To me adaptive reuse means thinking strategically about the available spaces and how these might be best suited to new uses. Pairing back the original building structure to its essentials and adapting the spaces in a legible way. Our work to transform a former light industrial building in Clerkenwell, London illustrates this perfectly. The building, known as The Cooperage, dates back to the early 1900s, and the reconfigured building clearly celebrates the remaining original elements, which had been neglected during previous renovation works in the 1990s. We worked meticulously to identify these opportunities, stripping back many of the recent additions to reveal and showcase the original historic fabric. The basement has been extended laterally to create a large open-plan family living area over which rises a triple height atrium – a space around which much of the accommodation is structured, and which brings light from the existing roof lights to the depths of the building and makes the original timber roof structure part of the living space, reconnecting the house back to its industrial heritage. A suspended, freestanding steel and timber staircase is now the primary element in this space. Elegant yet functional, it runs from basement to roof, thereby rationalising the vertical circulation and paying homage to the industrial past of the building.
Repair and Renewal put simply: New into Old. We take great pride in sympathetically introducing new build elements within a historic setting. At the Sekforde Pub in Clerkenwell, the entire historic building has been joined to a new build extension by means of a contemporary glass link. While the new build is intentionally quite different with a bold sharp edge, the materials used complement the original building.
key ingredients and principles of a successful project
The ability to listen to the ‘voice’ of a building and its history, using one’s eyes and mind in a quiet, respectful and reflective way which are some of the key ingredients for successful projects. We recently had the opportunity to restore and redevelop a fine Grade II-listed building in Clerkenwell, featuring a distinctive barrel-shaped frontage and a magnificent ballroom on the first floor. The basement, used for storage, featured attractive Georgian brick work and beer cellars. The external restoration exposed the 200-year-old brickwork and we reinstated a more sympathetic timber shop front, finished using a painted wood graining, a technique used for centuries; the revealed brickwork was soot-washed to blend in with the neighbouring Georgian buildings. The first-floor ballroom has been carefully restored: Georgian panelling, coving and dado details have been reinstated, inspired by the Yellow Room in the John Soane Museum and this magnificent room is now similar in feel to its original state when completed in 1829, with a vibrant palette of colours typical of the late Georgian period. The ornate fireplaces are original, both dating from 1824, and the artist Ian Harper was commissioned to paint the distinctive dreamlike clouds floating across the ceiling. The entire historic building has been joined to a new build extension by means of a glass link. A sizeable commercial kitchen now occupies the basement, with an office, bike store and accessible toilet at ground floor level. A two-bedroom maisonette is located across the first and second floors and a glass link preserves the distinctive shape and appearance of the historic building.
challenges and design approach
The most important first step is to study the building, recording everything with forensically detailed, measured drawings. This analysis requires an enquiring mindset that revels in the unveiling of layers of history, prompting questions such as: Why is it like that, what made that the way it is? When you are reconfiguring a heritage structure, you can’t just sit in front of a computer. You have to go to the site, check everything, then go back, again and again. Our project at 11 Princelet Street, in the heart of London’s Spitalfields conservation area, is a perfect case study. Located in the heart of Spitalfields, No 11 has an interesting history of occupants. Originally erected by Daniel Bray, citizen and painter of London in June 1719, it was occupied by a clergyman in 1724 and later the carpenter Alexander Christie in 1766. Using the original panelled staircase from the 1720s as the project’s ‘backbone’ and point of inspiration, we have mixed 18th-century style with a bold contemporary aesthetic. The radical restoration involved rebuilding the front façade, substantial alterations to the interior of the building, as well as renovation of the existing workshop in the rear garden. The workshop, previously a Bengali cooking school, was transformed into a studio for our growing practice. Recreating the original 1720 frontage based on research and knowledge of others in the area was a huge undertaking in itself. We identified skilled craftsmen to create carpentry and panelling, establishing a new gallery space to the rear of the site, which in itself took 2 years of extremely painstaking excavation. This project proved to be a vital learning curve for us – demonstrating the practice’s commitment to meticulous research and craftsmanship.
social and cultural significance of adaptive reuse
Socially this approach becomes immediately relevant and memorable connected to the stories of a past life in a building. Culturally it says something about a place, the present and the future possibilities it may have, for we are nothing without our forebears and so it is with our buildings…treat them like people and they become living, breathing, exciting things! Our Gasworks project precisely embodies this spirit of engaging with the past while creating a viable future use for a building that has outlived its original purpose.
The design – for the novelist Jeanette Winterson – involved the conversion of a redundant Grade 11 listed gasworks in the Cotswolds to create a visually striking residential scheme. The brief called for “a house that is striking, in a modern sense, without disrupting the beauty of the area.” We chose to clad the new build element with Corten corrugated steel, making a clear distinction between old and new, creating a variant of the Cotswold Barn typology which pays homage to the site’s industrial past. The form was inspired by the industrial heritage of the site, creating a large circular tower (a writer’s retreat) which references the former circular acetylene tank of the original 1877 gasworks complex. The new building extends in an L-shape, wrapping cloister-like around an enclosed central courtyard.
One of the key challenges in this case was obtaining planning permission, listed building and conservation area consent within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). With the support of an imaginative design officer, this challenge was overcome in 3 months – a significant achievement, given the contemporary design approach and the use of Corten within a Cotswold setting. The commissioning client sold the property with planning permission to a friend who then employed us to build out the scheme with the addition of the tower, making the scheme even more interesting. In the end we made a virtue out of adversity! And finally, we restored the Cotswold stone and re-pointing, using a local builder who delivered the whole project. The site had been used for the production of acetylene gas, so the ground around the previous siting of the cylinder was contaminated. No planting was possible, so we responded by designing raised beds and paving.
The creative reuse of old buildings is first and foremost highly sustainable, and creative for all the reasons outlined above. Wholesale demolition is often inappropriate within existing city contexts – we need to pioneer the creative reuse of our buildings where it makes sense to respect the modest use of resources and human life on this planet. Modern architecture is so much more exciting when it engages in this way – truly unique buildings that belong to a place will then offer up more possibilities for our future.