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Re-use of Historic Buildings in Place Setting & Environmental Sustainability

Conversations around development and building design are increasingly taking into account themes of environmental sustainability alongside issues of place-making, where consideration is being given more to how we can provide high-quality living space whilst responsibly managing environmental issues such as carbon emissions.

In relation to urban regeneration, the conservation and restoration of appropriate historic buildings can provide a significant opportunity for developers to meet their sustainability requirements.

Over recent decades there appears to have been a preference towards new-build schemes, for a range of reasons, possibly including the perception of constraints and complications associated with taking on historic building stock and the issues that can arise from restoration of older structures that do not meet contemporary building standards.

However, recent Government initiatives (such as the High Street Heritage Action Zones) and a wider discussion on the opportunities of reusing existing building stock to transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings, is not only helping change attitudes and the ideas behind what can be achieved, but also helping restore local historic character and vibrancy in places where it had started to erode. These changes can also act as a catalyst for a low-carbon economic regeneration.

This blog will take a brief look at some of the historically industrial / manufacturing areas of Birmingham, though the contents can be applied across the UK and beyond.

Re-using Historic Buildings to Create Vibrant and Attractive Places

Birmingham as a modern urban settlement dates back in its current form to the Medieval period; however, what really distinguishes the city landscape is the 18th to 20th century character of the area. The city centre streets, such as New Street, Corporation Street and Victoria Square (below), all feature modern buildings alongside high-quality and well-maintained historic structures, creating an environment that is not only attractive to the viewer but maintains a sense of place, rooted in the history of the city, to the residents, workers and visitors of the area.

Victoria Square -heritage buildings

Photo 1: Victoria Square

Key areas such as the Jewellery Quarter and the Digbeth / Deritend area similarly provide historic built environments full of character that help define them as places. Both these districts were heavily involved with the industrial and manufacturing works that factored into the expansion of the city during the 18th and 19th centuries, resulting in a large number of buildings from these periods surviving in the modern city.

However, there has also been a range of impact on the historic character of the area, through a combination of inappropriate demolition, insensitive design, and simple aging and deterioration of the building stock. Parts of Deritend have been subject to such change, with a number of derelict or abandoned buildings sat next to levelled sites, or poor-quality infill, which can on occasion become a focus for anti-social behaviour, including fly-tipping and graffiti.

The White Swan - regeneration of Listed Building

Photo 2: The White Swan – Grade II Listed Building 

National Planning Policy Framework recognises that built heritage assets are an ‘irreplaceable resource’, which should be ‘conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance, so that they can be enjoyed for their contribution to the quality of life of existing and future generations’. Historic buildings clearly have an important role to play in defining a sense of place by creating visually interesting and locally distinctive built environments.

Regeneration for Economic Growth

Restoring and re-purposing heritage stock, to extend its economic viability, can contribute to real growth for an area. There are a range of inspiring examples across Birmingham of developments that have used the existing historic building stock to create attractive and useable places that meet the contemporary needs of the community, while crucially retaining local identity.

The retail and leisure complex along Gibb Street and Heath Mill Lane in Deritend (below) provide good examples of a mix of historic building retention brought into modern use through the use of high-quality and well thought through additions to the streetscape, delivering strong and vibrant spaces that allow for the historic realm and contemporary spaces to sit seamlessly alongside one another.

Gibb Street Birmingham regeneration for economic growth

Photo 3: Gibb Street and Heath Mill Lane, Birmingham

Station Street Birmingham

Photo 4: Station Street, Birmingham

As with the above examples, the Jewellery Quarter has been another area to strongly embrace its historic built environment, with Fredrick Street, Albion Street and Vittoria Street (to name just a few) all being replete with restored and repurposed historic buildings, providing a clear and aesthetically pleasing identity at the heart of the Jewellery Quarter that has drawn in businesses, shoppers and visitors alike.

This process of renewal and re-use is ongoing, with recent examples being noted in Legge Lane (Photo 5), where historic buildings are being sympathetically restored into offices and residences, and further afield at Gooch Street, where the older buildings blend exceptionally well alongside a new development (Photo 6).

Legge Lane Birmingham

Photo 5: Legge Lane Redevelopment Works

Gooch Street Old and New

Photo 6: Gooch Street – Old and New

Repurposing for Carbon Capture: Re-use & Recycle

It is now estimated that up to one third of the total carbon emitted from buildings is released during the construction and demolition process – this is a significant source of emissions that is often overlooked when working towards making a new build property ‘environmentally friendly’. It is now clear that thoughtful re-use of existing building stock helps to offset some of the carbon emissions, removing the need for the demolition of existing structures whilst avoiding what would otherwise have been expended during a new build development. Historic England have also written how buildings must be recycled and reused to help tackle climate change (https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/recycle-buildings-tackle-climate-change/).

In its basic terms, the bricks within the walls have already been fired, the raw materials extracted, the machinery used, and the construction / supply chain utilised and embedded into the construction of the existing building. To start again requires a duplication of a great deal of the energy and pollution costs that have already been expended. A recent edition of Heritage Counts (Historic England) on re-use and recycling to reduce carbon capture gave wide coverage on how continuing to use and re-use historic buildings as an asset, as opposed to a constraint, can reduce the need for new carbon-generating construction activities, thereby reducing the need for new material extraction and reducing waste production (https://historicengland.org.uk/content/heritage-counts/pub/2019/hc2019-re-use-recycle-to-reduce-carbon/).

Another opportunity is in the direct reuse of the existing fabric and materials. Dependent on the condition of a building, it can be possible to not only reuse the building shell, but features such as windows, roofing, floors, all of which may survive and be reusable. Furthermore, modern technologies can also be employed within the design and refurbishment of older buildings that help to further decrease the carbon footprint of a development.

As the UK aims to move towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, this will increasingly be a consideration in construction. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has put together a very interesting discussion on the various steps in considering the reuse of a building (https://www.spab.org.uk/advice/reusing-old-buildings). This takes the understanding of the significance of the asset into account to help guide how best to secure the long-term future of the building and how to identify viable future changes.

Professional Heritage Input at the Outset is Essential

When considering redevelopment of historic building stock, whether designated or not, it is essential to factor in professional heritage advice from the outset, to help guide designs and reduce delays and unnecessary costs. Works such as Heritage Statements, Statements of Significance and Historic Building Recording can all help identify and understand heritage assets better, allowing for key elements of a buildings history to be used as an opportunity to build into the future development of a site.

AB Heritage has extensive experience of successfully providing such works to clients, not just within Birmingham but across the UK. Engaging with a professional Heritage Consultant early in the life of a scheme, and certainly before final designs are drawn up, can help developers unlock the opportunities of historic buildings, as well as potentially saving the costs of mitigating heritage constraints not properly managed.

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