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When is it right to demolish a building?

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Mark Panter of Panter Hudspith Architects argues that the lack of recognised heritage status need not be the death knell for commercial buildings

Mark Panter of Panter Hudspith


Visiting a building that is derelict or has reached the end of a useful phase of its life is fascinating. Especially when there is little perceived conservation value – the very existence of the building hangs in the balance.

When a buildings has heritage status, the route to either adapt, or restoration is well understood and widely accepted. But when it hasn’t, there can still be very good reasons for keeping existing structures that fall outside these boundaries, that may not always be apparent.

What is most interesting about the role of an architect is finding value with existing structures that is not immediately apparent to anyone else. Site investigations only provide a snapshot of what is to be discovered with the structure and below ground following demolition. Often when the authorities have decided that a building is of no interest then the architect is left alone to decide.

But is the architect able to make the best call in the interests of their client and the local community? Cost advice can be misleading due to lump sums for unknown elements and structural advice is often provisional until work is well underway. BREEAM, however is very supportive.

Our recent Picturehouse cinema in Crouch End is one example. Here, one of the original precedents for the project was The Filling Station in King’s Cross by Carmody Groarke (see AJ 01.06.12).

While we had a very tight site and limited views we wanted to maintain the strong connection between the open undercroft of the building and the street while reusing the forecourt as the cinema foyer.

The original building in Crouch End, Rosebery House, was built from one A1 drawing in the lean years of the 1950’s and left to rot by its owners. It seemed, on the face of it like a hopeless case.

Undeterred, we dug holes and hacked off render in the hope of finding something interesting to work with. And we did, terracotta shuttering and concrete. We chopped the back off, rebuilt one end and re-clad the street elevation.

The interventions needed to be violent and destructive

The interventions to this particular building - and buildings we have worked on like it - needed to be violent and destructive, even seemingly gratuitous. But one no longer has to rely on the bomb damage or more recent alterations by our predecessors to justify such interventions.

But was this a responsibly sustainable way to deal with an existing building? Is this a sustainable development? After all, we had all but destroyed the building to fit in the generous circulation and fifth screen. Often, an existing building’s value is not immediately apparent.

For instance on our Camera Press scheme in Southwark, where we created a new home for a photographic agency in a characterless concrete extension to a Victorian warehouse in Shad Thames (1993). Here we stripped back and cleaned the concrete frame and introduced a system of prefabricated untreated iroko panels inserted into the frame to complete the building enclosure. The building’s quality lies in its the straightforward expression of natural materials.

In both cases it would undoubtedly have been more straightforward for the design team to demolish and start again – less work for everyone and there would be much more control over the detail.

But what is it that this hybrid, of old and new gives us? At Crouch End the building boasts more generous circulation spaces, a community room, private dining room and space inside for bicycles and buggies. These facilities would have struggled to be justified in a new building and as would a higher Breeam rating. In existing commercial buildings this process can be cost neutral, with the added value of more space in the building to play with.

By retaining a building you can also allow it to tell its story – leaving structural adaptations exposed to allow new and old fabric to be ‘read’ in the walls.

While we are awash with Victorian terraces, there are but a handful of 1950’s structures left playing a vibrant role in our cities, but in the world of commercial buildings need this be the case?


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