BDP Podcast

Old Buildings – New Beginnings: Designing Age-Defying Buildings

Episode Summary

Why do some buildings last for centuries while others disappear in mere decades? From the remerging role of passive design measures to creating ‘flexible’ buildings, this week sees guest experts from our lighting, engineering and architecture teams question what it takes to design long-lasting, sustainable buildings for generations to come.

Episode Notes

Why do some buildings last for centuries while others disappear in mere decades? From the remerging role of passive design measures to creating ‘flexible’ buildings, this week sees guest experts from our lighting, engineering and architecture teams question what it takes to design long-lasting, sustainable buildings for generations to come.  


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Episode Transcription

Old Buildings, New Beginnings – Episode 05

Alan Davies (Host) – Architect Director, Head of Heritage

Nick Durham – Architect Director, Cardiff Studio.

Jessica Kennedy – Structural Engineer Associate, London Studio.

Mark Ridler – Lighting Director, London Studio.



Hello. I'm Alan Davis. I'm an architect and Heritage Lead at BDP. Welcome to the first ever BDP podcast series. It’s called Old Buildings New Beginnings. In this series, we discuss the current thinking relating to the reuse of old and existing buildings. We will discuss topics including adaptive reuse, sustainability, accessibility, improving performance as well. As well as the cultural significance of keeping all buildings.


Why build new when you can repurpose the old? 


Welcome to the conversation.


Hello and welcome again to Old Buildings, New Beginnings. This week, we're discussing how to design aged defined buildings. We'll discuss the lessons learned from working on old buildings, how we're applying those lessons in our current work, and how technical and technological innovations are being used to bring existing buildings into the 21st Century. So we continue to design places that last for generations. 


With me today to share their thoughts on these issues are Nick Durham, architect director in our Cardiff studio. Jessica Kennedy, structural engineer associate here in our London studio. And Mark Ridler, lighting consultant, director, also in the London studio. 


What I’d firstly like to do is to consider what we've learned from working on old buildings about this issue. Old buildings are, to a certain extent age defying, at least to the extent that they've lasted this long, even as they may have some problems or some failings with them at this time. So can you give some examples of what you've learned from old buildings about that longevity, about that capability to survive and to continue to work for us?


Yes, I think one of the one of the interesting things is that you look at older buildings and there's certain degree of fact. You look at an old building, and if it's still here, chances are it's been well constructed because ones that weren't well constructed, or had things that didn't work about them, failed and they fell down. We don't quite have that same sense these days, things are actually built better. We have modern design codes and design to them, and therefore, to some degree, older buildings can tell us a lot about the sort of structure and how they work simply by the fact that they're still there. But I think one of the things that I've come across most in older buildings and the things that really caused detriment, cause buildings not to last, is maintenance. Has the building been maintained? And it's probably one of the greatest issues with any building, and I think that's of any age and that that includes new buildings. Are they being looked after? Are they easy to look after? Have they got gutters that you can't reach? Have they got nooks and crannies? You know, these old rooves that you can't get to, that you know, people have to come up and over to get to. 


I think Alexandra Palace is an example of it's a sprawling, sprawling building and bits have been in fields and courtyards have been filled to the point without sort of forethought and over many, many, many years, decades. And now Alexandra Palace has huge amounts of roof that are literally inaccessible and they can't even get to them to dismantle them.


And, you know, are we building our buildings so that they can be easily maintained in the future, are we thinking, you know, we really making sure that what we're doing is going to be not just possible for somebody to look after, but actually easy for somebody to look after to keep it going? And are we telling people, are we telling, you know, does everybody know how they should be maintaining that building? Are we giving you know, if we give people big piles of information at the building, they get health and safety files. Are we making that easy for them to read and digesting the information they really need to know to kind of keep on top of it, not park it in a corner for 30 years.

Alan:Which I guess we are, we're giving them OEM manuals and giving them more documentation than ever.

Yeah, I think it's a really interesting point actually about people sort of maintaining buildings, the clients taking kind of ownership and responsibility. And I think there's something about design quality and this discussion as well. I think when people think about designing buildings for longevity, there's a tendency to just think about flexibility and adaptability, designing buildings so that they're on regular grids and you know, they can be adapted for lots of different uses, but there's something about, you know, delivering really good quality buildings that people feel a sense of pride about that the kind of buildings that you're giving them.


And that way they tend to look after them more and they kind of buy in from the end user to really look after the building.

Alan:And that that suggests two different aspects. Jessica has pointed at the very practical aspects. But there's a value system aswell which is involved in this, where you have got to be wanting to keep these buildings you know, the Vitruvius thing comes into this, commodity firmness and delight, and it’s the delight that makes us want to keep serving the older buildings.

I think there's something about client will as well that's whether the aspiration for the building is for that kind of longevity and there's something in the brief which is very important. We just completed the student centre for UCL and the brief for that was 150 years. It's very unusual to be written into the brief. Earlier in my career I was working in projects which were office buildings in Broad Gate Estate, and the design brief for them was about 20 years, which is incredibly short and indeed some of them are being dismantled and rebuilt as we speak.


And there's something also about some buildings, just are better buildings that we've been working again on some seventies towers in central London, and they just work brilliantly. And then when you come back to them for refurbishment, you're just finding that they work so well bit in terms of ventilation or lighting or space planning, flexibility, what have you.


Whereas sometimes I think the buildings that have been built in the last 15, 20 years, not all of them, but too many of them, particularly in the public sector, they're already falling apart. 

Nick:Do you think there's something about the kind of simplicity, some of those sort of office buildings in the seventies that that that makes them more adaptable and more sustainable? I think so. We find in in health care, you know, there can be a tendency to overcomplicate buildings and to overthink and put too much stuff. I mean, I mentioned the Bute building earlier one of the first things that we did with the refurbishment scheme was strip out all the that the projects that had been delivered over the last 30 years, all those layers of additional M&E infrastructure and building, we called it all back to, to the original scheme and then realized that actually the building worked as it was designed in 1916.

There's something very inherent about looking at the building and saying what is it being used for and what's is its intent and can we work with the fabric, can we work with the building. Like you say so many buildings, so many is our existing building stock were designed in a certain way to perform in a certain way.


And when you look at it as you say, if you strip it back and go back to its original intent, you know, then actually a lot of it works better than we expect it to. You know, everything from sort of 16th century manor houses that were orientated to catch the sun and the fireplaces were in the right place to heat up the building and you know, the kitchens were cited to the north to keep them cool. You know, you suddenly realize that that that people, you know, maybe we don't give our forebears quite the credit sometimes that they deserve. And actually, you know, we can we can learn from them.

Alan:So we've covered good passive design, passive measures, solar, sustainability, good planning… Proportions of rooms as well have a part to play in this, the height of spaces, the depths of rooms, and the quality of daylight and so on. I guess that's true of the Bute building.

Yes. It is. I mean, we found there's some amazing spaces in the Bute building, some that we have created through the kind of breaking up of smaller cellular rooms that weren't really working for the School of Architecture and one room in particular that had been designed as this sort of fantastic assembly hall centre of the building and then sort of lost with some of the interventions from the mid-nineties, we've been able to reinstate it and it's made such a difference to the building and to the people who are using the building and the way they use the building.


Um, you know, quite a simple move in itself, just kind of taking an old lecture theatre out and opening up some existing windows that had been covered up. But as the change has been incredible.


So, what we're covering is really good fundamentals, good design fundamentals from an architectural point of view, from a structural point of view, I want turn a bit to the more transient parts of the buildings, that is the technology you've referred already to, Nick, to plant and M&E installations so I want to investigate. Yeah, these are things with shorter lifespans.


Everybody accepts that, you know, the public services in the building if the rule of thumb is 30 years, whereas we expect our buildings to last much longer. So let's talk a bit about technical and technological innovations and not only what's there now, but what we need as innovations to bring our buildings into the 21st century. 


Mark, you are involved in bringing innovative technology into existing buildings, including some very notable historic buildings.


Can you tell us, first of all, what those new technologies are that you are currently dealing with?


I think the thing about technology is that it's iterating and evolving evermore quickly. So the generation of technology, you're probably looking at five years and that will reduce from four to three to two. So that the, the, the necessary replacement of it in order to keep up is really quick. How we respond to that in a historic setting is to make sure that the pipes and wires are there in a rational fashion that can be speaking to Jessica's point, replaced easily and fairly frequently without undue interruption to the business of the building and importantly, its fabric.


And then increasingly, we're relying on wireless communication of data but still relying on small power, either to lighting at high level or small power at low level. To make sure that provides you with an infrastructure that allows you then to bolt on technologies as and when they become mature and again, coming back to the my Senate House example there as an electrical building, they made sure that there was horizontal and vertical containment that could be reused and indeed it was.


And that the grids on which that building was planned, both in terms of partitioning but also the electrical systems, interestingly, was related to the human scale and the physics of light, which never change and are immutable and forever adaptable and reusable. So that it was, as I said earlier, was a very contemporary building, very easy to refurbish.


I think one of the ways that when we're approaching new historic projects, if you will, is how can we put those rewirable systems in in a way that doesn't disrupt the fabric. But if we can do that, then then it becomes a very flexible building and will then allow you to make sure that it's contemporary and fulfils a flexible function.


Yeah, I think it's that problem that always crops up about, you know, coordination of all the different engineering infrastructures with the architecture. And that example stresses the importance of having that interdisciplinary input at a very early stage in the project. You know, it should never be seen, the technology should never be seen as an add on.


You know the life systems that support, the life of the building. But also, I think you should never be seen as an excuse for not having very good design in the first place. You know, technology should never be a solution in its own. 

Mark:No, I don’t think technology can fix a bad building, no. But I think it's quite often the rhythm of the building, the heartbeat of the building, the building has a clarity which links its structure, its form, its use with its use and its human encounter. Then you probably at a very good position for a very successful building.

I liked what you was saying, Mark, about the sort of the integration, because actually that's something that I think historically engineers, architects and historic buildings often do very well. You know, you look at the Victorian engineering of The Houses of Parliament, how things were designed as one sort of system, the structure, the sort of the in conservation, the role between the structural engineer and the architects, often very, very, very blurred you know, who's dealing with the these beautiful stone vaults or when does the sort of external fabric become architecture engineering and similarly when it’s the building services, they're all built together and the whole was designed not just by one person layering on top of another, but much more sort of intrinsically knitted together. And that's where, you know, having such multi-disciplinary design teams really helps being able to rather than sort of stack one design on top of another, make sure they're all brought together and work harmoniously.


And that will make the building work now and hopefully in the future because we know that it has been designed with future flexibility, for the technology in mind, that the building services are all properly integrated and not sort of, you know, stuck through you know, we've had two cut rises at the last minute. And I think that really helps. As you say, you can see that in buildings that have lasted.

Mark:And certainly that's true in terms of lighting. Wearing my lighting designers hat on now is that those early conversations you were talking about orientation of buildings, the early consideration of daylight, how it penetrates a building but then connecting that with view. Facade design and space planning as one exercise rather than two separate ones and it's those early conversations to make sure that all the elements are singing the same story.

I'm going to try and bring you back to something you are referring to earlier, Mark, which is some of the technologies and some of them give us reasons to be cheerful in terms of reusing buildings. And those are the wireless technology and the miniaturization of technology. Now, those seem to suggest that, you know, those two factors will make it easier to adapt buildings, to modernize buildings.


There is one aspect which I think is much more challenging, and that is the designing for climate change, which means that heating and ventilation requirements will become more onerous potentially. We don't even like to comment on the fundamental of that are in terms of adapting buildings or building new buildings.

Nick:I think from a technological perspective, obviously technology exists now for us to know a lot more about how buildings operate, how they how they work you know, you can be a lot more intelligent in our understanding and assessment of existing buildings and learning about how they respond to changes daily, monthly through the seasons and kind of wider climate change. So I think there's an opportunity there to kind of learn those lessons from the existing buildings, you know, apply them to repurposing, but also to apply those lessons to new buildings. I'm always a bit sort of nervous about the idea of controlling the environments too much because that is the very sort of technological approach where you can measure everything and you can adapt everything, control everything. But it takes away the sort of personal element to control of your space. You know, if you're feeling a bit warm, you can open the window or turn the lights up a bit or that's always a challenge. And particularly in health care buildings, which are huge energy consumers, how do we make them more passive, how do we make them net zero? This is quite hard challenge. And again, it's not all about the technology.
Alan:And it brings us back to this tension between selling buildings or conditioning buildings or making them rely on natural selection.
Mark:One of the things that has driven mechanical ventilation, which will change quickly is air pollution and noise. So you have to then seal a facade, which then means that natural ventilation is difficult and you have to mechanically vent. But with the advent of electric cars, noise is going to plummet in cities particular and then hopefully as well air quality will improve. So, I think there is a really big opportunity to actually go back to a more passive ways of designing.
Alan:And by combining that with know the passive design of spaces that you're talking about earlier that becomes less energy consuming as well.
Jessica:I was to say at a heritage conference on Friday, which is all about sustainability in the climate crisis and trying to understand you know, how people deal with buildings and what Nick was saying about the personal element. And I'm also married to a building services engineer, I have a lot of I have a lot of this, it's about the personal element. The idea of, you know, controlling a climate is quite a modern assessment. Actually, what we're trying to control is the person. And basically if your building is well ventilated and is a pleasant temperature, you don't get any complaint, That's how you know you've got the correct environment, and historic buildings, again, it was about how would they dealing with the ‘person’, were there drafts coming in and therefore they were hanging tapestries on the wall. And did they have the ability to open windows and that sort of thing. This concept that 21 degrees is what everybody is aiming for it's not actually something that that is a real thing everybody feels- I get terribly cold 21 degrees and other people get much too hot at 21 degrees and so are we actually doing the right thing by sort of sealing our buildings or providing those better opportunities for sort of more passive options effectively.
Nick:  Yeah that's it may be maybe we don't need more intelligent buildings we just need better jumpers.
Jessica:That that did come up, there was this… there's been research recently on people living in in historic homes, in cottages and things, trying to understand how they actually live. And a lot of people when asked, you know, how do they moderate their thermal comfort, mentioned things like jumpers, pets, so you know, perhaps with a few more cats in the building.

I guess layers and animals, yeah.


Good. I'm going to just turn that to the final theme, which is are we applying the lessons we learned from working on buildings which have lasted? How are you applying those lessons in our current work? Now, this is relevant for all of us, whether we're working on adapting existing buildings, whether they're old or not. Whether we're building new, what lessons would we would we take from our current work? And we may have touched on some of these.

Jessica:I've mentioned previously, you know, trying to understand how the building's going to be used, maintained and how can we make that as easy as possible. And also thinking about how we design our structure and our elements and are we designing them for the right longevity, you know, how much extra does it cost us either financially or in embodied carbon to design for 120 year reinforced concrete structure rather than simply a 60 year? Are we doing our detailing correctly so that we're not letting water get in and cause issues? And are we making sure that we're designing holistically as a team to try and make this building really work and, and integrating everything together. So it's got its best chance of being able to continue its use in the future.
Mark:For me, it's about how that fundamental relationship between the human user and the building and when you get that relationship right, it drives proportion, it drives the rationale, it drives the spirit of the building and when that works well, the building not only functions really well, but it also has a real personality which generates an emotional connection with it and a value which leads to longevity.

So Nick, just coming finally to you, as an architect, you mentioned you've worked on a range of new buildings and you've also recently refurbished the Bute building of the Welsh School of Architecture, where you and I both studied and where you're also a tutor. 


So I guess the question is what advice would you give to your students or to your colleagues? About the key about the key principles of making this age defying things.


I think for me, one of the key principles is about materiality, it's about selecting appropriate materials to make your buildings out of you know, we talk about the longevity of, you know, buildings like the Bute building, which is, you know, it's just slightly over a hundred years old. It was made from a very simple palette of materials that we're all appropriate to the period. So, you know, it was designed in a kind of neoclassical style. It was designed using technology that was cutting edge at the time. And I think that that's a lesson that we all should learn, you know, and apply to buildings. You know, we need to use the appropriate technology. But I'm always a confirmed believer in the mantra of just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.


And I think, you know, there needs to be that this kind of rigor at the start of every project to really think about. Right. What should we make this building out of? And agreed kind of base palette which will then or should inform the entire design process. You know, if you're if you decide that you're going to make something out of a concrete frame or you can decide you're going to make something out of cross laminated timber, then you would take a very different approach to the design process in order to get the most out of that material.


And also sort of think about, how that material affects the life of the building, but also what happens to the material beyond the life of the building. So for me, I’m quite interested in the idea of designing for disassembly and reuse. And obviously there are some materials that are very easy to reuse and adapt beyond the life of the building. Some that were harder or will be harder to reuse.

Mark:I think that's really interesting where we've done quite a lot of work on circular economy in lighting, which has thrown up all sorts of interesting things that I didn't think were going to apply. But one of the questions is how much can you integrate equipment into the fabric of the building, which is historically been the way in which I've designed a light without light fittings, try and make it invisible, moving away from overt decorative gestures. But actually now we're beginning to question that as an approach and maybe what we should be doing is disaggregating that equipment from the building that allows easy disassembly and reuse, and that throws up some aesthetic questions, which are really quite interesting. It's not a bad thing to do, but it's a different way of doing it.
Nick:Yeah. Come back to the point you raised earlier, Alan, about, you know, working on a school of architecture and what advice you give to students I mean, designing a building that is completely expressive and legible. And you could look at the building and understand how it works. There's something interesting about that as well as an idea.

That's great. I think it's been a really good conversation. We've covered lots of different topics, and I'm not going to try and summarize that. I am reminded of a mantra that was around when I was a student, which was long life, low energy, loose fit, and we've touched on some of those things today. So the principles are still there. Really good conversation.


Thanks very much for the input from you, Nick, Mark and Jessica. Thanks.