adapting and repurposing heritage buildings for modern day use

Many heritage buildings were built for a use that does not exist today.  But the best way to conserve an important building or site is to use it.

Adapting heritage buildings can be complex, but if well considered the outcomes can be rewarding. Anything new used needs to be compatible with the building.  This includes retaining the historic character and conserving the significant fabric.  But in doing so, it does not always mean mimicking the construction techniques or aesthetic of the old work.. new work my blend well with the old and introduce new services for today’s use.

Adaption typically requires new work, which must be informed by an understanding and analysis of a heritage buildings significance, its character and quality.  It should result in a design which creates a relationship between the more contemporary solution.  Key to the relationship between the old and the new is a respect for the old and the inspiration it provides for the new work.  Sometimes there is a community perception that historic fabric must be matched or mirrored.  This is not necessarily the case, whilst planning policy encourages the retention and reuse of heritage items, it also promotes new development that positively contributes to that historic context.  They key document guiding conservation practice in Australia, The Burra Charter; the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places or Cultural Significance, has been adopted by the Heritage Council of NSW and underpins development principles.  A great publication which examines ‘adaptive reuse’ is New Uses for Heritage Places written by the Heritage Office, NSW Department of Planning and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter.  The publications suggest that ‘Adaptation does not mean imitation or following inflexible rules.  A wide range of solutions to a design problem may emerge after careful analysis and sympathetic interpretation.’


Perway Railway Store Building

Webber Architects have used the interpretive approach on the historic Perway Railway Store Building located between Workshop Place and Harbour Square, in Honeysuckle, Newcastle.  This adaptive re-use project is for the Forum Health and Wellness Centre owned by University of Newcastle Sport.  The new works are within the heritage listed Civic Railway Workshops from 1856 which are listed on the State Heritage register.  The underlying principles of the health and wellness centre were to maintain important aspects of the existing building, mainly the sense of scale and size of the internal volume along with an interpretation of the building’s previous use.  The concept was to keep new internal structures independent of the existing fabric allowing the new development to maintain a ‘minimum and reversible impact’ on the significant fabric of the building.  New building work was detailed in a contemporary manner which while substantial, touches the building lightly.


Alison Homestead

A similar approach is now being used again for the Alison Homestead which is listed on the Wyong Shire Council LEP. Throughout the design process advice has been sought from John Carr, Heritage Architects (as with Perway Building).  The proposed works are a blend of old and new encompassing the ‘remnants’  of the past.  The additions to the building is well separated from the surviving portion and designed in a modern style, but subservient to the original, so as not to dominate.  The new buildings encompass open spaces more in context with the new uses.  This pavilion has been designed to reflect the surviving portion of the homestead.  The separation of the two dominant areas by the central courtyard and offices allows the original pavilion to remain the dominant part of the complex with the second display room still obvious on site for function and displays.  Metal roofs have been selected to reflect the earlier corrugated iron roofs of the oldest part of the homestead.  Walls are to be constructed in masonry for the building separating the two display areas, with the display area clad in corrugated roof and wall cladding and fibrous cement end cladding in grid panels.  Internally the new works will be finished in modern materials and detailing, while the restoration works will be undertaken to reflect the finishes of the original building.

A chimney from the most severely damaged section of the complex will be retained as part of the development.  Additionally, the outline of the original complex is to be reflected in the landscaping and siteworks to provide visitors with an understanding of the original size of the complex and its relation to the surviving photographs of the site.

By using a combination of techniques suitable to the building and its desired purpose, heritage buildings can both reflect their past and also become something entirely new all together.

Written by Jon Webber, Director at Webber Architects 


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