The rewards and challenges of working with heritage buildings, Jack Farrell and Alex Harrison share their experience.

We have been involved in breathing life back into many Grade II* buildings across the country, converting to luxury hotels, commercial premises, restaurants and outstanding student accommodation; what they all share is the architectural richness they contribute to the public realm.

When the opportunity arises to reinvigorate heritage assets, we seize this with both hands.  Each historic building has its own personality and we relish delving into historic construction methods, alterations made over time and the general effects of old age, all factors combining to pose unique challenges.

We are currently engaged on the iconic Grade II* listed India Building, Liverpool. Designed by influential Liverpool based architect Arnold Thornley (who also designed Stormont, Belfast) and Herbert James Rowse (Mersey Tunnel ventilation towers and the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool) in the 1920’s. The buildings’ architectural language was uniquely influenced by American architecture, which was brought to Liverpool as transatlantic connections boomed thanks to the city’s maritime history.

The building underwent extensive remodelling in the 1940’s after suffering World War II bomb damage.  By the turn of the 21st Century, the building was in need of a major refurbishment to restore its distinctive, original features and to breathe new life into this Liverpool landmark.

In 2015, one of our long-term clients approached us to lead the category A fit out of India building, to house HMRC’s new Liverpool Headquarters. Once complete, the c.350,000 sqft Grade A office space will house upwards of 3,000 HMRC employees in one of the largest office refurbishment projects in the city’s history.

We have drawn on our extensive experience and knowledge to bring this piece of Liverpudlian history back to life.  As lead architect, our role is to head up a collaborative and multidisciplinary team tasked with decoding the buildings hidden secrets from the past 100 years. Following detailed site surveys, extensive research and working closely with specialist consultants, we have gained a thorough understanding of the fabric of the building and its heritage significance.

Our brief was to re-imagine the buildings existing traditional cellular office layouts and inject modern, innovative office spaces fit for the twenty first century.  The original areas of historic interest, such as the main entrance arcade, banking hall, circulation lobbies and original corridor ceiling layout have all been preserved and refurbished.

The regeneration must meet current Building Regulations and this can be challenging due to the nature of the original materials used.  Fire protection regulations have been adhered to by working closely with industry experts and specialist sub-contractors to devise innovative solutions. Likewise, asbestos found within the building has to be dealt with responsibly.

The biggest challenge with historic buildings however is the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns! There are certain contingencies that you can prepare for in advance but older buildings have a habit of throwing things in to the mix that no-one could plan for. We have to react quickly when these issues arise to minimise programme delay and also where required, have further engagement with the local authority to gain additional approvals. Being proactive and available is key.

Working with historic buildings requires critical thinking and experience, which can add real value to our clients’ assets, whilst delivering within commercial constraints.

The built environment is our social treasure. It’s a reflection of the vibrancy, uniqueness and character of our communities. There is no better reward for an architect than helping to preserve and reinvigorate the very buildings that define the places we call home.

Jack FarrellAlex Harrison

Jack Farrell                                                        Alex Harrison