Heritage: don’t brush history aside
Heritage... What’s in a name? The government classifies certain older buildings as ‘heritage’, based on defined standards and aesthetic preferences, but to us, all old buildings are worth looking at and working with. We believe that the opportunities of these properties are all too often not investigated. These older buildings were built to last and are typically very robust, and the costs of repurposing them are ultimately more than balanced out by the returns and social benefits they offer in the long term.
When looking at complex heritage premises, you will often find real gems – jewels worth polishing and holding up to the light. Old swimming pools; former school sites. With our ‘repurposer’ hat on, we often look at heritage buildings. And with this hat, we have a very different perspective from the usual market, where ‘demolish it’ is, sadly, still the standard answer. Not for us. We have a sustainable mindset and believe in circular approaches.
The value of some of these buildings is underestimated. There is a tendency still for people to give heritage properties a wide berth, with the thought “that’ll swallow a lot of money”. Well, they’re not wrong. Just consider a restaurant whose original window profiles have been carefully restored. An expensive project, certainly. But remember, those profiles can easily last another hundred years – even the best of the modern ones won’t last as long. And note that national laws regulating subsidies have been updated and are more generous. Long waiting periods are also – thankfully – a thing of the past. The government is coming to understand that we need to commit to heritage projects; that our continent has a rich cultural heritage and we cannot simply brush it aside.
In fact, there are two things that make heritage properties so special. First, of course, we have emotional connections to the buildings. Perhaps this building is the factory where your great-grandpa used to work, or the school where your grandma learnt her ABC, to be followed many years later by you yourself – and now your own children. Besides the emotional factor, though, the buildings themselves are often very well built. These aren’t structures you can knock down in a day. Not just robust, they’re often practical, typically designed for multipurpose use. Think of a traditional rectory. It could be used as a restaurant, a notary’s office, or simply a house. As a result, these buildings have certain useful design ingredients, such as the typical high ceilings.
In a nutshell: they’re airy and flooded with light. Every one of these elements is something that we should be reintegrating into new developments. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to incorporate these basic features into our designs. And why? We focus too hard today on savings and short-term profitability. We need to learn from our heritage and keep it as a part of our ‘construction loop’. As far as possible, all our projects are designed with flexibility in mind. Will this care project be transformed into an office complex within fifty years?
We tried to find heritage buildings via inventories in order to save them from demolition, but such things don’t really exist. So instead, we’re turning towards towns and communities, but also approaching education consortiums and organisations with a rich heritage who, like us, are concerned about these special buildings in their guardianship. These are often found in clusters, oriented around a single main location. Sometimes they include buildings hundreds of years old that the organisations just don’t know what to do with. It’s also very common for heritage buildings to be found in prime locations: standing majestically in the town centre, for example. You might like to know that if your own property simply neighbours a heritage building, its noble neighbour will raise the price of your own building by 5–6 percent. In other words, if you live in the shadow of an ancient abbey, your own house is literally more valuable.
Our objective is to develop a good project based on master planning and design studies. However, a good design is worthless if you don't know whom you’re designing for. That’s why every good project emerges as a balanced harmony between the three Ps: people, property and payoff.
The property is the building itself. It’s already there, but often needs some restoration or perhaps an extension. To this end, it’s essential to set up a broad value framework for carrying out the work. In order to breathe new life into the building, it needs people using it. The future plans have an essential part to play here, and we orient ourselves closely towards them.
Last but not least: payoff. This P has an important role to play for project sustainability. After all, the project needs to have a solid profit model. The trouble is, our market is currently in need of a shake-up. We need capital investment based on long-term visions – not just instant profit! We also need to consider what the project puts back into society. All these three Ps are essential for a heritage project to succeed...