Conversion

/ Jennifer Senfield / Places to live

We have talked often about how recessions force building owners and users to rethink how they might adapt their existing building. The choice to renew or move, a challenging equation at any time, becomes even harder. That difficulty is compounded where there is a change to domestic use. There is no question about the operational convenience of moving and starting again, technically you can get an up to date solution, you can build around your needs and at its simplest you do not have to deal with the disruption of building going on around you. However when money is tight and there is a risk aversion to the thought of buying a site, overcoming the planning and procurement issues, looking at an existing building can become an attraction. In favour of reuse it is often a question of the softer values, the cultural heritage and continuity with the past both in terms of the user, use and neighbourhood setting, and physically the potential to exploit the existing enriched spatial qualities which a more formulaic new construction might limit.

However if the choice is to stay and rework, the challenge is to ensure that this decision is not seen as a defensive, reactive solution as opposed to the apparently more progressive, modern position defined by building anew - that is, reusing what you have got should not be seen as a second best. Somewhat perversely, difficult market trends can present the right formula at the right time to make conversion of unused building assets possible/profitable through conversion to dwellings.

So lets see how current thinking on existing buildings can overcome two of the apparent benefits of new building - the technical advantage and being able to build around your needs.

Technology firstly is helping this balancing act, much work has been done comparatively to narrow the gap between new and converted building outcomes and bring down the difference between new and old, in terms of running costs. New technical assessment procedures and for example acoustic and energy efficiency research has shown how existing buildings can be adapted more easily to perform with close or equivalent standards to new building. Amongst others we have mentioned before, two are particularly relevant here - the Historic Scotland 'Fabric Improvement for Energy Efficiency in Traditional Buildings 2012' and 'Design of separating constructions that are resistant to the transmission of noise in conversion of Traditional Buildings' - Napier University & Scottish Government 2012.

Against all this advice there is the yardstick by which we need to measure our performance and that is the statutory domestic building standards, 2007 - updated 2010 and intended for 2014 revision. What do these yardsticks say about the support for conversion as against new build for the future.

Reviewing the future standards we are of the view they support the retention and reuse of existing buildings by stipulating that the standards are required to be met for new and restored buildings but exceptionally they retain for the latter - 'as far as reasonably practicable'

In broad terms, air tightness, thermal bridging and noise separation requirements have not been made significantly more onerous for the re-use of existing buildings, with the qualification that U-values recommended when converting previously unheated buildings are about 25-30% more stringent.

On thermal performance of building fabric the 2014 regulations continue to recognise the complexity of improving listed or traditional buildings and will extend the flexibility to reduce the overall level of improvements, and focus improvements on less sensitive parts of buildings.

If the gap technically between old and new is coming together, what about our ability to reuse the old to meet current needs. We have always sought to bring creativity to the reuse of buildings such as at the Italian Centre, Centre for Contemporary Art, The Lighthouse in Glasgow and St Francis Church Gorbals, and have taken inspiration from other achievements, such as Fielden Clegg Bradley’s pod strategy for reuse of Yorkshire Dales barns, MVRDV’s encapsulation of two Copenhagen concrete silos and an old favourite, Ricardo Bofill's Barcelona transformation of a concrete works into his offices.

What they all show is that with imagination it is possible to overcome any prejudice against the use of existing buildings.

Looking forward, clever technicality and creativity may be our best resource.

The Italian Centre, Glasgow