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The SciTech retrofit revolution

Architect Director, Michael Cambden explains our process of designing a sustainable research and development facility by adapting existing property assets.

Typically, when developing the brief for a science building, we start from scratch and build up. But if we inherit a building, we must ask the question “what actually works here?” Appraising the ‘suitability’ of the building infrastructure should cover everything from spatial requirements to vibration and building façade performance to articulating the client’s vision.

We always interrogate the long list of requirements deemed essential by scientists and researchers, finding there are often acceptable compromises to be made to support a ‘better’ design. Within the context of repurposing an existing building, we challenge preconceptions about what is required to determine the best fit with the existing structure. Can we adjust briefed room sizes to fit the grid? Is there any flexibility in the briefed performance requirements of labs to align with existing constraints? Does the existing building offer opportunities to consider the science in a different way? And what are the implications to the end-users if we do adapt lab designs and adjacencies?

There may be eccentric spaces within the existing building that can be repurposed to enhance the brief. For example, when repurposing Manchester Metropolitan University’s former Students’ Union to become the University’s new Institute of Sport for musculoskeletal science and sports medicine, we identified that the former dancefloor as an ideal place for the biomechanics testing lab. The additional existing double-height space created a new opportunity for vertical movement analysis (rather than flat floor analysis), without the need to knock through floors or compromise the equipment installation.

It is important to be upfront and honest about the technical design challenges, as these can potentially make a repurposing project cost almost as much as a new build. Many old buildings were not built to cater for modern structural loadings or building services requirements but these challenges can be overcome if the client and design team understand the building and are open minded to innovative ways of delivering the brief.

Key factors to consider

  • Existing floorplate size – can the brief fit?
  • Occupancy density – how many people can the building accommodate?
  • Accessibility – can it comply with modern standards?
  • Floor-to-floor heights – can it accommodate lab service zones effectively?
  • Servicing and riser strategy – do vertical service zones offer a viable alternative to horizontal distribution where there are lower floor-to-floor heights?
  • Logistics – how can construction (and retention) minimise disruption?

New technical solutions, such as tuned mass dampers (also known as harmonic absorbers, or seismic dampers) can reduce mechanical vibrations to achieve better performance from existing poorly performing buildings. If we cannot effectively incorporate these, or the volume required does not exist, we need to look at accommodating less technically-demanding aspects of the brief within the original envelope and creating new, higher performing alterations or extensions.

Making a new laboratory design fit within an old building’s framework creates an exciting challenge. Deciding whether to strip back to the structural frame or retain areas of façade and building infrastructure requires balancing the age and condition of the building with future performance criteria, the brief, cost and carbon implications. As the construction sector increases focus on sustainability, we need to understand and communicate the carbon implications of repurposing rather than demolition. Retaining the foundations, concrete frame, and certain façade elements of a defunct 1970’s building for Manchester Met’s Institute of Sport saved circa 1,100 tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 12.6 years of operational carbon – this is certainly a step in the right direction.

The key is to work with the existing building – not against it!