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From listed buildings to 21st-century schools [2/2]
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2020
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From listed buildings to 21st-century schools [2/2]

Many UK independent schools were built in the 1800s, and adapting them for modern-day use can be challenging. In part two of this blog series, Regine Kandan continues highlighting the considerations for listed buildings.

Step by step

Firstly, it is essential to commission a thorough condition survey of the building to identify areas of neglect and in need of repair. These areas are often difficult to access, such as defective downpipes and failed roof finishes. Modern repairs made with good intentions but little understanding of the building’s construction may cause more harm than good to the fabric. For example, poor insulating techniques cause contrasts in humidity, and repointing without the right mortar prevents the building from being able to move.

Any alteration to a listed building will require consent, and pre-application consultations and statutory engagement should be sought early on. Proposals which respect the building’s special interest will reassure authorities that the alterations will not significantly harm the building’s historic value.

Continuity of consultation is also recommended. Amendments to the consented plans may be required and should be discussed before submitting formal applications. As the design becomes more detailed, questions on conservation principles are likely to arise. Does replacement have to be like-for-like? Will the new interventions replicate the existing, or will they be completely new in appearance?

Stakeholder engagement should take place early in the design process. Ongoing work by Make with the University of York involves both staff and students. As the design progresses, consultations with specialists help inform the design and cost of works. Ideally, these talks are carried out upfront, whilst a suitable consultant team is assembled.

A common dilemma on historic projects quantifying the cost of refurbishment. At Hornsey Town Hall, a traffic light system helped define the scope of work, with elements categorised in three different levels of repair. Although building surveys form an understanding of scope, one must allow for unknowns discovered during the strip-out of the building.

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Ongoing commitments

The post-completion stages are equally important, where care and maintenance must continue via management strategies. Occasionally a ‘heritage management plan’ is required to document the significance and condition of the building, set objectives for implementing works, and monitor progress. A ‘heritage partnership agreement’ may be a suitable approach for historic buildings that require routine work. The agreement – between local authorities, building owners and occasionally third parties, such as Historic England – is to define a list of permitted works which can be consented through a different procedure.

 

Good judgments must be made to protect a historic building’s heritage whilst sensitively integrating new elements. Proposals must consider the building in its entirety, not piecemeal. In the case of school buildings, projects conceived in an organic fashion may disrupt the building’s operation and cause abortive work. An initial spatial masterplan will identify issues holistically and control the overview of all proposals. Proposals can then be executed in a phased approach, avoiding unplanned disruption to students, staff and building operators.

The effects of Covid-19 require rethinking a building’s design and operation. Whether new or existing, interrogating a building’s configuration is the first step, as circulation will be fundamental. Historically, many planforms incorporated multiple, separate entrances for students and staff. This lends itself well to one-way systems. Some 19th-century schools dwelled on the plan of classrooms surrounding a central hall. Others were designed with separate ‘wings’, which boys and girls entered via their own entrances and staircases. In the mid-1900s, open planning was introduced to provide more flexibility in the internal arrangement of the space. IT upgrades throughout the premise and a movable furniture layout may result in little physical intervention and can be reversed – both recommended approaches for adaptation.

The design of historic school buildings has favoured natural light and ventilation since the early 1800s. Schools in the 20th century introduced cross-ventilation techniques. In the mid-1900s, open-air schools were designed for children in poor health. Perhaps a precedent can be taken from this typology. Having openable windows or spaces that cross between the interior and the outdoors will mitigate the transmission of illnesses.

New extensions should consider hygiene measures at design stage so they can be built in on day one, for example, by specifying material surfaces that are easier to clean and sanitise. ‘Contactless’ features will be the norm, from access-controlled doors to sanitary fittings with integrated sensors.

The transformations of historic buildings are often complex and demanding, but the outcomes are highly rewarding, as the lives of these buildings are extended for future generations to use and enjoy. Successful projects stem from solid background studies, practicing good judgement, and the effective collaboration of a multi-disciplinary team with a shared vision.

Accessibility is vital in historic buildings.

 

Top Tips

  • Understand the condition and the architectural and social significance of the building
  • Define the scope of intervention with reference to the building’s heritage value
  • Consult statutory bodies and engage with stakeholders
  • Have an overall vision which address present and future needs
  • Appoint appropriate specialists with relevant skills and experience
  • Plan for unknowns and new discoveries until works start

You can learn more by reading England’s Schools: History, architecture and adaptation by Elain Harwood, published by English Heritage, 2010.

Read Part One of Regine’s blog series on considerations for listed buildings here.