Re-purposing heritage is a challenge. How do you find sustainable and creative, new-use solutions for redundant heritage buildings?
The answer lies in bringing the right people together and having the right conversations right from the beginning. It also involves opening people’s minds to the ‘art of the possible’.
Recently I attended a fascinating event. The event convened a number of interested community stakeholders from the private, public and third sectors, in a conversation about the possible re-purposing of a redundant 19th century Magistrates Court building at the heart of a northern town, a town that, like many, has seen better days. The problems that were pondered in the room where we met, which was incidentally, in a magnificently converted former Methodist Chapel, seemed to be somewhat negatively focused on the court building’s extensive scale and footprint, its Grade II Listing, its complex layout that included cells in the basement and small police interview rooms on the first floor, its limited town-centre car parking and out-dated, inefficient energy management system. But later, when visiting the court building itself, the conversations shifted in nature. Talk turned toward admiring the beautiful oak panelling, plaster ceiling decoration and stained glass, as well as the magnificent proportion of the windows letting light flood in and the awesome fireplaces with ornate timber mantles and beaten copper hoods. There were murmured reminiscences about certain magistrates and their accused and how ordinary people were made to feel in such judicial surroundings. Some took turns to stand inside the prison cells to take-in what seemed a palpable atmosphere.
People became genuinely troubled by what they recognised as a truly inspirational space and the seemingly insurmountable problems it represented in terms of practical alternative function.
A more vivid call for creative thinking I could not imagine. But then, this kind of thing is nothing new to me.
For the last decade I have been involved in grappling with the future of historic and at times ancient buildings, all with a myriad of practical challenges weighed up against the often breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring atmosphere of their character. But as one delegate at the Court building meeting suggested ‘Wouldn’t it be cheaper, and easier to knock it down and sell the site?’ A very 1960’s solution that eradicated much of the nation’s heritage including rambling stately homes, follies, churches, scheduled ancient monuments and much besides. However it was in 1947 that the first proper system of historic building-designation was introduced, as part of the Town & Country Planning Act and in response to damage caused by war-time bombing. Later as fashions changed, it was pioneer protestors such as Sir John Betjeman who took up the fight to stop the wilful destruction of the historic environment. Thankfully these efforts stemmed the tide and made way for inspired organisations like the Landmark Trust, the Churches Conservation Trust and of course Historic England (established as late as 1983) who have been an enormous force for good using a mix of public funding and donated cash to shore up the future of the gems that make up our national ‘built’ heritage.
However, in the case of the redundant Magistrates Court, and many ordinary buildings like it, it’s important to recognise that this isn’t just about preserving things in aspic, which many well-meaning heritage organisations tend to want to do. Modern heritage conservation is about adapting the heritage to meet the needs of the present day and that, of course, has to add up in monetary terms.
Over recent years there has been significant financial investment into bringing major heritage assets back from the brink such as the unique 18th Century Piece Hall in Halifax which received £19m of investment including a substantive grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the site into a heritage destination. This involved developing it as an artisan shopping and leisure experience of significant scale, in some ways similar to the now world heritage site of Saltaire near Bradford. In Halifax, the local authority’s strategy was to use the Piece Hall as a catalyst to revision the whole of Halifax into a cultural tourist destination. It, therefore, made sense to integrate the future of other important heritage buildings into this vision. But to achieve this successfully, an economically viable and creative proposition needed to be found for buildings like the Magistrates Court. These types of listed building grace the streets of most of our towns and cities, they are of high heritage value, hence their listing, but they are not special enough to compete with the likes of the Piece Hall for a publically funded rescue package. No, for these types of building we have to rely on more traditional methods of redevelopment to secure their sustainable future.
At IVE we have developed and piloted a partnership approach with Chartered Surveyors Thomas Lister to drive the creative process behind doing just that.
We have built what we call a ‘Creative Feasibility’ process which is implemented during the pre-marketing phase of listed buildings. Often these buildings are in public ownership and are being sold for development to liquefy assets in times of austerity. In these cases, sustainable, community sensitive and strategically joined up solutions are vital. Our methods ensure that key stakeholders from all sectors are consulted to establish community need and test where the possible rubbing points might be, especially in relation to public opinion which can easily scupper the best intentions. We then bring people together in a creatively facilitated, site-based discussion, with the goal of challenging barriers, generating solutions and joining up conversations. The results are remarkable and successful; enabling us to present recommendations to our clients regarding viable new-use options, along with a list of interested end-users and investors, which makes the formal marketing process a lot easier. Our network of contacts across English local authorities helps us administer this process quickly and efficiently.
In the case of the Magistrates Court, the story has a happy ending with a local developer and a future as a unique boutique hotel and spa. Our next project is a grade II listed, cold war, nuclear bunker. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can come up with for that one!
In the end, if investment is made strategically to protect our heritage by making sure it serves new communities in relevant and exciting ways, its presence on the streets we know and love, will pay dividends. The loss of a building liability is cheap and easy. The creative preservation of heritage assets that represent our story as a nation and ultimately our sense of place, is difficult. But we have to be up for the challenge.
Please contact me if you’d like to talk more about how we might be able to help you with buildings you have in your portfolio.
Rosi Lister is currently CEO at social enterprise We are IVE Ltd. www.weareive.org
*The Re-purposing heritage programme is a part of the IVE Group consultancy offer. All profits go toward the IVE Shaping Creative Futures talent development programme that helps disadvantaged young people realise their creative potential through live employer projects and individualised career support.
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