The latest in the AJ’s retrofit case study series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or given them a brand new life
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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 ongoing series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or resurrect them in innovative new ways and to hear from the architects that designed them.
Today we hear from Joe Haire, founder of White Red Architects, who talks about the low-cost revamp of a pair of 1990s student housing blocks linked to a pop-up pavilion space built inside a listed goods shed next door.
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Tell us about the project
Joe Haire of White Red Architects
The project involves the refurbishment of the existing Lucia Foster Welch complex in Southampton for the housing association Optivo.
The works include two student residential buildings which, between them, contain 327 rooms (6,300m² of accommodation). Built in the 1990s, and with no major improvement works since, the buildings now need investment to optimise the offer to the student market.
The brief we were given was to explore options to create a great place for students to live.
With a proposed budget of £1.4 million and with so many rooms, we needed to think creatively about where the investment would be best spent.
Something was needed beyond simply refurbishing the accommodation that would distinguish the site from its competitors and offer something special to attract students.
The answer lay in a beautiful, Grade II-listed Victorian goods shed next door. Currently used as a car park, the building was the perfect opportunity to provide a dedicated student pavilion including a courtyard with a piano and a projector, coworking and meeting spaces, games area, and a basketball/five-a-side pitch.
The dramatic and distinctive setting of the goods shed housing the new facilities provide a much-needed enhancement both to the historic fabric of the place, and to the welfare of the students using the site.
What were the challenges of the existing site?
One of the most significant challenges was the lack space within the accommodation. The clusters of rooms were built to a very high density and trying to make tangible improvements without increasing the amount of space was difficult.
Within the goods shed we were careful to avoid any works that would affect the main listed structure due to cost and time restraints. This meant that a lightweight structure with no plumbed services needed to be developed that would provide for the needs of the students and be sufficiently robust.
The work on the existing flats seems quite ‘light touch’: had demolition or partial demolition ever been considered?
This was primarily driven by budget constraints. The accommodation design presented challenges and the budget only afforded a light touch renovation and even our experiments with removing rooms to extend communal space proved to be too expensive to do.
In the end, we recognised that a creative approach to decorating the spaces and resolving the furniture layouts would be most effective. In the bedrooms we rotated the layout to put the bed along the back wall to create an inviting social space at the doorway for conversations with flatmates.
For the redecoration, the key was to make each space feel as though someone had taken time to think about the way it was finished. By using bright colours and by carefully painting up to a particular line height in each room gave the appearance it had been ‘dipped’ in paint. This allowed us to retain existing finishes while refreshing whole rooms, making brighter, more exciting spaces to be in.
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Aside from retaining the original fabric of the buildings, what other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the plans?
Retaining the existing housing provides the most significant impact. We hope that with the improvements both to the accommodation and in the newly created facilities that the site continues to be attractive to students for years to come and reduces the demand for new buildings to be built.
The strategic use of paint for the accommodation has meant that new finishes of tiling, board or vinyl are not required anywhere.
New finishes of tiling, board or vinyl are not required anywhere
Within the goods shed, the main structure is built from scaffolding components including poles, planks and debris netting with site cabins as the sealed, heated workspaces. This both allows for the future adaptation to student needs but is also entirely demountable and reusable.
Converting one of the adjacent ground floor accommodation units into toilets serving the goods shed removed the need for extensive excavation and laying of new pipework.
By providing good-quality work and play space on site we are also aiming to reduce the need to travel to other facilities.
Were the planners supportive of the proposals?
Another benefit of using the goods shed for these new services meant that the pavilion would not be visible from the public realm, have no direct impact on historic fabric and therefore not be a contentious planning issue.
Change of use and partial loss of the car park is considered to be a benefit as it will also help to bring this space back into beneficial use.
What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?
This project shows a lot can be done with existing structures, often far beyond what they were originally planned for. Giving buildings – particularly historic ones – a ’new life’ is crucial for keeping them in active use and this in turn is perhaps the underpinning aim of sustainable conservation.
The longer-term success of this project depends on combining two entirely different existing structures to create something new and relevant. The site is the richer for it and, I would think, far more so than if it were to be newly built from scratch.
This project has made us more aware of the potential of reusing existing buildings and structures, particularly where time and budget might be constrained, and we will always look for similar opportunities to maximise their efficiency and lifespan where we can on our future projects.