Why Build New When We Can Repurpose the Old?

Architect Nick Durham asks just because ‘we’ve always done it that way’, does that mean it’s best?

There’s a school of thought, which has been increasing momentum, that the property and construction industry should prioritise reusing existing buildings over building new. You may think that’s counter-intuitive for an architect, but it’s undoubtedly the direction we should be heading in order to mitigate impact on the environment.

Ayr Grammar Primary School, South Ayrshire, UK
Ayr Grammar Primary School, South Ayrshire, UK
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

Last year, Historic England released a report saying buildings need to be recycled and reused rather than demolished to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, as the built environment accounts for a staggering 42% of the UK’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the Architects Journal’s campaign, RetroFirst, has been encouraging the sector to prioritise retrofitting existing buildings over demolition and rebuild, and One Public Estate, a joint initiative to use public assets more efficiently, is gaining traction. 

With the retail sector still reeling from the pandemic, high street vacancy rates are high, leaving space ripe for repurposing. The collapse of Debenhams and Arcadia alone left 15 million square feet of vacant space across England and Wales, according to Altus Group. As we return to the workplace, think tank Centre for Cities predicts the five-day office week could become the norm again in two years, but others expect a hybrid approach, which will offer yet more opportunities to repurpose empty buildings. FTSE companies Aviva, HSBC, Standard Chartered and Metro Bank have all indicated plans to slash their office space.

Section from Manchester Metropolitan Institute of Sport

New healthcare facilities can take years, if not decades to deliver, but the Nightingale Hospitals illustrate how quickly a repurposed facility can come to fruition. In 2020 we helped deliver a temporary hospital in London’s ExCel Centre in nine days and in Bristol at UWE campus in 20. We are currently repurposing empty or underused retail units in shopping centres – and plans for one at the former fire control centre in Taunton – as NHS diagnostic hubs to help reduce pressure on hospitals.

Oldham Town Hall, UK

In Cardiff the Bute Building at the Welsh School of Architecture is being repurposed by stripping this historic building back to its original design by Percy Thomas. We have designed in flexibility to ensure spaces can respond to future change, such as a new hybrid space which means that individual and group tutorials can be run concurrently thanks to moveable walls and acoustic lining.

Main concept sketch, Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, UK
Bute Building, Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, UK

Reusing and adapting existing buildings can mean more sustainable and cost-effective space for healthcare, education, the private sector or community use. Stockton-on-Tees made the news earlier this year with its plan to knock down an old shopping centre and replace it with a giant park. Local authorities are well positioned to balance the wellbeing of their populations with economic viability, and where they lead, we hope more will follow. Challenging the status quo is important; just because we have ‘always done it that way’ doesn’t mean it’s the best way.

Rackhams, Altrincham, UK