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We must repurpose our architecture, not tear it down and start again


Sustainable development is best served by exploring the potential of existing structures before rushing to demolish and build something shiny and new, writes Andrew Whalley

As redevelopment increases along London’s Great Western Road, Grimshaw’s Homebase Superstore in Brentford has been revealed as a target for tear-down.

Not one to stand in the way of progress – despite this being the first building I designed after joining Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners in 1986 – I do take umbrage with the notion that the structure, still in the prime of its architectural life, is slated to be replaced by something very similar. 

There’s something rewarding about something that is old repurposed into something new

This is short-sighted and unsustainable redevelopment, particularly in the light of our ongoing climate crisis.

Aside from its eye-catching design, visible both from the road and the Heathrow flight path, the Homebase project was also conceived to be as flexible as possible to ensure the accommodation of future use. The long-span structure accommodates 4,180m² of column-free space, ideal for various adaptations.

This sustainability approach, ensuring the long-term viability of buildings, is often overlooked for add-ons and new technologies. Simply put, the idea of longevity and reuse, cognisant of embodied energy and the overall life of a structure, is a very sustainable approach.

In this project specifically, not only is the space column-free but it’s also loaded with additional amenities that were, at the time of building, very innovative and are still attractive to tenants today.

A single 33m-tall support tower is the focal point of the design, working in tandem with a 96m central spine beam. A barrel-vaulted rooflight runs the length of the spine beam, introducing a slice of light. Additional daylight enters through supplemental rooflights embedded within each ‘wing’ that extends from the central spine. Serrated aluminium cladding, unique to the building, completes the primary elements of the structure.

We are fortunate to have organisations such as The Twentieth Century Society, which raises the alarm at times like these

As our cities evolve to accommodate growth in population and changes in priorities over time, this structure was designed to evolve with the times.

Any new development at this site, and for that matter at any building site, should take into consideration the structure that may already be there. While we give attention to buildings for reasons of heritage or other architectural importance, we should also consider the inherent sustainability in adaptive reuse projects. Not only are they sustainable, but often they are well-loved by users as well. There’s something rewarding about something that is old repurposed into something new – and potentially exciting.

At Grimshaw, we are currently working on the transformation of our Herman Miller manufacturing facility into a new School of Art and Design for Bath Spa University. We designed the Financial Times Printing works at the same time as the Homebase Project and it has since been repurposed with a new owner from printing papers to an internet switching centre. Buildings can adapt and transcend changes in technology.

Over the past few years we have been working on the revitalisation of London Bridge Station, a project nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize. What was seen as a rather worn-down and inhospitable environment has now completely transformed commuters’ daily experience and become a catalyst for urban development. 

While each project is vastly different in scope and programme, they all focus on building interventions that make the most of what’s already present. It is a unique privilege to revisit your own project, as in Bath, and no less a privilege to make bold, neighbourhood-enhancing adjustments to sprawling projects like London Bridge. 

It is particularly ironic that one proposal is to replace one superstore, Homebase, with another for Tesco. We are fortunate to have organisations, such as The Twentieth Century Society, which has a watching brief and raises the alarm at times like these. In this case, it has put Homebase Brentford on its top 10 endangered buildings list.

It should be incumbent on us all to consider the potential in existing structures before gravitating towards a shiny replacement.

Andrew Whalley is chairman of Grimshaw Architects


Readers' comments (3)

  • Couldn't agree more, and well said Andrew.
    It's great to see the work in Bath Spa, and if we're serious about sustainability and our environment, this needs to become the norm. Not the exception.

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  • Mr Whalley is being very polite at what's going on in Brentford.
    The AJ's piece on that is disturbing reading, with the developer lecturing us, via their 'heritage consultants', on the lack of real quality in the Homebase building, and indulging in manipulative innuendo about the implications of not getting their own way.
    Furthermore it would appear that one or other of the architects for the new development might be actively colluding in the vandalism.

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  • Industry Professional

    Why on earth not dismantle modify and reconstruct. There must be endless opportunities to reuse for distribution or logistics in a location that might otherwise attract yet another pale blue shed.

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