Since September, I have had the privilege of teaching the graduate course of Sustainability and Historic Architecture at New York University. There have been clear benefits for our work and clients at Montagu Evans, forcing reflection on academic issues around sustainability and how they relate to the economic and legal context of our work as heritage consultants.
In the context of the climate emergency, this is more important than ever and gives the Heritage and Townscape (HEaT) team at Montagu Evans an advantage over its market competitors.
In considering the role of historical architecture – whether listed, designated as a World Heritage Site, Conservation Area, or locally important building – the conversations with the students throughout the year have informed my own thoughts and advice that we give our clients. Conversations have ranged from the sustainability of designations, such as the Liverpool World Heritage Site, to the adaptive reuse of hospital buildings in urban areas.
At Montagu Evans, I have seen a pattern of unusual types of heritage assets that have the potential to deliver new uses in creative ways. In London, high land prices ensure there is pressure to make efficient use of space. Space-hungry typologies such as gasworks, bus garages and department stores often have heritage value which can be a constraint on new development as well as an opportunity.
Take the redundant Marian Place gasworks in Bethnal Green, for example. The gasholders form an ensemble sited within Zone 2 in LB Tower Hamlets, on LB Hackney's boundary. They contribute to Regent's Canal Conservation Area and are local landmarks. In understanding their significance (focussed on the intrinsic interest of the frames), new uses have been found. The Marian Place gasworks client St William worked with Montagu Evans and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (recently rebranded to RSHP) to deliver a vibrant and exciting new residential-led scheme that recently won 'best residential project of 500 homes or more' at the Planning Awards 2022. Adaptive reuse of the gasholders was an integral part of the Marian Place scheme, a topic students have focussed on in detail at NYU.
Students have considered whether it is necessary to retain historic buildings or offer redevelopment solutions to the benefit of a city or a nation more broadly. Their outlook is not nostalgic. Rather, they have offered perspectives that are practical and raise the issue of whether all buildings should be reused, repurposed and retrofitted or whether there are others where there are opportunities for new, highly sustainable buildings.
The scholarly analysis that students have provided is a lesson that shows how academic nuance relating to heritage significance and value is essential in areas of disputed heritage. That nuance will become increasingly important as we anticipate greater weight to be attributed to highly sustainable developments through the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework update. One thing is for sure, there will be cases of harmony and conflict where heritage and sustainability are concerned.
Image from Architects Journal.