Quality Matters ‐ Quality Pays

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					                      Quality Matters – Quality Pays
                  when conserving and creating places
             Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast. 1st June 2007

The Home and Dry Committee of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society ran a
highly successful and relevant one day conference in The Ormeau Baths Gallery
(OBG) on Friday 1st June 1997. This was the latest in an excellent series to
encourage best practice in caring for historic buildings that has been running
since 2001. The events are always held in venues which uphold the principles of
the Home and Dry programme – that is in well-conserved or restored historic
buildings. The aim of this conference was to promote the sustainable use of the
built heritage and show how high quality modern interventions could add value to
the historic environment. There could be no better venue for such an event than
the OBG which happily blends the old and the new and brought back to life a
building of key importance socially and historically.

Primrose Wilson, Chairman of the Home and Dry Committee, opened the
conference by noting the timeliness of tackling the issue of high quality design in
both the public and the private realm. Northern Ireland was entering a new
phase in its history with politicians back in Parliament Buildings Stormont - itself
providing an excellent example of sustainable development by bringing back into
use for its original purpose a redundant historic building. She quoted one Direct
Rule Minister who, in giving evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee,
said, “ If anyone is prepared to lay one brick on top of another in Northern Ireland
I would pay them to do so”. She stressed that the ethos had now changed and
the importance of adding value and distinctiveness through the imaginative reuse
of historic buildings and sensitive intervention, the subject of the conference, was
now being recognised.
The first up in an impressive array of speakers was one of the sponsors of the
event and the developer of the Ormeau Baths Gallery – Doug Elliott who gave
the keynote presentation entitled, “That Remarkable Light”. Doug outlined
historical precedent in Ulster before focusing on the city of Belfast pointing out its
architectural highlights and comparing and contrasting good and bad examples
of urban design. He identified the decline of the industries upon which Belfast
was built and the effect of terrorist attacks as contributing to the deterioration of
the quality of the urban environment and a loss of distinctiveness in local
character. Great buildings come from great clients, he stressed, and there
should be a strong vision for architecture that is committed to art and culture. Art
and architecture need both creators and safeguarders and public and private
clients should expect, and be prepared to pay for, high quality projects.
Protecting our built heritage and creating great buildings and urban spaces
should be a powerful instinct and not dependent upon the enforcement of
statutory power. He concluded his talk by calling for an agenda for aggressive
conservation, creative interventions and for great new architecture.

Richard Hatton of the now renowned and ground-breaking practice Urban Splash
took as his title Making Places and took the audience on a breathtaking tour of
the practice’s work in Liverpool and Manchester and surrounding areas. His
message was appreciate what you have got, tackle one area or one project and
this will stimulate interest and generate additional work. His message was vividly
borne out by dramatic slides of the transformation of such buildings as Britannia
Mills into highly desirable canal-side apartments and Waulk Mills into office units
with a stunning four –storey atrium. Both buildings are in Manchester and both
won RIBA Awards in 2001 and 2003 respectively. Moving on from individual
buildings to whole communities, Urban Splash then took on, with others, the
regeneration of New Islington in Manchester and travelled further afield to tackle
the redundant naval dockyard in Plymouth. Never ones to shirk a challenge, the
practice turned their attention to places where no-one wanted to live. One
example was Langworthy in Salford which had hit rock bottom. Urban Splash
created cool, contemporary funky spaces and took a good look at redesigning
the terrace house with living space upstairs to create privacy. Hatton reiterated
the point that such communities were not dead but just required a bit of thought
and interest. A further key point, illustrated by the restoration of a tower block in
Manchester, was that sustainability should not just be about rescuing and reusing
the jewels in the crown but should be about all buildings which embodied energy
and had a place to play in reviving communities.

Derek Tynan of DT Architects in Dublin looked at Urban Interventions and
discussed lessons that could be learnt from our neighbours south of the border.
Dublin had reinvented itself as a major European city where value could be
created through design. He described a vibrant city driven by a far-sighted public
policy and with a youthful population and many young returners and immigrants
bringing new ideas and influences. Access to the European Union had been key
to Dublin’s success in re-inventing itself and to a resurgence of cultural identity
and belief in the city. He stressed the key role of a good, imaginative city
architect and cited both Dublin and Cork City Councils as driving high quality
development forward and subscribing to the importance of providing attractive
environments both for tourists to visit and for people to live in. The importance of
flagship projects such as Temple Bar and Meeting House Square, the Boardwalk
and the Millennium Bridge and the role of good infrastructure planning and
design competitions were also discussed. Derek Tynan concluded by
emphasising that the use of brownfield and riverside sites was crucial and
highlighted the value of master planning and the creation of public spaces and
neighbourhoods. His message was that public sector vision and values going
hand in hand with private sector investment had the best chance of resulting in
successful, attractive cities.

Derek Latham of Latham Architects addressed the issue of Creative Reuse of
Buildings. His theme was that creative reuse is more than just the conversion or
rehabilitation of a property for a new use but is a process that harnesses the
energy and quality of the original building and combines it with the energy and
activity that the new use brings. He took the audience through a brief history of
restoration practice from the Victorians to the present day touching on such
issues as repair versus restoration, and looked at key topics such as aesthetics,
economics and embodied energy. Opportunities for reuse abound if we know
where to look. Latham illustrated his talk with examples from his practice’s
portfolio – a Paxton railway station had been converted into a visitor centre; an
old grain warehouse in Berwick became flats and maisonettes, mills in Sheffield
are now highly desirable student residences.

He then outlined his recommended route to a successful project reiterating a
favourite theme of his that there is no such thing as a problem building, only
problem owners. The trick is to match up the right building with the right owner
and persuade people that a certain building is an asset not a liability. Building
Preservation Trusts have a key role to play here both in levering funds to restore
buildings or even occasionally mothballing them until a suitable use can be
found; so, too, do government or semi-government bodies such as English
Heritage (or the Environment & Heritage Service in Northern Ireland) through the
giving of grants or advice. Latham returned to his initial theme by stressing, and
illustrating through example, that the starting point must always be to understand
the building to be restored - absorb the atmosphere, research the building,
consider what has happened to it, understand its physical and social context and
keep your options open. He pointed out the importance of writing the brief as
you would for a new building and the need to enhance the value of the property
to be converted. Drawing on examples such as the restoration of a watermill, an
old warehouse, a redundant sanatorium, a row of 18th century houses in London
for premises for the King’s Fund and the County Arcade Leeds, Latham made
the point that reuse must work with the building not against it to ensure the
essential character is not lost.
He concluded his talk by discussing a range of procurement methods, and the
importance of good design and documentation. In summing up he told the
salutary tale of the Duchess of Devonshire’s field barns which failed to get
planning permission for reuse as accommodation for campers until he, as the
architect, applied for a camping licence for a stone tent arguing it was no different
than a canvas tent. Creative reuse indeed.

James Simpson of architects Simpson & Brown concluded the morning session
with his talk Conservation Architecture: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He put
across the strong message that conservation is a creative process and that
conservation architecture is a field in its own right. Architecture he persuasively
argued is an intellectual profession made up of “10% inspiration and 90%
perspiration”. In trying to define quality he claimed it was “an elusive and hard
won thing” and drew on the words of architectural commentators from Vitruvius
and his maxim of “ commodity, firmness and delight” to those of his compatriot
Colin McWilliam who claimed that “ Conservation is making the most of what we
have got”. Echoing the words of some of the other speakers, Simpson stressed
the importance of treating each project individually and working with it. He
underlined the importance of adopting a systematic methodology by drawing up
comprehensive conservation plans, carrying out detailed research and
thoroughly analysing what is valuable about any restoration project. He highly
recommended close study of BS 7913 The British Standard Guide to the
Principles of Building Conservation and stressed the importance of raising
standards generally. Simpson then went on to describe the development of his
Edinburgh-based practice which includes historians and archaeologists and has
a strong tradition as a training ground for young architects and students. The
practice works in teams with everyone doing everything so people learn from
each other and work together in achieving the practice’s aim to design and make
buildings which sit lightly on the earth. He looked at a number of recent projects
including the restoration of Auchinleck for the Landmark Trust, work on
Blackburn House, an 18th century farmhouse and country residence outside
Edinburgh, the sensitive restoration of farm buildings in the landscape and a joint
project with Richard Murphy on Stirling Tolbooth which included a major new
intervention that worked subtly and well with the original building. He concluded
by reiterating his message that good architects are forced to rise to the occasion
by historic buildings.

In the afternoon delegates were able to attend two out of three workshops on
conservation plans, feasibility studies and specification and sourcing. Discussion
following brief introductions by expert practitioners was lively and debate cut
short only by the limitation of time.

The day concluded with a talk by Trevor Osborne on his project to convert Oxford
County Gaol to the Oxford Malmaison Hotel. He spoke passionately about the
important role of historic buildings in our towns and countryside and made the
point that sustainable reuse is also financially sustainable. He bemoaned the
absence of joined-up teamwork between public and private bodies and the
planners and made the point that a situation where the client pleads and the
planners judge is not the best way to achieve a good environment. He, like other
speakers before him, echoed the need to empathise with the building being
restored and described his personal odyssey to capture the drama of Oxford
Castle in order to make a space into a place. He described the issues raised by
the Oxford project which included the problem of bringing a variety of mixed
funding together and the need to find as many mixed uses as possible (sixteen in
Oxford) to ensure maximum sustainability. In addition to the Oxford Castle,
Osborne spoke briefly about a new project at the Pavilion in Bournemouth which
combines major restoration work with a new building designed by Piers Gough.

Trevor Osborne’s enthusiasm and positive attitude ensured the conference
ended on a high note and delegates adjourned to the Meter House in the
Gasworks for a splendid reception with plenty to chew on both literally and
Quality Matters – Quality Pays was sponsored by Doug Elliott and the
Environment & Heritage Service, DOENI.