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Retrofit implies the correction of a problem. It’s time to think of adaptation

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Planning portal: Conservation officers shouldn’t ‘insist’ on preservation. We should celebrate the adaptability of historic buildings, says Steven Bee

I was delighted to see Eric Party Architects’ Holburne Museum win building of the year at the recent Retrofit Awards. When I was at English Heritage, we used the scheme as an example of ‘constructive conservation’; the appreciation of historic significance as a means of guiding change rather than blocking it. I’ve also used it as an example of how to use heritage values to describe more precisely the nature of the historic significance in a current series of CPD seminars for the RIBA.

The museum extension was extremely controversial locally, and the fuss has yet to die down. But that’s not unusual with remarkable buildings. There is historical justification for its apparently radical design, yet the controversy has overwhelmed the fact that this was part of a comprehensive re-ordering and restoration of the whole building that has refreshed its role in the cultural life of the city. It is a further adaptation of a building already substantially altered from its original use as a hotel.

The term retrofit implies the correction of some earlier inadequacy or the imposition of new standards or requirements. These may occur, but we should adopt a general preference for adaptation, and celebrate the remarkable ability of buildings of all periods to accommodate changing expectations, technology and fashions in design.

In the stories of the entries for the Retrofit Awards there was frequent reference to the ‘insistence of the conservation officer’ as the trigger for innovative approaches. It is a pity that this role is seen as an obstacle to be overcome. I suppose there are still some of those with a professional responsibility for monitoring changes to historic buildings that see it also as a personal crusade, but the Conservation Principles developed by English Heritage offer a basis for early agreement on what is most significant about a historic building, and where and how new interventions might be accommodated.

There are very few historic buildings that could not accommodate adaptation without harm. Most carry much of their story in the sequence of physical changes made to them in the past. Keeping buildings in use is the best way of sustaining their historic and cultural value, as well as making the most of their embedded energy. The responsibility for sustaining this cultural value should not be dumped on the shoulders of the conservation officer. If the historic features of a building are used to guide further changes, rather than seen as constraints, they can be exploited by developers and design teams.

This won’t immediately convince a suspicious public, or bodies that take an interest in particular periods. But sharing appreciation of historic character and engaging wider interests in the design process builds trust. This in turn eases the passage of new works through the planning process, and achieves changes that are not only innovative but popular too.

The schemes celebrated at the Retrofit Awards showed how adaptable buildings of all periods can be. They showed how new methods and materials can enhance the character of places and supplement the symbols of history embedded in the buildings we have inherited.

There should be no conflict between ‘retrofit’ and conservation. It should not be necessary for conservation officers to ‘insist’ on preservation. We should celebrate the adaptability of historic buildings, and accept that giving up some fabric to keep it in use is not necessarily harmful to its significance.

So I look forward to the ‘Adaptability Awards’. And perhaps while we congratulate ourselves on our enlightened adaptation of buildings to meet new standards, we might examine the way we use them, and accept that we might achieve greater efficiency by adapting our lifestyles to fit better the character of the places we love to live in.

Steven Bee, director of Steven Bee Urban Counsel and former director of planning and development, English Heritage


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