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Knowledge is Power

13th January 2014

Chris Boyce, design director at Capita, considers the value of understanding all aspects of a buildings’ structure and context before embarking on any refurbishment project….

As capital funding has become scarce, developers, asset managers and estates teams around the country have started to think about alternate uses for their existing buildings and how they can be adapted to appeal to a rapidly changing and diverse development market.

Buildings of various ages and scales sit empty and cost money to maintain and manage, however, these legacy property portfolios may hold the key to improved facilities, higher yields and long term investment opportunity. They can be adapted to provide living and working accommodation that offers a better use of space.

A dose of imagination and creativity is required when turning empty, part derelict or underperforming buildings into uses and typologies fit for the 21st century. Although, the real challenge comes with understanding and responding to the existing age, condition, layout and physical form of any building; its fabric and context is critical in any refurbishment project and will eventually drive the design process. This requires specialist input from competent survey and technical professionals in order to consider the implications of existing structures, utilities, infrastructure layout, materials and planning constraints.

A schedule of accommodation and physical 2D survey will provide basic building data but it’s important that building surveys are also given the time and attention they deserve for any refurbishment project to succeed.

Current methods such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and 3D cloud surveys provide a robust system to gather, record and start the process of data analysis so that a holistic view of the building can be formed and its future uses explored. We have employed this method on the refurbishment of 1930's buildings for the University of Chester; creating bespoke room data detail for each space that allowed for a precise cost planning and programming study to be carried out before tender.

In addition to modern practise, traditional sources continue to be helpful in creating a complete picture; archive searches can produce valuable information relating to planning restrictions, former uses and building typology.

However, due to varying standards of record keeping and depending on the age of the facility itself, these searches are not always fruitful – at this point, one may turn to good old fashioned intrusive surveys; instructed to determine the condition, lifespan, adaptability and the construction methodology of the existing building.

The degree or level of the intrusive survey may differ depending upon ownership of the facility or the balance of project risk between client, designer and contractor. However, it is imperative that the project team agree and record the level of survey to be conducted, as anomalies found during later stages tend to carry the highest risk to cost and programme in refurbishment projects.

When dealing with historic or listed buildings, it is the past that matters most. The challenge is to maintain the architectural integrity of the building; however, the fact is that the existing services, structure and building fabric are unlikely to meet current modern expectations. This can be overcome with the support of a conservation architect and the assurance that all design solutions are well informed.

Our work on the refurbishment of a Grade II listed Victorian Mill in Burnley to create a University Technical College was subject to stringent checks from English Heritage. This could only be achieved through a robust understanding of the existing building envelope and the challenges and opportunities that presented.

In all cases, the key is to get to know your building inside and out – knowledge is power – and with the power in your hands you can make the most of your assets to ensure that they are fit for purpose now and into the future.

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