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Roundtable: renewal and retrofit

A debate on the renewal and retrofit market was the focus of a lunch hosted by the AJ in association with Austin-Smith:Lord

International property trade fair MIPIM is known for showcasing fantasy new builds rather than the clever re-use of existing stock. Yet that will soon change. Only this week the government has decided to allow empty offices to be converted into homes without planning consent. Signs of this retrofit market emerged at MIPIM and was the focus of a lunch hosted by the AJ in association with Austin-Smith:Lord. The AJ100 Practice of the Year has recently launched its specialist RENEW division.

The panellists explain what they think should be done to kickstart the re-use of existing buildings.

Paul Finch, chair ‘Allow conversions from offices to housing and extend this to retail property.’
Brendon Walsh, director, property and regeneration at Ealing Council ‘Change VAT regulation to make refurbishment exempt.’
Jennifer Dixon, partner, ASL ‘Revisit the whole subject of VAT relief to unlock smaller scale renewal projects.’
Chris Smith, national planning director, English Heritage ‘There needs to be a better understanding of what makes a site important.’
Clive Panter, RENEW and residential director, ASL ‘Make the display energy certificate an integral part of the commercial property valuation.’
John Hicks, partner, Davis Langdon ‘Focus on the time benefit of viable schemes that have renovation at their heart over knock down and re-start solutions.’
Martha Schwartz, landscape architect ‘Re-use, re-organise and re-think all the ignored, abused open spaces around council estates.’
Michael Lowndes, director, Turley Associates ‘A more flexible use-classes regime.’
Paul Finch, chair ‘Allow conversions from offices to housing and extend this to retail property.’
Liz Peace, chief executive, British Property Federation ‘The one thing that would kick-start the re-use of buildings is growth in the economy. With economic growth there is a platform to reinvest in our existing built environment.’

Paul Finch The refurbishment market was once seen as doing no more or no less than bringing a building up to some sort of standard. But structures should have second and third uses. Contrast this with some of the buildings from the 1960s which are actually incapable of adaptation to new uses, even offices. So what are the hurdles for really successful renewal?

Brendon Walsh People are sentimental about their old buildings and want to see them re-used. But from a financial position they don’t work, so you have got to find higher-value uses and find ways to cross-subsidise uses. On the Ealing Town Hall redevelopment, we are looking at providing arts and cultural uses in the first phase, a commercial mid-section that will cross-subsidise the arts phase and a third section retained as civic space. Politicians retain enough ownership of it, so they haven’t sold the crown jewels, but the public get the benefit of new facilities and actually have a way of paying for it by commercialising a third of the building.

Clive Panter Yet the public perception of value in history is 30 to 40 years behind what is actually going on. The attitude from the agent industry is that 1960s buildings are too much hassle and we don’t want to go near them. The Victorian fabric is easy; there’s an understanding of that. As soon as you start looking at more modern structures beyond World War Two, this value-balance changes.

PF However in Britain one powerful reason to renew an object building is that you don’t need planning permission…

Michael Lowndes Unless it is listed in which case there is a regulatory influence that challenges the more flexible approach to re-using a building. I’ve just been to a conference in Rotterdam where there were two buildings next door to each other – one was a listed monument and had been fully refurbished, a beautiful job. But it was empty. Next door was not listed and was going to be demolished but this had been occupied by a ‘meanwhile’ collective – it was dynamic, generating growth and jobs and benefiting the economy of Rotterdam. We should be encouraging more flexible uses. And now that English Heritage (EH) doesn’t have as many resources and the local authorities are also losing expertise, will we be entering a period of statis where nothing happens?

Will we be entering a period of statis where nothing happens?

Liz Peace It worries me that the genuine goodwill, built up over the last five to seven years will be dissipated when local authorities haven’t got the conservation officers and there is a big concern that there is no longer the resource to effectively deal with what we’ve got.

Chris Smith We are obviously going through a radical reduction in scale and numbers and that makes managing the expertise in EH more and more challenging. My message at MIPIM is ‘constructive conservation, no surrender’. Using conservation as the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl, we can show we can do it, whether we can continue to do that around the country, well that’s my new responsibility.

PF As well as the concerns about the shortage of expertise at local authority level as they begin to feel the financial pressure, for some people, any change is a bad change and the idea of re-use and adaptation is rather foreign. Do you think that has changed – has a preservationist attitude made way for a more conservationist attitude?

ML I am reminded of that quote by Jane Jacobs: ‘New ideas must use old buildings.’ And I’m still worried about ‘EH curation’.

CS To add one new hurdle, senior government officers are quite averse to us even publishing guidance. Yet I used to have ‘Change is the only constant’ over my desk; it is only a question of finding the right change. In the past, say 30 years ago, we would have bought a listed mill, repaired it and opened it up to the public and lost money on it ever after. But we have moved a long, long way from that and the models that are much more viable, such as Lister Mills in Bradford where we have consented Urban Splash schemes.

PF In the past, only certain developers would take on old buildings. But that is no longer true, is it?

LP I came into the BPF at the end of some well-publicised rows between developers with EH – such as the goods yard at Bishopsgate – I now find it difficult to put up an example where there has been a row or deep dissatisfaction. The sensible guys would much prefer a constructive engagement, moved by the whole sustainability argument. Fundamentally what keeps developers happy is an efficient, effective predictable system to work with.
What seriously pisses them off is when they get delayed unexpectedly for a year. There is still a big process problem.

ML But those pauses often create better projects. Time to think and consider and actually, maybe redesign. King’s Cross got better…

LP As long as it doesn’t stop it. There is pause for reflection – then there is pause for a general cock up.

PF Inherently the task of renewing very old buildings is notoriously difficult compared with the certainties of the new. How do you cover yourself against the uncertainties of what you may uncover if you knock that wall down or prod that foundation?’

Jennifer Dixon The role of the consultant today is much more about the range of things that could happen rather than leaving the team with the great unknown. Perhaps it is time for architects to start taking some of that responsibility on behalf of the building owner so it is not so one-sided.

ML Meanwhile we get credibility from doing plans which would have otherwise been done by the local authority or doing the management agreement that would otherwise have been done by EH. Or by taking the guidance or taking the best practice, synthesising it through an approach that we’ve adopted and almost self-regulating because we are making the correct judgments.

John Hicks I increasingly hear society saying we want to re-use what’s there in some form; whether it is the carbon agenda or just being bored of the stuff replacing it.

PF One thing you do know when dealing with an area of renewal, rather than just a solitary building, is that the streetscape is going to be thought out from scratch.

Contrary to popular belief, not all green space adds value

Martha Schwartz It has to be new just because the landscape is a lot more fragile than built objects. Contrary to popular belief, not all green space adds value; where there is no ownership, it becomes toxic. In terms of re-use, it may be better to tear them down. So the question is more about what you can design now that will be sustainable in the future. What happens when all the buildings on Canary Wharf need to be retrofitted – is that going to be possible? They are so market driven, and designed for such specific uses, which means they are unable to be regenerated.

PFThere could be one single amendment to the planning law where you have to show that your plans could be used for a second purpose – effectively a second application. Everyone must show a plan B. n

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