Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Urban Task Force’s publication ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’, which addressed the challenge of declining inner-cities, the need for close to four million additional houses, and the loss of greenfield land to development. Twenty years on, these issues are more relevant than ever and continue to inform our work at Donald Insall Associates.
Despite huge enthusiasm for re-using existing buildings there was a 62% increase in the loss of Green Belt land between 2013 and 2018. The question raised by Lord Rogers in 1999 remains: should we continue to lose natural habitats to new developments whilst some of our existing urban areas are declining and there remain thousands of vacant, derelict and under-occupied buildings within our existing building stock? At Insall, the answer is a clear no.
For us, the ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’ mantra applies as much to construction as it does to supermarket packaging. Our work is predicated on the belief that a reduction in the consumption of resources, construction emissions and the loss of natural habitats, can be achieved by prioritising and making the most of our brownfield sites and existing building stock. We need to re-use and recycle our existing, vacant, historic buildings, finding new uses which celebrate their significance whilst giving them a new lease of life.
Birmingham is an interesting urban example to consider as it has one of the highest rates of unoccupied housing in the country, with, astonishingly, over 9000 empty private sector homes in the city, nine conservation areas on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register and streets full of historic buildings – reminders of its heyday as the ‘place of a thousand trades’ during the Industrial Revolution– which now lie empty and devoid of purpose. It is a somewhat sprawling, mostly low-rise city, with great tracts of underutilised and sometimes contaminated land. There are also large areas of light industrial use, such as Digbeth and the Gun Quarter which, although occupied to a degree, effectively act as land banks awaiting greater intensity of use.
Our Birmingham office is hard at work making the most of the opportunities posed by the city’s architectural inheritance, and is currently involved in many urban regeneration projects. One example is our work for the University of Birmingham on proposals for the Grade II-listed former Municipal Bank located in the city’s Centenary Square. Our work involved the production of a detailed historic building report and strategic heritage statement as part of a wider feasibility study for the site. The University purchased the old Bank with the aim of developing it into its flagship showcase and exhibition space in the heart of the city. The approved proposals include restoring and revitalising the Bank’s principal internal spaces, such as the old banking hall and vaults, which are to be re-opened with exhibitions, events, workshops and performances, as well as a café. Such regeneration means that historic buildings survive for longer and can make a positive contribution to our economic vitality and cultural environment. They add intangible – but real – value to developments, giving a sense of place and character which is not easily conjured through new build development alone. The re-use of the Municipal Bank is one example of how astute owners and developers can capitalise on the history and cultural cachet of historic buildings within developments.
‘But old buildings are leaky, draughty, inefficient to run and not sustainable’ some may argue. And yes – generally most historic buildings in their original, unimproved state are not as energy‐ efficient in operation as buildings built to meet current building regulations or more rigorous new build Passivhaus standards. However, a fair measurement of a building’s carbon footprint must take into account the whole‐life carbon cost of a building and any renovations, including the type and quantity of the resources used to construct, maintain and use it throughout its entire lifetime. The energy used to construct our historic buildings is already embodied within them. Studies show that when embodied energy is factored into whole–life calculations, existing buildings, particularly those that have been retrofitted, can outperform new builds.
Maintenance and longevity of building materials is also critical to consider. One of the benefits of historic buildings it that many are built from durable, often locally sourced, natural and high quality materials which have a longer shelf-life than materials commonly used in construction today. In order to maximise this longevity, maintenance and repair routines, such as quinquennial inspections for churches, are essential. Repair and maintenance are the uncool, underappreciated parents of sustainability.
In the pursuit of reduced operational emissions it is important not throw the baby out with the bath water. Our historic buildings survive because they are valued by society; whether it be for their historical or architectural value, because they provide a sense of identity or because, simply, they are beautiful objects. These may all be easily dismissed as being superfluous or quaint qualities in the eyes of some, but ensuring that our places are valued, enjoyed and maintained by society in the long term is essential in reducing the cycles of replacement and rejecting today’s throw-away culture.
Our Birmingham team have also been advising on a repair programme to help save the Grade II* listed Moseley Road Baths – a building which since it opened in 1907 has been at the heart of the Balsall community. The Baths were under threat of closure for many years, leading to the decline of the Gala Pool which eventually closed in 2003. As well as being included on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register since 2005, the building is also recognised by the World Monument Fund’s Watch List. The first phase of the repair programme reached completion early in 2020 and included installing breathable insulation to improve energy efficiency. Moseley Road Baths is also an interesting example of the Edwardian approach to building management. When the baths first opened in 1907 the water in the pools was not heated. During the chilly winter months, when dipping into a cold pool of water was probably not the most appealing prospect, one of the pools was boarded over and used for dances, concerts, billiards, cards and other games instead. We have something to learn here about seasonality and use! A holistic approach to sustainability includes exploring how creative management can reduce energy consumption.
Clearly, in order to re-use, retrofit and regenerate our vacant or derelict historic buildings there needs to be flexibility on change of use and the physical alterations that this entails. National policy and guidance recognises this with the National Planning Policy Framework noting ‘the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets and putting them to viable uses consistent with their conservation’. Insall is expert at helping clients navigate the planning and listed building consent system and are currently involved in supporting the re-use of a number of Birmingham buildings awaiting planning approval, including the conversion of listed industrial buildings to student residential and hotel use.
Our experience in the regeneration and re-use of historic buildings has taught us the importance of the following:
- Understanding development risks upfront – contamination, planning constraints, heritage significance and building condition.
- Understanding these risks enables the true potential of a site to be realised pre-purchase;
- Understanding the current energy performance of the building in order to see where there is scope for improvement and justification for change;
- Having a focussed and pragmatic approach to where there is scope for change rooted in understanding the significance of the building, and how that is manifested within the building’s fabric and setting. Use this understanding to inform the proposals, look for ways to enhance the building and ways to mitigate unavoidable harm;
- Maximising ways to improve sustainability in the historic environment in a holistic way – as well as changes to fabric, are there changes to the way the site is managed that would reduce energy demand? Once demand is minimised, is there a way to generate cleaner, sustainable energy to fuel the building or area?;
- Ensuring the building or site is well maintained – for example, cleaning out the gutters and drains to minimise risk of damp is a simple yet effective way to make sure the building is as energy efficient as possible.
Harnessing the unique heritage of places like Birmingham to inspire its development makes cultural, social, economic and environmental sense, and forms part of the answer to a more sustainable future.