Heritage-led regeneration is an increasingly common term used in the construction industry, and although it is not a new idea it is starting to be recognised seriously as a ‘growth sector’ for architects and developers. A lot of interesting projects in the last few years have highlighted the benefits that conservation can offer when used as a platform from which to launch renewal, and we continue to work on many great projects that use heritage as a driver for regenerative change in deprived urban and rural locations. Could 2013 be the year of Heritage-led regeneration?
A familiar model of 20th Century urban renewal would involve demolishing large areas of derelict post industrial structures, ‘wiping the slate clean’ of existing conditions, and designing new blocks within the framework of an agreed ‘vision’. Jobs are created, new offices and residences are established, and an urban area is given a completely fresh identity. However many criticise these developer-led master-plans as all looking the same, and many cities in the UK began to lose their local characters as they blend into a continued undifferentiated sprawl (this has been attacked at length in many recent books, not least Owen Hatherley’s thought provoking ‘New Ruins of Great Britain’).
Heritage-led regeneration is a real potential antidote to this confusion. It demonstrates the same economic resuscitation promised by construction work in a deprived area, but functions in harmony with the prevailing context, usually bringing back a local historic landmark into use as the centre piece to a wider spreading master-plan. Instead of promoting development that looks the same, it reinforces a civic identity and adds to the ‘sense of place’ that make cities, neighbourhoods or streets recognisably different from one another.
Doing the right thing?
Of course it isn’t the easiest route and there are several significant challenges to overcome before a successful project can be realised. Not least of these is the search for a suitable new use for a building that has outlived its original purpose. This is particularly difficult for industrial and warehousing buildings in city centre or waterfront locations, as the areas slowly evolve into popular and attractive leisure destinations where industry is no longer viable. Furthermore when adopting a sensitive approach it is less easy to quantify the benefits to the developers who are financing the projects, as many of the positive outcomes described here are boosts to the city and community as a whole, rather than just the users, and often directly at the expense of the developer.
This is why there are so many excellent grant giving heritage bodies willing to subsidise works where they can identify a real wider regenerative potential. These qualitative benefits, which rely on definitions of ‘value’ beyond projected financial return, are why many of the best heritage-led regeneration projects are directed by charities and not-for-profit organisations, ready to work with sensitive design teams, and to deliver ‘the right thing’.
Studio 8 are extremely positive about 2013 and the sector as a whole seems set to expand rapidly. As investment (hopefully) becomes more freely available to stimulate some much needed growth, perhaps eyes will turn to the derelict historic assets as potential opportunities to deliver it. Advances in social media and new ways of communicating are making it easier for concerned locals to organise and coordinate efforts to save heritage, and form a basis from which grant giving bodies can be approached (the excellent Friends of Ditherington Flax Mill website is a great example of what can be achieved by engaged and savvy locals – http://www.flaxmill-maltings.co.uk). London looks set to continue as the centre of investment in UK construction; Impressive refurbishment designs by John McAslan at Kings Cross Station and Stanton Williams at Central Saint Martins set a good precedent for the continued regeneration of the area. Internationally there also appears to be growing evidence that conservation and reuse is climbing the agenda, with Architects Journal recently reporting these interesting proposals for the reuse of a large factory complex in China, won by UK firm Avanti Architects.
I can’t speculate to what extent the local communities will be engaged with or benefit from the above examples, but I do feel very strongly that saving these buildings as the starting point for regenerative change has positive social benefits for these cities and their inhabitants. Its great to see so many new regeneration schemes harnessing historic assets with this objective in mind, and its a trend we all want to see growing throughout 2013 and beyond. We try our best to be socially conscious in all of the projects we work on, but we particularly enjoy contributing our expertise as members of a passionate team dedicated to delivering the best possible results for the widest range of people. When this is combined with saving the fate of endangered significant buildings, I hope that it is easy to see why we are so enthusiastic about what we do.
English Heritage – Heritage Works
NPPF-12 – Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment
Heritage Lottery Fund – First Steps in Conservation
Images courtesy of John McAslan, Stanton Williams & Avanti Architects