RetroFirst: Flexible new-builds are essential to future-proofing - 02-03-2020

Choosing high-quality, robust materials that lend themselves to future adaptation should be the starting point for any project – new-build or retrofit.

I’ve always been interested in heritage buildings. My university days were spent drawing up historic building spaces and details and I learned a lot: the generosity of their proportions; the lack of waste involved in their construction; the reduced toxicity of their materials; their propensity for circularity.

But I was never interested in rigid restoration architecture. What excited me was the ability to translate the lessons of heritage buildings into contemporary architecture. If I were to put forward a definition of what retrofit should be today, it’s that: a move away from the polarisation of restoration architecture versus new build.

dRMM wholeheartedly supports the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign. As one of the 17 founding signatories to Architects Declare, we believe the campaign to be in line with helping combat our profession’s collective negative impact on the planet. But we believe it is imperative to propel the definition of retrofit forward. 

One of dRMM’s first projects – Kingsdale School in Southwark (pictured below) – was a retrofit. But we never categorised it that way. Our approach was instead built on the idea of radical collaboration, both in terms of community consultation and with regard to tightening the gap between design and build. We used off-the-shelf materials and engineered timber to combat extended construction periods and excessive waste.

Together with collaborative thinking, the key to reimagining existing spaces lies in building in flexibility. Perhaps the most important aspect to adopting a ‘retrofit first’ attitude throughout the profession is to ensure new-build architecture is compliant with future adaptation. The nature of historic buildings lending themselves to retrofit is their expansive volumes and predisposition for flexibility. It’s in their focus on robust structure and priority on durability.

As construction professionals we have to ensure our cities continue to work better as systems, that their density can be maintained, that their housing needs are met, and that all this is done without further damaging the natural world. We have to begin to find a way to negotiate quality with achieving the necessary quantity.

We also need to think of flexibility in terms of materiality. Choosing high-quality, robust materials that lend themselves to future adaptation should be the starting point for any project – not just retrofit. We need to be responsible for understanding the re-usability and recyclability of the resources we specify. And for this there needs to be a greater co-ordinated front from all industry professionals. 

For this reason, if projects must be new-build, they need to follow a similar pattern to their ancestors – an approach of non-determinative architecture that is built with inherent flexibility.

Material and functional flexibility was at the heart of dRMM’s RIBA Stirling Prize-winning project, Hastings Pier (pictured below). Our team resisted the attractive opportunity to create a landmark architectural structure and instead reimagined the Victorian pleasure pier as a sustainable, flexible platform able to accommodate a broad range of community and commercial uses for years to come. 

Today, we no longer require our architecture students to spend hours drawing up buildings. We have digital twinning technology that can provide similar, more accurate results, and existing buildings can now benefit from the same digital advantages as new-build structures.

What we do need to return to is more meaningful utilisation of those results as tools to creating spaces that are hardy, adaptable, and – above all – joyful to inhabit.

Retrofit needs to be about resisting architecture that is prescriptive and inflexible, and understanding that the way we use buildings is changing. It’s about improving performance through new technology and re-thinking the meaning of ‘added value’.

Value needs to be about creating spaces that are fit for purpose and fit for the future. Heritage specialism as an insular practice holds far less value than if it is actively integrated into the new definition of retrofit – a definition built on progressive, collaborative and flexible design. 

Saskia Lencer is an Associate Director at dRMM Architects. Her expertise lies in marrying a heritage-based technical background with innovative material exploration. Saskia leads dRMM’s focus on retrofit, construction strategy and materials, integrating her research and practice with the studio’s wider sustainability priorities.