Watch the AT Schüco webinar exploring ways of evaluating, upgrading and repurposing our historic building stock.

As pressure rightly increases to keep and re-use our existing building stock wherever possible, rather than demolish and replace, we need to think more deeply about what we mean by heritage. When should we keep buildings? What value do they offer to us? How should we repurpose them? And, more fundamentally, do we really know what heritage means and how we define it?

These broader questions were the subject of the talk by Neil Shashore, head of school and chief executive officer at the London School of Architecture. ‘Heritage,’ he said, ‘is what is chosen to be valued, and what is not. It reflects our cultural hegemonies. Our heritage system is designed to shore up those hegemonies. So an inclusive heritage is practically paradoxical on that basis.’


Speakers from left to right: Naila Yousuf, Neal Shasore, Esther Robinson Wild, and Kate Sanders

Shashore argued that, ‘The whole framework – regulatory, intellectual and legislative – could and should be rethought in order to find more productive roles for the past in the present and the future.’ The phrase ‘the past in the present’ is borrowed from the work of architectural historian John Summerson, who was heavily involved in setting up the criteria for listing at the end of World War Two. ‘Behind the objectivity of these criteria are a number of biases and cultural assumptions,’ Shashore said.

He discussed different approaches to heritage and our understanding of it, particularly in regard to imperialism and slavery. He cited a number of projects that addressed these issues, all of them at the intersection of art and architecture.

The other speakers were more directly concerned with addressing heritage within buildings, and in fitting those buildings to the way that we live today and will in the future.


Wright & Wright Architects’ Lambeth Palace Library in London is a sensitive yet distinctly modern architectural addition to the site of the Grade I listed Palace (ph: Hufton + Crow)

Naila Yousuf, partner at Wright & Wright Architects, talking about collaging elements onto buildings, and also buildings as collages within the city. She talked about the work of artist Kurt Schwitters, famous for the collages that he made from ephemera. ‘Part of the strength of his work is that that you can’t see the layers that create the collage,’ she said. ‘With existing buildings there is a lot you can’t see, that is not evident.’

She added, ‘Many historic sites are so generous in terms of access, openness and now public access. It’s an ethos we support. Our new interventions are collaged into site and city. There isn’t a delineation between public and private. We want our visitors to sit on our buildings, to lean on them and to pause as they are moving through the various moments within the site.’

This is an approach that the practice has used at the Museum of the Home, a place with a long and complex history. Wright & Wright has reinstated some lost elements, and made reference to others with, for instance, bronze strips in the floor.

Answering a question from the audience about whether we should preserve elements that some might see as damage to buildings, she said, ‘What some people see as damage, others may see differently. They may want to make it evident as an alteration.’

Wright & Wright has also shown how much more can be done within an existing building. With only modest additions, it has doubled the public areas, and increased the exhibition space by 80 per cent.


Interior view of Lambeth Palace Library (ph: Hufton + Crow)

At Lambeth Palace, where the practice has designed a new library but also devised the masterplan, it has even greater ambitions. By upgrading the fabric sensitively and also altering the building services, the practice is confident that the collection of buildings can be net zero carbon by 2030. ‘Other sites are learning from this, Yousuf said. ‘It is within our reach to make existing buildings net zero carbon.’

For Esther Robinson Wild, director of Robinson Wild Consulting, creating a socially sustainable city is as important as environmental sustainability. The consultancy specialises in matters relating to the historic environment, and works closely with the Architectural Heritage Fund. Robinson Wild said, ‘Longevity is down to evolving an innovative approach to re-purposing heritage assets.’ She added, ‘My role is to assist stakeholders in a building or an area to understand or express the value of an asset. This includes its communal value. A successful repurposing project is viable and resilient.’

The schemes that she described included a derelict hotel in Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway that had been converted to affordable housing. Young families, Robinson Wild said, moved out of the town centre because they believed that they could not afford to heat older buildings. But in this case, the fabric is being upgraded so that the building will be far more fuel-efficient


Before and after photos of a regeneration project at 170-175 High Street West in Sunderland (phs: The Architectural Heritage Fund)

In Sunderland, a house that included a drapery shop on the ground floor, has found a new use. The first site of what eventually became Binns department store, it has been transformed into a multi-purpose arts and social space which is catalysing the regeneration of a run-down retail area.

‘The best way to make a case for change is to highlight projects where people are using heritage assets to meet the real needs of local communities,’ Robinson Wild said. ‘You can deliver social, environmental and economic development through repurposing heritage assets.’


Purcell has sensitively refurbished and restored the grade II listed Engine Shed at the University of Northampton (ph: Hufton + Crow)

Kate Sanders, partner at Purcell, talked about finding value in unexpected places. The questions we must ask, she said, are ‘Is a building worth saving? What value does it have? How do we know it matters?’ An impact assessment, she said in response to a question, must, whoever makes it, ‘just deal with the facts, and not have too much interpretation.’


The Accommodation Hub by Purcell is designed to revolutionise the National Gallery’s workplaces by bringing functions together into new state-of-the-art facilities in the heart of the building (section: Purcell)

She discussed the practice’s work at the National Maritime Museum and at the National Gallery, where it has filled in light wells to create high-quality space for staff. All projects require some compromise with historic fabric. The crucial question, she said, is ‘Does the benefit outweigh the harm?’

And that is a crucial question for all, whatever their detailed approach is to dealing with heritage buildings.