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RetroFirst Stories: Selencky Parsons plans super-skin upgrade of 1960s house

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The latest in an AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or given them a new lease of life

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.

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

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

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

Today Selencky Parsons on how they plan to upgrade a poorly performing house in East Sussex and give it a new, super-insulated skin.

Tell us about the project.

Bulls Barn is in Ditchling within the South Downs National Park. The existing 350m² house sits in expansive gardens and has great views out toward Ditchling Beacon. This building was erected in the early 1960s and replaces an earlier farmhouse.

Our scheme is a complete overhaul of the existing house, which hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. It includes a full recladding of the façades and extensive internal reconfiguration. We will also be adding a new 70m² annexe, which will house a gym and artist’s studio.

Selencky parsons retrofirst

Selencky parsons retrofirst

What were the challenges of the existing building?

Being within the National Park meant we had to work within the confines of the local planning policy, which influenced the scale, massing and materials palette of the project.

The existing building is sprawling and rather uninspiring. It has suffered from a number of poorly built single-story extensions over the years, giving it a cluttered and incongruous appearance. Its thermal performance is also very poor, with virtually no insulation and single-glazed windows throughout.

From the outset we wanted to rationalise the volume by clearing away the single-storey extensions and any visual clutter on the façades. We also proposed a full re-clad to the building, allowing us to add a layer of high-performance external insulation behind a new flint and tile façade – materials which reference the local vernacular.

We should rethink our attitude toward demolition and keep it as a last resort

Internally we are removing a section of the first floor to create a new double-height entrance space, and reconfiguring the internal layout throughout. There will also be an additional two bedrooms added within the previously unused loft space.

Finally, the small existing window openings are being increased in size throughout to maximise the views to Ditchling Beacon and improve the relationship to the gardens. New triple-glazed windows will be added throughout.

Had demolition ever been considered?

It was considered at an early stage, but after some discussion both the client and ourselves determined the existing structure could easily be adapted to suit their needs and that an extensive refurb could even result in a more interesting solution than through new build.

The clients are very environmentally focused, so as soon as they realised retaining the building was viable, demolition was never really an option.

Aside from retaining the original fabric, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?

As well as the external insulation and triple-glazed windows mentioned above, we will be adding a new insulated slab and roof insulation internally. Photovoltaic panels will be added to the roof of the new annexe block; rainwater is to be harvested; and mechanical heat-recovery ventilation is to be installed. The reclad is to make use of local materials – flint and red clay tile. Finally, we are introducing solar shading devices to window openings through use of deep reveals and extruded aluminium window surrounds.

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?

We are still awaiting planning permission

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?

Primarily, that we should rethink our attitude towards demolition, and perhaps keep it as a last resort.

As architects, it was tempting to view the unsightly existing building as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and put a new building in its place. However, we soon realised the main fabric of the building of the building is in good condition, plus ceiling heights were generous and the floor plan could be easily modified to suit current lifestyles.

This is something that can easily be applied to countless buildings across the country.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Big improvement on the existing house. It looks like the hidden gutters might introduce cold bridging though and I would worry about summer overheating, as indicated by the existing window sun shades.

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  • Just one simple way to encourage more of this. VAT Free.

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