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Graham Voce & Adam M Klups: The adaptive re-use of buildings - realising the conservation that we all (can) live in

Adaptative reuse of built structures has long been part of the pattern of how we have lived, through changing lifestyles, changing times, and changing needs. The continuation of use of historic and traditional buildings and keeping them relevant to current demands is one of the best ways of offering them a sustainable future.  

The role of the conservation profession, whether in the person of the conservation officer or the conservation architect, is essential in maintaining the connection between adaptive change and conservation principles and ethics, as well as ensuring professional rigour, accuracy and factual reference are brought to bear.

By not rebuilding, demolishing or starting afresh but by adapting we are keeping the visible external envelope of that structure unchanged or unaltered to some extent  - but without losing the overall architectural value of the building’s significance for its context and streetscape.

Additionally, by living in and using these adapted  buildings we are helping to conserve and continue the skills, the intangible heritage: we have our sash windows re-made, we buy paint from modern companies that we feel properly reflects the heritage of our period- framed lives. We try and make sure that our Victorian roofs are properly re-slated  and that our brickwork is appropriately repointed.

Lastly, but importantly, preserving and adapting, instead of replacing the buildings of the past helps to reduce the carbon footprint that we all create.  If we constantly demolish and redevelop then we need to manufacture new materials, change more landscapes, burn more fuel.  By re-using we conserve not just our heritage environment but also our living environment.

The Water Tower of the Lambeth workhouse of 1877

kennington-water-tower-before-c_-stephen-richard.jpgThe Tower was built in 1877 to provide a reliable source of water to what was then Lambeth Workhouse.   The whole complex of buildings then became a hospital under the NHS; one of the busiest and most congested inner London hospitals by the 1970s. Following the closure in 1980 much of site was demolished and sold for housing development in the 1990s /2000s. The Tower survived thanks to becoming grade II listed, although it remained virtually neglected until a conversion scheme was implemented during 2012. The building has been adapted into a single dwelling, with five bedrooms within the original structure plus two separate modern structures; one of which contains a lift and bathrooms and the other a garage, kitchen, sitting room and roof terrace. The modern structures that were added were encouraged and approved by the planning department and Conservation Officer of Lambeth Borough Council. The choice of brick and cladding were carefully chosen to bridge the gap between the new build housing surrounding the tower and the original bricks and finish used in the Venetian Gothic of the Tower itself.  The actual water tank at the top has been turned into a sitting room, again with the conservation officer’s guidance. Overall, the aim of the adaptive development of this building has been to offer it a new, sustainable lease of life within its built context.kennington-water-tower-_after_c_graham_voce.jpg

The changes to this unusual structure show that buildings can be conserved by adaptative re-use and this re-use could be to purposes that cannot have occurred to the original designers. By retaining the water tank and adding glazing a much more holistically honest look to the building has been retained. The blending of the new and the old in its structure, as well as linking in the water tower to the modern buildings surrounding it was achieved also.

St James' Church, Suffolk Square, Cheltenham

This grade II* listed church started its life as a chapel for the wealthy inhabitants of the square and its neighbourhood. It was consecrated in 1830 when Cheltenham enjoyed its greatest popularity as a spa town. The church was built mostly of Cotswold limestone, in the Regency Gothic style.


The church closed as a place of worship in 1976, having struggled to keep its congregation numbers enough to keep going in a changing social and demographic landscape and in the urban environment of Cheltenham. It became a parish hall for some time and at that stage false walls and a ceiling were installed; perhaps not something which would ever be authorised by conservation officers or building control today. In 2004 it was sold and converted into an Italian-style chain restaurant. Partitions were removed, the space was returned to a single volume and painstaking restoration and careful conversion to its new use was implemented; importantly with the principle of minimum intervention in mind. No attempt was made to conceal the fact that the building was formerly a church – quite the opposite: the stone carvings of the sanctuary were conserved, the galleries, stained glass and wall memorials cleaned and retained. Cooking and toilet facilities were designed to create as little interruption as possible and not impinge on the former nave. Externally the use of the building is not obvious and only a couple of discreet signs give it away. The streetscape value of the building as part of the original development in their neighbourhood has thus been preserved; the building remains open to the public and is an attractive heritage asset for the neighbourhood, as well as a place to eat and socialise. The removal of internal partitioning has been beneficial for the significance of the building and the discreet interventions are all reversible should the building one day find a new use.

Adaptive reuse of historic and traditionally built buildings is perhaps one of the most visible manifestations of the conservation from the public’s perspective and possibly the most democratic and participatory. Owners, developers and other stakeholders who decide to invest their energy in adaptive re-use projects become key participants of the conservation debate with a responsibility to make justifiable conservation decisions.

It is the job of the conservation professional , the conservation architect, the conservation adviser and the local authority conservation officer to identify the relevant levels of significance which all play a part, and to communicate what an appropriate degree of change may be. They need to ensure that the right balance is struck, and guide relevant stakeholders, while bearing in mind best conservation practice and principles. Many who are not conservation professionals may see this as restrictive, intrusive or unnecessarily fussy, but getting the conservation profession involved will ensure that an approach can be put forward that respects the building fabric, its original design, use and context, and by doing so conserve what is significant about it, including  the spirit of the place for the benefit of the generation after this generation.

As long as we, conservation professionals, don’t hide away from a constructive debate and our goal remains to encourage decisions that will be justifiable and clearly understood today and, in the years to come, we can rest assured that we are doing the best job we can managing change and making our built heritage more sustainable.  


  • Header - St James Cheltenham - after 2019 © A Klups
  • Portrait 1 - Kennington-Water-Tower - before © Stephen-Richard
  • Portrait 2 - Kennington-Water-Tower - after © Graham Voce
  • Landscape - St James Cheltenham 1 - before 1970s © Gloucester DAC

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