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  • Writer's pictureTim Carter

The art of re-imagining and retrofitting an existing building

There are over 28 million buildings in the UK, many of which aren’t fit for purpose. That’s why creatively re-imagining and retrofitting existing buildings can not only breathe a new lease of life into outdated structures, but transform them into beautiful, functional energy-efficient spaces, fit for the 21st Century.

We’ve worked with clients to completely transform existing buildings in their appearance, energy consumption and their function. We’ve re-imagined beautiful and characterful traditional buildings into low-energy homes, and we’ve completely transformed ugly houses into spectacular spaces, unrecognisable from their origins.

The challenges with transformation are often greater than with designing something new. We recognise that properties of different ages were designed to function differently in terms of spaces, energy, moisture and structure, and therefore we consider their needs in a bespoke manner, along with the brief, to avoid common pitfalls.

These six key considerations reflect the way in which we work, and are key to ensure that your re-imagination is successful, and doesn’t create new problems while trying to solve existing ones.

This Cotswold cottage had its energy strategy overhauled, adding significant insulation and air tightness throughout, while ensuring that the character of the building - provided through exposed timber beams and stone walls - was retained. The layout which had been convoluted through decades of alterations was simplified, reducing the circulation spaces and making better, lighter, more enjoyable spaces.

  1. Let’s be imaginative (but know the limitations). We like to think that with creativity we can transform any ugly ducking of a building into a swan, but it’s important to understand the fundamental limitations, such as planning policy and local vernacular, or structure. We use our experience and design acumen to develop all elements to create the best design solution. This has led to us successfully challenging planning policy, securing approval for more adventurous and better designed solutions, and importantly achieving designs which are better value for our clients.

  2. More space isn’t necessarily the answer. Light, flow and views are just a few things which affect how big a space feels, and such an holistic design will not only feel more spacious, but function better for you. It’s easy to design an extension which solves a spatial problem, but as it’s typically more expensive to extend than reconfigure, so we prefer to start by ratifying the existing and work with you to understand if the existing spaces can be cleverly adapted to meet your aspirations, to save you money overall.

  3. Consider energy retrofit at the heart. Recent price increases for energy have improved awareness of our dependency on external energy, and the lack of control we have over its cost. Therefore when undertaking significant building works we will design a bespoke sustainability strategy - a long term plan of controlling temperature, moisture and comfort which will help reduce your energy dependence. This solution might lead the design, e.g. retrofitting the building to an Enerphit standard, or be led by it, such as a phased plan to reduce your energy reliance, improve your comfort and help the wider environment by the time you’ve completed all of your phases.

  4. Understand any fundamental problems. The temptation to start with the superficial - a new modern kitchen, or add an extension, while perfectly valid ideas which may be part of the final solution, don’t necessarily reflect the fundamental problems which the building faces. Particularly if you have only recently occupied it, it’s easy to overlook a particular problem. We work to help you avoid missing structural, damp, ventilation or insulation problems which may only otherwise become apparent part way through the construction phase, or which manifest themselves several months after you’ve finished it, either of which can unexpectantly - and potentially significantly - cost you.

  5. Some things are prohibitively expensive. Some solutions are inherently more expensive. For example proposing to make an older single storey building two-storey is likely to expose limitations on the existing foundations which will incur significant costs. Our experience allows us to avoid suggesting a design solution which will inherently build in costs and later in the project either force you to compromise the ideas later on, or add unexpected cost.

  6. There becomes a point where it might be better to start again. There’s a certain romance in knowing that a solution was adapted from the original, but sometimes the constraints are too much to economically transform a building, or forces a solution which is compromised too far. It might be that the ceilings are too low, or that the structure is in terrible condition. It may be that the embodied carbon of the transformation is far greater than for a new building, or that the 20% VAT payable on retrofit works outweighs a zero-rated VAT solution for new. Especially if the original lacks character, there are times when considering the site as a canvas can lead to better, more efficient and more exciting design.

Whether you want to re-imagine and transform your existing house into a beautiful energy-efficient home or perhaps replace it with a incredible Passivhaus, we can guide you through the journey.

At the Willows, previous extensions had led to poor quality internal spaces. By removing some of these and rearranging the ground floor we created a series of separate but connected family spaces allowing the family to undertake individual activities or come together. Designed around maximising open space and daylight, a new contrasting element was constructed sitting alongside the existing house, successfully challenging planning policy to create a strong design and fantastic home.


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