transformation from a post-industrial wasteland into a thriving and lively community of creative businesses, giving a historic area once known as ‘the cradle of the industrial revolution’ a new identity as a flourishing cultural quarter, enlivened by a community of musicians, designers, artists, brewers and independent businesses.

The adaptation of the Toffee Factory exploited the original structure’s most significant architectural and historical features – retaining the unique and authentic characteristics of the place – while interpreting the asset for new use. This, according to Tim Greensmith, Associate at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, is what has made his practice’s work at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings similarly successful for attracting a young and ambitious community of creative businesses to the former industrial complex. Known as the world’s first iron-framed building, the Main Mill – built in 1797 – had deteriorated into a ruinous state when the practice took on the project in 2009. The principal challenge in saving the Grade I listed structure came from identifying a future that protected the heritage of the site while contributing to wider regeneration plans with a space of genuine productivity.

‘Our interpretation of the project plays to the strengths of the existing building by not erasing the ‘magic memories’ of the place that people will come to appreciate later on,’ says Tim. When complete, the resurrected building will provide a creative hub for businesses of all sizes and sectors, with the aim of fostering a community where SMEs can gather and share knowledge with more mature businesses – and ‘be inspired by the building’s history of pioneering innovation’.

The project’s USP is the intrinsic architectural and social history carried within the building fabric – which would be impossible to replicate in a new-build office space. Although the project is not yet complete, interest from potential tenants is high. ‘Something about these historic buildings really attracts young, creative start-ups,’ Tim says. ‘These buildings have a history of success and local pride; young companies feed off that and buy into the intangible qualities of the heritage.’

Historic England’s key objective was to save the buildings from the ‘at risk’ register; everything from mothballing to full restoration was considered. The studio’s approach to adaptive reuse ensures that the building will benefit from a new lease of life that will bring positive change to the area while nurturing young businesses and retaining local talent.

These types of mixed-use creative buildings may come to see a renaissance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – a monumental and historical moment, which has accelerated the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, blurring the division between the physical and digital technologies. The creative industries are often cited as being more resilient to economic global crises and it is, arguably, these types of businesses that are most likely to benefit from intelligently designed, flexible workplaces that deliver an offer that works harder to entice users to collaborate. In Camden, London, property investor and developer, Fabrix, has recently completed the conversion of a 19th century furniture factory into 10,500 sq ft of ‘sustainable creative office space’.

Symes Mews, designed with architect, pH+, sits within a conservation area ‘known for its rich industrial and creative heritage, making it an attractive location for a sustainable and design-led workspace,’ Paul Hicks, Investment Manager at Fabrix, tells us. ‘It has, however, historically lacked a significant portion of high quality office space. We saw the potential for Symes Mews to offer a sustainable and design-led workspace where occupiers could benefit from being within close proximity to the major transport hubs of King’s Cross and Euston, while enjoying the buzz that attracts so many people to Camden on a daily basis.’

The project uses breakout spaces, flexible floorplates and multiple entrances to closely align with the requirements and demands being foreseen for post-COVID workplaces. The interior is split into five distinctive spaces, allowing occupiers ‘greater control over the management of their own space’. For Paul, the ‘charm and character’ of the original building, which has been respected throughout its reuse, contributes to the success of the project. ‘We are always looking for opportunities to reimagine overlooked and underused urban spaces,’ he concludes. ‘Environmental impact and social responsibility are key drivers for us, so bringing the building up to contemporary standards was the primary objective from the outset.’

The project responds to the redundancy of the building’s original industrial typology to resurrect the asset for contemporary use. As the built environment becomes increasingly aware of the sustainable benefits of ‘retrofitting’ existing buildings to increase environmental performance, it is equally important to take into account the social impact of building reuse and the potential to bring about genuine change. The desire to come together socially following the pandemic will return, but the escalating demise of retail will throw into question the role of the high street for motivating social connections.

In London’s Lewisham, Really Local Group worked with Wren Architecture & Design to repurpose an essential piece of Catford town centre into a cultural venue with a three-screen cinema, live music venue, bar, café and community space. Catford Mews sits within a post-war council-owned retail centre, which faces medium-term plans for demolition as part of a wider masterplan to redevelop the town centre. Previously a Poundland store, one of a number of discount stores in the shopping centre, the unit was offered to Really Local Group in 2019 with a new concept of a cinema-anchored creative hub that would tap into the creative needs of the community and allow local needs to influence the programming of films and events.

The project exposes and celebrates the ‘grungy’ exposed concrete surfaces of the existing building, with the previous fit-out having been stripped back and new bespoke fittings introduced. Converting the existing structure was not just about the economic and environmental impact of saving the building from demolition, but held a deeper meaning for the local residents. ‘When we conducted the initial investigations into the building, many local people said they remembered it from their childhoods as a local market, called Catford Mews,’ says Phil Wren, Managing Director at Wren Architecture & Design. ‘We firmly believe in trying to reuse existing buildings, where possible. The community that lives around them knows them and it’s part of their culture and identity; this building has roots and is part of the area’s local history.’

Really Local Group and Wren Architecture & Design are also working together on a further retail conversion in Reading: a former Argos stock room which is being repurposed to provide a mixture of communal uses, from workspace and food kiosks to a three-screen cinema and event space. The Reading Biscuit Factory, now open, is a creative response to the collapse of retail in town centres and a simultaneously growing need for entertainment and cultural spaces. ‘There was always going to be a risk, when retail collapsed, that town centres would become hollowed out,’ says Phil. ‘There will be a huge readjustment in the market that’s going to allow alternative uses to come back in and reinvigorate town centres and bring communities back with a more diverse offering.’

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of various building typologies and is leaving, in its wake, a distressing scene of commercial real estate struggling to fulfil its former use – most prominently retail stores. This could potentially result in a large number of existing units being ripe for repurposing. A number of temporary uses – testing centres and Nightingale Centres – have showcased the flexibility of building structures to adapt to new uses, but long-term solutions must be considered and tailored to the needs of the local communities. Jonathan Tuckey Design’s Street Front Life project – currently in proposal stages – is investigating the rehabilitation of ground-level retail units to ‘bring energy back into our broken high streets’.

 

The project investigated methods to repurpose typical retail stores into a variety of uses, from homes to maker-studios, while ‘recreating the qualities, character and values’ that are familiar to the high street’s façade. The practice is already discussing the model with London’s councils, helping landowners and developers to tackle structural changes to the fading British high street with a vision to provide spaces that are flexible, affordable, practical and meaningful – all while remaining architecturally sensitive to the existing streetscape.

Nobody knows for sure what the future of the built environment will look like – but what is clear is that the need to reuse existing built assets – whether for environmental, economic or heritage reasons – will play a key part. In promoting the ‘retrofit’ of shell-and-core fit-outs, let’s remember not to ignore the sense of place and community embedded within these buildings, which go beyond brick or stone to reinterpret a sense of identity for neighbourhoods – whether that’s protecting the historical value of recognised and loved buildings or adapting existing assets to define a new purpose.

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