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RetroFirst stories: IF_DO on rescuing a Hastings landmark after 35 years of decay

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The latest in an ongoing AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back to life through innovative interventions

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

With up to 40 per cent of carbon emissions coming from the construction industry, the profession needs to find ways of adapting the type of buildings it designs, and fast.

In order to tackle the climate crisis, the default – and less carbon-hungry – option for any project should be to adapt and re-use an existing building, one of the key demands of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign.

With the spotlight on retrofit, our series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or demolition and to hear from the architects that designed them.

Today we hear from IF_DO’s Sarah Castle about its proposed community-focused workspace, leisure and residential revamp of Hastings’ decaying and long-abandoned Observer Building. 

Plans for the £6 million retrofit and rootfop extension of the 1920s structure in Cambridge Road have just been submitted to Hastings Borough Council. Subject to approval, the first phase of the scheme could start on site in October. 

Tell us about the project 
The Observer Building was built in 1924 as the offices and print works for the local newspaper, the Hastings & St Leonards Observer. It was extended in the 1960s and adapted over the years, but largely survived in its original form.

If do sarah castle ©simonwebb 01

Sarah Castle

Source: Simon Webb

Sarah Castle

The newspaper moved out in 1985 and, despite since having 13 owners and being granted many planning permissions, it has been in a state of dereliction and decay for more than 30 years.

It’s an extraordinary building: it’s built directly into the white cliffs of Hastings and the topography of the area means that there is street level access on three floors—at the lower basement ‘alley’ level, at ground floor, and at first floor. From the roof level there are spectacular views across the town and the sea.

The existing building is 4,000m² over seven floors, and at the alley level it is literally cut into the rock; there are a series of vaults tunnelled into the cliff that extend under surrounding buildings. The principal façade is clad in ornate faience; it has a beautiful civic grandeur that sits in contrast to the concrete-framed industrial structure behind it.

The building was purchased early last year by our client, White Rock Neighbourhood Ventures, a locally-rooted social enterprise developer, who had been trying to buy it for community benefit for many years. Their aim is to ‘squeeze’ the project for maximum social impact: giving life-changing opportunities to as many people as possible, as well as having a wider ripple-effect on the surrounding neighbourhood.

When complete, the Observer Building will be a key piece of social infrastructure for the town. It will contain three floors of leisure businesses (including an activity and event space which will be programmed to support the local community through a new non-profit operator), one floor of low-cost workspace for local businesses, ­16 living rent flats, and a rooftop extension with two floors of terraces and multi-use community spaces to make the most of the views.

What were the challenges of the existing building?
The building suffered from a cycle of decline over 30 years that was a symptom of the speculative property market. Despite changing hands 13 times since the newspaper moved out, few of the intervening owners invested in any repairs. Every owner bar one made money on the site, usually by getting planning permission and selling it on.

This cycle of buying, getting permission and selling the building on left it in a significant state of disrepair

This cycle – in which there had been little interest in the building itself – left it in a significant state of disrepair, with extensive damage to the structure and building fabric from years of water ingress. The project therefore involves extensive and careful repair work: from the concrete frame, to the faience facade, along with the removal of a lot of pigeons.

The top floor is of particular difficulty. A poor-quality extension added in the 1950s, it was built with blockwork external walls and a steel frame, rather than concrete. The roof had failed, and so a temporary roof structure had been installed underneath it, which is itself now failing. To avoid removing the external wall, which would have been prohibitively expensive, we had to retain the steel frame. That steelwork therefore became integral to the design of the new rooftop extensions. It is being repaired and exposed as part of the roof terrace.

Had demolition ever been considered?
Having been abandoned for so long, and with so many unrealised plans to do anything with it, the Observer Building has faced an increasing risk of demolition. It’s a difficult building to convert, so many people may have seen it as easier to clear the site and start again. Permission was actually granted in 2005 to knock it down and replace it with a budget hotel, so it came very close.

Approval was granted in 2005 to knock it down and replace it with a budget hotel

The demolition of the building would have been a huge loss, not just in environmental terms, but more significantly in the social history of the town. As the former offices of the local newspaper it is a really important part of the heritage of Hastings. The inscriptions on the front façade literally tell its history.

There was a huge community campaign that began in 2005 against the principle of demolition. While they failed to convince the council to refuse that particular planning application, the building ultimately survived.

If do observer building ┬®if do existing internal 04 fourth floor

If do observer building ┬®if do existing internal 04 fourth floor

Existing fourth floor

How did you convince the client not to flatten the building? 
Thankfully no one needed convincing. Our client had been trying to purchase the building for the best part of a decade with the explicit intention of restoring it for community benefit. Building from the origins of the 2005 campaign, there was over 10 years of sustained community engagement, particularly around the risks of gentrification, and the loss of Hastings’ diversity and character. So, while there were huge uncertainties around the structural condition when they bought the building, there was never a question of its demolition from that point onwards.

What are the biggest risk on the project – for both yourself and the client?
There were two big foreseeable risks for the project, and one unforeseen one. The first was one of dilapidation. While the client had been able to undertaken some survey work ahead of purchase, there was much that was unknown about the building, particularly about the state of the structure, and what it was going to take to make it stable.

The second, ongoing, risk is around funding and the timing of money. Because of the nature of the client as a social enterprise developer, the funding for the project is coming from a multitude of grants and social-impact loans. As a result, there is no single pot that is able to fund the project in one go. In order to be achievable the project therefore has to be phased, and done in an organic adaptable way that is able to respond nimbly to the changing context. This means that tenants will be brought into parts of the building as early as possible, while works are still going on elsewhere. Those tenants will become part of the Observer Building community, and part of the conversation about the ongoing development and what future phases are going to be.

The plans we make now will inevitably evolve over the course of the project

This phased organic approach is one that the client has already proven successful in the building next door, but as architects it presents a whole set of challenges around a constantly evolving brief, and designing for the fact that the plans we make now will inevitably evolve over the course of the project.

The third, totally unforeseen and unexpected risk was that of a global pandemic. This year had been planned as a hugely important part of the development process, with the first anchor tenants moving into key spaces this summer, and starting to activate the building for the community. The project is all about social togetherness, so the need for physical distancing presents a big challenge.

The community rallied round and quickly launched an online TV station Isolation Station Hastings with the hope that it might eventually move into the building. It has so far featured live gigs and festivals, life drawing, yoga, sewing classes, and piano concertos, as well as community engagement sessions on the plans for the building. The experience of the lockdown will inevitably affect the future development of the project, and the TV station has already enabled it to connect with a wider community than it might otherwise have been able to.

If do section observer building hastings

If do section observer building hastings


Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?
There are very high sustainability aspirations for the project, and we are working closely with Webb Yates for both structural and M&E engineering to develop a holistic whole-life approach to the building. The ambition is that the Observer Building will become an example of best practice sustainable regeneration in Hastings.

A fabric first approach has been key, and the proposed upgrades have been carefully designed to ensure sensitivity to the existing fabric of the building.

Operational emissions are being significantly reduced, with high performance U-values throughout, good levels of air-tightness, and MVHR systems to minimise heating needs over winter.

We’re being careful to demolish as little as possible

In summer months, the building is being designed to operate predominantly in a passive mode, with the existing concrete frame allowing for passive thermal mass cooling. We want to both reduce future running costs for the community and for the building to generate as much of its own power as possible, through both air source heat pumps, and large photovoltaic arrays.

In terms of up-front emissions reductions, we’re being careful to demolish as little as possible, and favouring carbon sequestering materials where possible. All new structural elements and internal partitions will be timber.

The use of high embodied carbon materials is being minimised, and used only when low-carbon alternatives are unfeasible.

If do observer building ┬®if do 03 first floor

If do observer building ┬®if do 03 first floor

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?
The local planners have been keen to see something happen with the Observer Building for years, so they have been supportive of almost any proposal that has been made for the site. Certainly, a proposal like this one, built on the back of over 10 years of community engagement and with social impact at its core, is one that they have encouraged.

At the pre-application forum a large number of people from the community came along in support of the project. That is a powerful thing for the planners to see.

What lessons from the project could you apply on other developments?
The biggest ones are about community-led development, in particular the phased organic approach that’s enabling the project to be realised without secured funding from the outset – and the courage and faith that requires. As our clients said to us: ’We’re going to be able to do this somehow, even if we don’t know how.’

Ultimately, the project is asking whether it is possible to re-use buildings like this in a way that builds community wealth, rather than that of commercial developers. The answer is not only yes, but that that is desirable: enabling the existing built assets of a community to become productive pieces of social infrastructure that will magnify their impact over time.

Hastings observer building

Hastings observer building

Building as it is today (left) and as propsoed (right)

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  • All that implied social interaction will have to stop for starters thanks to Covid-19

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