Adaptable secrets of (very) old buildings

Heritage buildings are often masters of reinvention – what can today's designers learn from them?

June 2021

Words by Tony Whitehead

Lord-Leycester-hospital
The Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick, UK, started life as a guild hall in the 14th century, before being converted into residences for retired soldiers in the 1570s — a function it still performs today
Photo Steve Plowman / Adobe Stock

The Darwinian adage “adapt or die” is as applicable to buildings as it is to species. So what is it about heritage buildings, the built environment’s survivors, that enables them to endure while others perish?

The Pantheon in Rome is a stand-out example. Completed in 126AD, its extraordinary, 43m-diameter concrete dome provides the classic ingredients of flexibility: an open-plan, column-free space, together with natural light and ventilation via an oculus at its centre. Initially a temple, the Pantheon has since seen use as a political forum, Catholic church, prestige mausoleum and, latterly, a tourist attraction and occasional concert hall.

"If people don’t find a building useful and comfortable, and a delight, then they won’t make the effort to adapt and maintain it"

Nick Corbett, WSP

“If people don’t find a building useful and comfortable, and a delight, then they won’t make the effort to adapt and maintain it,” says Nick Corbett, a heritage expert and associate director at WSP in the UK. “There is now a heightened awareness of how a building contributes to our wellbeing by creating a pleasant environment to be in — probably with good ventilation, natural light, access to nature and an interesting design. But to an extent that has always been the case.”

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One of the buildings that Corbett has helped to maintain is the Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick, one of England’s best-preserved examples of medieval courtyard architecture. Starting life as a guild hall in the 14th century, its construction made use of the remains of an even earlier structure, the 12th-century town walls. It was converted into residences for retired soldiers in the 1570s — a function it still performs today. “The pensioners still grow produce in their own garden as they did back then,” says Corbett, “and serve it in the building’s cafe, a banqueting hall that once served James I. The access to nature and shared public spaces are working as well for the occupants now as they did 500 years ago, and people still cherish the place.”

He warns, however, that it would be unwise to assume old buildings will keep their relevance regardless of their ability to adapt and be comfortable: “We have half a million buildings in England that are ‘listed’ — a status that restricts what changes can be made to them. With the environmental targets we now have, the retrofit of that stock has to be addressed. We have to protect their special architectural and historical interest, but if these building are going to make their contribution to reducing carbon emissions, there needs to be greater understanding when it comes to re-servicing them, and regulations are going to have to be more flexible in areas such as thermal insulation.” Done well, Corbett believes, improved environmental performance is an adaptation that can help heritage buildings remain useful and relevant for centuries to come.

This article appears in The Possible issue 07, as part of a longer feature on flexible buildings

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