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Retrofit or rebuild: the future of the Bartlett School of Architecture

As the Bartlett prepares to submit its new school for planning, the team behind the development discussed its decision to work with the existing building

‘Should it stay or should it go?’, was the title of the Hawkins\Brown-led discussion held last week as part of Green Sky Thinking.

It asked the fundamental question of whether it was better to demolish existing buildings, to benefit from reductions in VAT, flexibility and ease of construction or whether existing buildings should be kept, with the carbon and embodied energy stored in them retained.

The debate centred on Hawkins\Brown’s designs for the new Bartlett School of Architecture. The scheme retains the frame of the existing seventies-built Wates House – the school’s current building.

Wates House has been the home to the Bartlett since 1975, yet the school’s dean Alan Penn, said: ‘People don’t feel precious about the building.’

It was described by director of UCL estates Andrew Granger as ‘arguably the worst building on the UCL estate’.

The building is constructed from a concrete frame, which is being retained in Hawkins\Brown’s plans for the new school – a method of refurbishment which the practice has already proven works at the Stirling Prize-shortlisted Park Hill flats in Sheffield.

As well as retaining the frame, the building will also be expanded by 3,535m2, while re-orientating the entrance and creating an exhibition space at ground floor level.

The project is ‘time critical’ – students are being moved into a warehouse building in Camden whilst the construction work takes place, but this is due to be demolished to make way for HS2, meaning the new building must be completed within a two-year window. This heavily influenced the decision to retain the existing. Granger added: ‘A new-build wouldn’t be achievable at the timescales we have.’

UCL has a site-wide carbon reduction target of 43 per cent by 2020. This means the new building has to be adaptable, flexible, controllable and comfortable, so key sustainability features have been incorporated into the design.

The building will be sealed but, like all workplaces, it faces the challenge of needing to balance the aspiration for a sealed low-energy environment with the needs and desires of users who wish to have control of their own space.

To enable this, the building will be split into two key areas – high density studio spaces, and lower occupancy office areas. During the mid-season the office areas will be naturally ventilated with the rest of the building cooled via a chilled-beam system, which utilises the thermal mass of the existing concrete structure. In peak season the whole building will be mechanically ventilated with room controls set up on a studio-by-studio basis.

Hawkins\Brown’s decision to reuse the existing building forms part of a wider debate about the future of the UK’s existing building stock. As buildings built at this period continuously become obsolete or in need of refurbishment to meet environmental targets and modern needs – the question of whether to knock them down or refurbish them will become all the more relevant. It is important for high-profile projects, like this, to show how best to tackle the issues surrounding refurbishment.

As Euan Macdonald of Hawkins\Brown put it: ‘It is not a question of should it stay or should it go. We should keep the positives, but give it the feeling of a new building with a new identity.’

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