Conservation in the Age of Sustainability

Mark Hines


  Computer-generated image showing the completed Broadcasting House development
  A computer-generated view of the finished Broadcasting House development, which is due for completion in 2012 (Photo: Hayes Davidson)

As Britain faces the challenges posed by climate change, economic austerity and affordable housing shortages, it should be increasingly clear that we need to find appropriate ways of upgrading existing buildings rather than constructing new ones. Building less is an obvious way to preserve precious resources.

Grade I and II* listed buildings present major challenges for those attempting to upgrade their environmental performance. However, they represent only a small proportion of our overall building stock, so it is arguable that they should be left well alone. Sustainability is about more than just energy consumption, and perhaps the key challenge with these buildings is finding ways to keep them in use.

On the other hand, there is a vast stock of unlisted 19th and 20th century buildings that quietly contributes to the character of our towns and cities. These buildings may be less architecturally significant than those that are listed, but they also offer greater scope for reuse and environmental upgrading. Making the best use of this excellent, if undervalued, resource means adapting these older buildings to the demands of modern use, balancing in the process a sensitive and informed appreciation of original fabric with an inventive approach to design.


  BBC studio interior
  A new general-purpose studio at Broadcasting House
  Restored timber-panelled interior of the BBC Council Chamber with portrait of Lord Reith above mantelpiece
  The BBC’s Council Chamber, now restored to its former glory (Photos: Tim Crocker)

Back in 2000, at a time when climate change was becoming a mainstream issue, I found myself running a substantial part of the £1.1 billion project to refurbish the BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London, for MJP Architects. The corporation’s Grade II* listed headquarters were in a sorry state. The rumble of underground trains could be heard in its radio studios. When the windows were opened to let in much-needed cool air, the traffic noise from Portland Place came in with it. The low ceilings were so crammed with wires that it was impossible to get a tape measure between them. The original home of the BBC, completed in 1932, had been described by the Royal Academy as ‘hopelessly obsolete’, no good for broadcasting, and fit only for administrative operations.

Today, however, Broadcasting House is the state-of-the-art, environmentally efficient new home of Radio 3 and Radio 4. The refurbishment saw new technology sensitively installed, new studio floors laid, narrow office floor plans opened up and four new floors added on the roof. Furthermore, the project achieved a BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) ‘excellent’ rating.

The project proved that even in a building which is as technically demanding as Broadcasting House, the 21st century can still be accommodated with minimal impact on historic significance.

The lesson was a powerful and uplifting one: if a you can save a building like Broadcasting House in the digital age, you ought to be able to save anything.


Large office buildings like Broadcasting House make a substantial contribution to global warming, but the figure is dwarfed by the contribution made by housing. One solution is to replace old houses with new, energy-efficient designs, and the government’s notorious Pathfinder programme of 2003 proposed the demolition of 90,000 homes, including thousands of Victorian and Edwardian terraces. Appalled by the proposal, SAVE Britain’s Heritage commissioned Mark Hines Architects (MHA) to explore the possible reuse of 500 houses in the centre of Manchester which had been scheduled for demolition.

The original terraced houses in question were small, but the basics were right. The houses were modest, two-up-two-downs, each with a private garden. In this study for SAVE, MHA suggested a number of ways in which the houses could be improved for less than £10,000 each. MHA proposed that the houses should be given small extensions, using reclaimed bricks, hemp, and living (planted) walls. The extensions would allow bathrooms to be placed upstairs while retaining good-sized second bedrooms. This would make the houses much more flexible and attractive to the market.

  Computer-generated image showing re-designed interiors of traditional terraced houses
  Proposed reuse of terraced houses in central Manchester

The proposals build on the social opportunities that small terraced houses in a narrow street can bring. They were intended to develop close-knit communities, with the new sites at terrace ends becoming either family houses, recycling points or small power plants providing heating and energy for each street.

There was no attempt to impose a grand vision on the area – one that would have been subject to the vagaries of changing economic fortunes. Instead, the proposal was a simple, small idea that grew out of the specific context of the area, to help build a small but self-sustaining community.

The project could provide a template for more widespread application. It demonstrated that by creating an attractive vision for an area it is possible to save houses and energy. It also showed how conservation skills and knowledge could be used to solve technical problems.


The regeneration of urban areas often requires new buildings to be constructed beside old ones. The challenge of introducing new build – and new design – alongside historic buildings lies in balancing modern aesthetics and performance requirements with a respect for historic fabric and the existing streetscape. Meeting strict sustainability criteria in the new elements is relatively easy; achieving a successful integration of new and old can be far more demanding. The 4C Pavilion, a new community building in Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester, illustrates one solution. Situated within the grounds of a Grade II listed church, it is a modern design, but one that is rooted in an interest in conservation and historic building materials. It is a building that combines traditional form and materials with 21st century performance.

The pavilion was designed on a very limited budget, which is no bad thing in that it ensures that all decisions are well thought through. The building has hemp- and lime-rendered walls, and for much of the year will not need heating. The adjacent Victorian church will generate electricity not only for itself, but also for the new building and even a surplus that can be sold. The solar panels on the huge roof of the church will soon be making money as a power generator for the area.

The highly bio-diverse, grass-sewn pavilion roof helps to anchor the building in its churchyard setting, but it also provides a habitat for insects, birds and local plant species. This project will be one of the first A+ energy rated buildings in the United Kingdom. Even though it is has not yet been completed, Sustain Magazine recently called the 4C Pavilion one of the top ten best natural buildings in the country.


When we build, when we invest our precious resources, it is important that we build well. A building’s aesthetic is linked to its performance. At the 4C Pavilion, the objective was to make a building that would feel like it was built to last; the fact that it uses little energy is a bonus. To put it another way, sustainable building design is not just about performance, but about how users respond to the building. The quality of the direct emotional impact they have on us (soft to the touch, warm and able to grow old gracefully) are living, human qualities.

Traditional materials tend to be environmentally friendly: high quality local materials generally last. But we should also be creative, and try to use these materials in new ways. Materials such as lime mortars and renders which were rediscovered and developed for conserving historic buildings are slowly entering use in the wider construction industry. The Building Conservation Directory has long been an invaluable resource for those working in conservation, it may well prove to have a wider readership in the mainstream construction and refurbishment industries.

  Computer-generated image showing proposed 4C Pavilion exterior and grass-sewn 'green roof'
  Design for the 4C Pavilion, an ambitious new community building planned for Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester

But we also need to be careful. Architecture may be a practical art, but it is also a science. I seem to spend an awful lot of my time explaining why a damp-proof course in a building may not be necessary, and might just do more harm than good. At a technical level, there is huge potential for misunderstanding the implications of increased insulation levels and the requirements for buildings to be ventilated effectively. For those of us on the front line, there is very little written information about these implications.

Energy calculations can be time consuming and complex. While we are familiar with the technology in the design of new buildings, this technology is often not sophisticated enough to deal with historic buildings, or to help predict how the buildings will be used. Mark Hines Architects has produced its own software to help make these increasingly complex decisions. There are currently no software companies advertising in The Building Conservation Directory, but I predict there soon will be.


The conservation community is full of people who believe passionately in the buildings they work on. They fight their corner, demand that the right decisions are made and ensure that historic buildings can be enjoyed for generations to come. As traditional roles in the industry change, there is a new and ethical role that heritage professionals can play. They have had to become ‘guardians’ of historic fabric, and their power to persuade others of the significance of that fabric has become even more important.

The conservation sector can also bring real value in helping to cut carbon emissions. More conservation professionals should be using their skills and knowledge to improve the sustainability of our existing building stock. We should be trying to find new and better ways to recycle these buildings while also finding new applications for traditional methods and materials. In short, we need to be less dogmatic and more flexible in terms of how we think about the historic environment, to be both creative and conservative.

It is clear that many political, social, economic, cultural, and technical challenges lie ahead. Undoubtedly, there are conflicts inherent in any discussion about sustainability and the historic environment. But I do think a sideways shift in thinking is happening. New areas of work, well beyond the field of individual buildings, are opening up. Understanding how we can upgrade our historic building stock sits alongside a growing interest in the importance of places and of sensitive urban design. Master planning, and estate management (especially in relation to sustainability and energy consumption) will continue to increase in significance.

Never have conservationists been so well placed to carry their work into the future. The pioneering phase of their work done, there must be a new generation of specialists ready to work on the buildings that urgently need their skills. They should be ready to expand their ideas about how we define conservation, and to help fight one of our age’s most important battles: the fight against climate change.


The Building Conservation Directory, 2011


MARK HINES is a Lethaby Scholar and trained with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In 2006 he established his own practice, Mark Hines Architects, which has been responsible for a series of award-winning projects. The practice has particular skills in working with historic buildings and their extension, adaptation and repair.

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