Working with Post-War Buildings

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I was once told by an architect that people generally dislike architecture of the generation before their own, and that her father had despised Edwardian buildings with a passion! I don’t know if it is this phenomena, or presumptions surrounding inflexible concrete structures and asbestos that are fuelling the current demise of our post-war modernist buildings. This event hosted by Architecture and Design Scotland and supported by Retrofit Scotland sought to explore approaches to improving the performance and longevity of modern buildings. We hope to be able to share films of all the talks in our next newsletter. Below are key points from the seminar highlighting some of the benefits and opportunities of retaining and working with existing modern buildings.

“Reinforced Concrete Frame Construction is capable of coping with almost any intervention” while talking about the Haggerston School project in Hackney, London, John Allan of Avanti Architects highlighted that while often being accused of being too rigid, the concrete frame in the project allowed for internal adaptions, widening corridors to provide break out spaces and allow natural light deep into the plan. This sentiment was echoed by Fiona McNeill of Ian Springford Architects while talking about Bridgegate House in Irvine where the “inflexible” concrete frame allowed a move from compartmentalised offices to open plan working, with the added benefits of natural ventilation, good levels of daylight and excellent views.

Fiona also highlighted that Concrete frame structures have inherent thermal mass. With the aid of thermal modeling she was able to encourage the client to expose the distinct concrete coffered ceiling in a move that that along with other interventions aided the building to achieve a B energy rating (previously F).

Concrete structures are very robust, solid, and actually… very difficult to demolish. Artist and photographer Sylvia Grace Borda, author of EK Modernism and, worked in East Kilbride in 2005, ahead of the “re-modernisation” of the school estate. Displaying her photographs of the original modernist schools and commenting on their strengths such as their elevation and orientation – “they were always harvesting light”, she noted that Schools that were scheduled to be demolished in 3 weeks actually took closer to three months, which poses questions about the financial and environmental arguments for demolishing them.

While concrete is ubiquitous with modernism Remo Pedreschi of Edinburgh University explored new opportunities for the material which also a process. “Concrete does what you tell it to do” and while rigidity was the focus of the formwork in the previous projects Remo spoke of his students experiments with fabric formwork, creating freeform structures and measuring efficiency, finding different forms of the same volume have varied strengths.

A phased approach is entirely possible. While talking about the regeneration of Byker in Newcastle in the 1960s and 70s, Craig Wilson explained that the construction had taken a phased approach; with people remaining in the area and moving to their new houses as Architect Ralph Erkine believed moving wholescale to new areas represented a traumatic event. A phased approach was also adopted at: Haggerston school where an elaborate phasing plan meant pupils stayed on site during construction; and Bridgegate House where office workers continued working in the building while the works carried on.

Talking about their project of sensitive adaptation to St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross Angus Farquhar of NVA extolled the virtue of desperation stating that the limited budget for their project ensured they focus on the most fundamental elements and not go down the route of conservation in the 70s and 80s which sought to recreate the historical reality, and didn’t work.

– John Allan of Avanti Architects commented that when the argument to demolish or retain a post-war building comes to a head the desire is often that the building be listed to ensure its retention. He noted that there are only a small number of true post war heritage buildings, and we cannot retain only these. There are also large numbers of valuable buildings which should be retained for economic, environmental and social reasons, and we really cannot afford to lose these. Reinforcing the economic argument, John noted that the upgrade to Haggerston School under the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme was half the cost of a brand new school. Retaining Bridgegate house in the centre of Irvine was largely a social decision taken by a council keen to keep the workers and visitors to this public building within and using the town centre. As Angus Farquhar stated, the social history of a place is as important as the material reality and as the promotion for the event asked – could we end up in a situation where children’s grandparents can point out where they worked or went to school but their parents cannot?

As Found: Lost Practice

The As Found: Lost Practice exhibition was shown as part of the Scotland + Venice exhibition which took place at The Lighthouse, Glasgow.

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