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The shock of the old: the cost of the future

Return on investment does not guarantee a building’s longevity or cultural importance, says Paul Finch

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) in London run occasional evening meetings in their office, at which invited speakers talk about matters of general architectural interest. Last week concerned a building sometimes referred to as the father of the skyscraper – Ditherington Flax Mill on the edge of Shrewsbury.

Designed by Charles Bage and completed in 1797, the mill was truly innovative, using cast iron as a frame for the first time, a precedent for William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Office Insurance building in Chicago nearly a century later.

Albert Taylor, co-founder of Adams Kara Taylor, who has devised an ingenious sleeve system to protect and reinforce the frame, noted that the original was designed to a safety factor of 1, an incredibly precise piece of design thinking that has stood the test of time pretty well (i.e. it is still standing).

The Mill is listed Grade 1, and is part of a masterplan to regenerate both it and the surrounding site to designs by FCBS, with help sought from English Heritage, Heritage Lottery Fund and so on. The building has had an interesting history, lasting for nearly 100 hundred years as a mill, then being converted to a maltings for a further century, before falling into disuse and disrepair.

From a strictly functionalist point of view, one might say let the poor old thing succumb to gravity and bite the dust. That is certainly the view many hold about Battersea Power Station, especially now that Bankside by the same architect (Giles Gilbert Scott) has been converted into Tate Modern and will be with us for as long as we can envisage.

However, Ditherington is so much an example of original conceptual thinking, reflecting the dynamism, scientific experiment and risk-taking of the early industrial revolution, that it deserves to find a new life (its third). This is surely an example of what the Heritage Lottery Fund should be supporting, especially given its location in a potential arc of world heritage sites including the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, which had plenty of surplus engineering built into its cast-iron structure.

There is, however, a little problem about putting public funding into buildings like Ditherington, which is a requirement to justify it in terms of the dreaded ‘return on investment’ (ROI).

While one understands the need to weigh up competing applications for grant funding, there is a conceptual difficulty about this sort of analysis in relation to buildings. That is quite simply the impossibility of predicting the future, especially in relation to the life of buildings. There are many commercial buildings that have been developed on a belief in their ROI that may indeed have justified that belief. But there are many that have done nothing of the sort, and many that, after a relatively short first life, have had to be demolished, usually with highly wasteful carbon consequences. Nor have they added anything to society in terms of cultural or spiritual values.

Buildings like Ditherington, on the other hand – because of their area and volume – are highly likely to fund alternative uses assuming a flexible conservation plan can be put into place, as is the case here.

At a time when the ideas of John Habraken are coming back into fashion (Michael Gove might be interested), it is worth thinking about any frame building as a potential asset before demolishing it; Habraken wanted designers to think about base buildings as being highly flexible, with interiors and fit-outs finding their place within them over time.

This finds an echo in Stuart Brand’s marvellous Buildings That Learn, a book examining why it is that certain types of buildings seem to last while others do not. A bit of over-engineering can be helpful here, as can generosity in respect of area, volume and light. Long life, loose fit, and low energy indeed.

There is no reason why Ditherington Mill should not find a new life, a living testament to innovation, adaptability and, when one understands its history, what one might call the shock of the old.

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