A Case for Existing Buildings in the Future of Design

Posted by on Aug 11, 2015 in Building Surveying, Education

A Case for Existing Buildings in the Future of Design

By David Gibbon — RICS Conservation Accredited Building Surveyor 

There’s a great big flaw in the way most people look at buildings.  They see them as disposable assets with a limited lifetime but the truth is that, with maintenance and adaptation, very few need be.

I watched Kevin McCloud’s programme called “Living in the Country” (Channel 4 30th July 2015) when he went through some projects he had previously reviewed that demonstrated the power of great design.  He showed restored and converted barns and restored castles as well as fabulous new houses, some that radically reinterpreted themes of traditional architecture and some that stood out as boldly contemporary.  One was also able to generate enough power that its owners that, far from having to buy energy, they were actually receiving an income of £2000 a year from what the house produced.

The subtext of this whole programme was that here is the future, a new way of living, a new way of designing and building and a possible alternative way to go towards a renewable world.  In fairness Kevin also pointed out what extreme efforts, difficulties and privations many of his subjects had gone through to realise their dreams.

But to be realistic can Kevin McCloud lead apply to more than a tiny proportion of the overall stock of housing?  We should, of course, push to improve the energy performance of all our buildings and the process of adapting them to evolving lifestyles will always continue.  However the buildings we already have contain a vast stock of embodied energy and non-renewable materials and skill and history.  It is inconceivable that they should all be replaced with new buildings, even in the very long term.  Well maintained buildings will last almost indefinitely – of course they will need a new roof covering at intervals and anyone stupid enough to replace sound or repairable timber windows, made from wood from virgin forests, with uPVC windows will have to replace them every 30 or 40 years or so.

So the future I envision is rather less dramatic that Kevin McCloud’s.  There will I hope always be a place for a few radical new buildings and startlingly repurposed old ones.  I fervently hope this because this is what we do and I thank Kevin McCloud for raising the public’s awareness of the great benefits to be got from great design.  But I am certain that there will also always be a place for the vast majority of existing buildings which, over time, will require to be carefully maintained and from time to time, made to work better, adapted and upgraded, and we do that too.