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Why the AJ is returning to building revisits

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Revisits are a way to assess a building’s sustainability over time, says Hattie Hartman

This month’s edition of Footprint marks the relaunch of a venerable AJ series: building revisits. Why do revisits? You learn so much by talking to people and observing how a building works once the initial polish has worn off. So many architects I meet do not have the opportunity to visit their past buildings. Those that do are able to feed the knowledge gained into future projects.

I’ve written extensively about metrics and data in recent months. Revisits are about more than data, and they are also integral to our Bridge the Gap campaign, which focuses on more than the technical aspects of building performance. Revisits address sustainability in its broadest sense, in keeping with the RIBA’s proposed ‘test of time’ award. We want to know if a building is loved and looked after by its owner and occupants, how good a neighbour it is, how successfully it has adapted to changing needs and whether its materials are durable and continue to delight.

For our first revisit, we chose Peckham Library, Stirling Prize winner in 2000, partly because this is Stirling season, but primarily because it was a landmark public building with high aspirations when it opened, and we wanted to explore how well those aspirations have been met.

What we found is that Peckham Library has sparked a library revolution, not just in Peckham but throughout Southwark. While most local authorities are closing libraries or cutting back hours, Southwark is employing well-known architects to build new ones. The library also instigated a Bilbao effect by putting Peckham on the map.

The willingness of all members of the original design team - Will Alsop, Hanif Kara and Battle McCarthy - to share their recollections with us was notable, and reflects the library’s pioneering mission. It was a building of many firsts. Hanif Kara pointed out that in those pre-parametric days, the reading room pods had to be painstakingly plotted, inch by inch, in MicroStation.

Surprisingly, ‘loose fit’ is not the only key to success. The reading room’s pods have proved inflexible and underused relative to the rest of the building. Yet the pods, along with the spectacular views of London (which Will Alsop acknowledges he did not foresee), make the reading room the popular destination it is. Visionary design did the trick.

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