The challenges of refurbishment

With 80% of the housing stock that will make up our homes over the next 25-50 years already built, upgrading and refurbishment is a large element of the working experience of sustainably minded architects. After-all, why demolish an existing structure, generating more waste and using more energy in both demolition, site clearance and then reconstruction than would be needed in remodelling the existing? (That said, there will always be situations where demolition is the most appropriate option.)

Refurbishing existing structures will never be a straightforward process, and each project will be unique due to the individual nature of buildings. Even when designed as a standard type, the occupation habits, the climate, and the maintenance regime will vary with each structure. It is highly unlikely that a standard refurbishment process can be developed that can be rolled out and used on multiple projects in the same way any time soon. However the scale of the refurbishment task ahead means that refurbishment solutions will probably be developed in the future.

One of the issues with refurbishment is that every project is unique in its requirements.  The other issue is that the extent of the work is not known until the structure of the building has been revealed.

Across the refurbishment sector, similar problems such as damp, wood worm or other infestations, structural weakness or failure, are features that all crop up regularly. This can slow down a project and increase costs. But on projects where all parties are co-operating as a harmonious and co-operative team, major potential setbacks can often be turned into an advantage. For example, during a major refurbishment of a small 15th century farmhouse we discovered, as the layers were peeled back to the main structure, many previously unseen issues with the building. Poor connections between structural timbers and shifting fabric meant that the structural beams tying the two sides of the property together were pulling apart, threatening the whole integrity of the building. This led us to designing and installing a number of metal plates and straps to tie the structural timbers together in such a way that it became an integral design feature.

On the same project, when the existing wall plaster was removed, several original features were revealed which were then left exposed to become quirky and unique features. This included a fireplace at first floor, a blocked-up ground floor window and part of an original clay-lump wall construction. In addition, when the floor slab was excavated to install a new breathable Limecrete floor, the original cellar entrance was identified, resulting in a re-design to create a wine cellar.

In some projects, the failings of the property are relatively clear from the outset, hence the need to refurbish. We were asked to refurbish and re-model an existing Grade II listed house dating from the 15th and 16th centuries which contained architecturally and historically important features. These included original Elizabethan timbers in the main body of the house, at both ground and first floor, and a stunning Oriel window in the master bedroom. In the 1960s, however, a single storey flat roofed extension was added which was entirely out of character with the original house.

In order to bring the living accommodation of the property into the 21st century, we were asked to replace the existing extension with a new kitchen-living-dining area.  We created this with a pitched roof construction at 90 degrees to the main house, which is quite an unusual but successful solution that met with Conservation approval.

The master bedroom floor was still the original construction, with floor joists laid ‘flat’ so only the thinnest section of the timber takes the load. Over time this resulted in a very even floor. To correct this, the original floorboards were removed and individual timber firrings[1] were installed on the joists to provide a level surface on which a plywood diaphragm was installed.

Unfortunately for the builders, the original chestnut floorboards were not only very wide, but proved to be hard, brittle and very firmly fixed with an excessive number of pins to the joists. Because of their historical relevance however, the Conservation Officer required that the boards were retained for use elsewhere in the house.

This project also revealed the unexpected presence of a chimney breast and fireplace in what is currently an external wall of the main house, suggesting that the original house would have been longer at one time. This has now been boarded over to retain it as it cannot be expressed as an external feature.

Naturally, these challenges aren’t restricted to homes, but include the conversion and refurbishment of all historically important buildings.

In a 2017-20 project to refurbish a number of agricultural buildings on an estate to create an event space and holiday accommodation, an existing 40m long concrete portal frame piggery was converted. The existing concrete floor was excavated to install a new insulated floor with underfloor heating. During the excavation it was discovered that the original concrete floor had been poured onto an unusual base. Instead of the accepted construction of hardcore and sand as a stable sub-base, the farmer appears to have poured the screed directly onto a floor of cardboard eggboxes. We know this, because although the egg boxes decomposed over the years, the concrete set into the dips and ridges of the boxes so that their form was revealed.

Despite all the challenges, including additional pressures on time and budget, refurbishment can be a very rewarding process, strengthening the structure and fabric of your building and bringing a fresh aesthetic. Whether refurbishing internally or externally, extending or altering to provide more flexible and useful space for contemporary and future living, all serve to express a building’s history and ensure its future.

[1] A firring is a spline of tapered timber used to help change the levels in floors

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