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Change is inevitable but is still not considered


For some years now our small practice has been engaged in regeneration work. This usually involves assessing the suitability of existing buildings to fulfil functions different from those for which they were originally designed. We tend to find that the more recent a building is, the harder it is to adapt, while brickbuilt Victorian and Edwardian buildings with well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms and simply ordered plans can fulfil a multitude of possibilities.

Thirty years ago the mantra for the sort of public-service architecture in which the practice I then worked for was principally engaged, was 'growth and change, brothers'. Later this was followed by 'long life, loose fit' - promoted, I think, by the then president of the RIBA.

Now, attempting to recycle buildings of that and more recent eras, we find as often as not that we recommend demolition and rebuilding, so intractable and costly is their refurbishment.

This is generally due as much to the limitations of overconceived plans and sections as it is to shortcomings in fabric and structure.

I cannot recall when I last saw a building published that in its design acknowledged the possibilities of extension or change of use. The fashion for wonky structures, deformed plans and huge acres of glass requiring external shading make matters worse.

The engineer in me tells me that there is much to be said for wellproportioned rectilinear spaces, clearly organised structure with direct load paths, and natural materials that are widely available.

Great buildings usually exhibit a limited palatte of materials and an economy of means in execution - qualities that enable sensitive adaptation and extension.

Truly sustainable buildings are the ones that are worth keeping.

Bob Owston, Owston Associates, Bushey, Hertfordshire

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