Retrofit / Adaptation of Historic Buildings

April 18, 2023

While walking across Westminster Bridge towards the neo-classical baroque County Hall complex, along marble corridors and up sweeping staircases, the last thing one thinks of is pigeon guano. But there it was. In quantity. Splattered on parquet and broken glazing on the floor, graffitiing the graffiti on the walls, crowning the mouldings over boarded-up windows.

The fifth floor of County Hall had stood empty for nearly 40 years. A Grade II* listed property, situated diagonally across the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster, County Hall was collateral damage in a tussle between Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government and the Labour-controlled London County Council. The Iron Lady got her way, as power in London was devolved to borough councils, and the view from her Prime Ministerial offices in Parliament imperceptibly but immeasurably improved.

Buildings like this come with the weight of history – and a juggernaut of embodied carbon. Besides stepping gingerly around pigeon guano and other biohazards, these things were at the top of my mind on the my first tour of the site. The client for this project is a co-working space for sustainability-minded startups and enterprises, part of a group called Sustainable Ventures – which exists to fund what’s written on the tin. Given that pedigree, and as a social enterprise, they must truly walk the walk of sustainability.

Yet a project like County Hall comes with a whole different set of problems (and solutions!) compared to a gleaming LEED Platinum glass tower.

The other occupiers of County Hall include traditional corporate, leisure, residential tenants. A deluxe modern hotel and underground aquarium come standard—in line with South Bank’s profile as a major tourist attraction. A swish corporate events venue hits all the notes of expectation for occupiers of pricey central London premises, who desire highly sanitized versions of modern commercial space, complete with “the” view of Big Ben itself.

The fifth floor, however, was to be different. The question was how to embody in the renovation, the values of the client, while meeting the modern office-space expectations of the client’s tenants, alongside lofty sustainability goals and even loftier planning requirements. On a serious budget.

What we found is that sympathetic historic renovation can be achieved by letting go of some of the more perfectionist tendencies in our industry— rather embracing archaic, imperfect and idiosyncratic elements of the original design, allowing a building to speak for itself.

With the help and expertise of Material Works Architecture, a design that might be compared to that of a Kintsugi bowl (or the Japanese art of reassembling broken pottery and embracing the fault lines by dusting them in gold) was dreamt up to bring the past back to life.

Crumbling plaster walls and beams over now-exposed brick and concrete, were to be the main character of the space, on top of hundred-year-old parquet flooring that had not properly seen the light of day in many decades. Original bathroom tiles unhidden from behind derelict sheets of plaster board were given a new life amongst salvaged sinks and modern bathroom fittings. These are just a few minor examples of how this space is apt to create a splash on London’s real estate development scene.

Beyond aesthetic factors we were also able to recommission the dormant overhead sprinkler system, which was to be the core basis of our modern life-safety network’s design. We could have ripped out the original, put up all shiny new modern pipework, and ridden into the sunset—the path of least resistance. So far, so easy. However, far more expensive, and far less sustainable.

Instead we got the pipes checked out and it turns out they weren’t in terrible shape. A bit of remediation and a whole load of replacement and additional parts to meet building regulations, and we were in business. The intersection between old and new, yet an entire history apart, suspended from the ceiling above.

In the next instalment of this three-part series, I will share some of the joys and pitfalls of delivering a historic retrofit project in line with strict historic preservation planning requirements  and modern expectations for energy efficiency.