Interview: Stuart Harrison on adaptive re-use

Feb 23, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Australian Design Review: What is adaptive re-use and why is it important?
Stuart Harrison: Adaptive re-use is the reconditioning of building stock from one use to another to maintain that building and to give it a new life, to reimagine it without knocking it down, which is far more sustainable. Fundamentally, the most amount of energy involved in building a building is in building a building – if there’s part of a building you can retain and re-use, you’re already winning hands-down, from an energy point of view. The problem is that energy rating schemes don’t take that into account yet, but eventually they will.
It’s an idea that developed in the seventies, but it’s back with a critical vengeance.

ADR: What makes for a good adaptive re-use project and what are the key challenges in delivering one?
SH: I think a good adaptive re-use project is neither too disrespectful to an existing building nor too precious with it. Unless it’s a fine piece of heritage stock, it’s a real opportunity to remodel things, treating them well but aggressively too. It doesn’t have to be a very subtle exercise.
Some of the key challenges are discovering things in a project that are unexpected that can add risk and cost to a project. Other things are to do with compliance, logistical issues regarding access and construction – it’s more complicated to work with existing buildings, and the construction industry, and to some extent the consultancy industry, has historically been set up on the premise of an empty site, because ultimately it’s easier than having to work out what’s going on with pre-existing conditions. But good architects who work with existing buildings produce remarkably good outcomes. I think one of the ways you do that is about showing off some of the existing building where you can.

ADR: The Boral Design Award challenge is about delivering a mixed-use, medium density residential building through adaptive re-use. What qualities should a good example of this typology have?
SH: Well, that it is actually mixed-use, that it’s not just residential from the first floor and failed retail on the ground floor, that there is genuine activation happening at the street level. Residential also shouldn’t be singular in its type, there should be a diversity of housing options. Mixed use should be creatively thought about, and not necessarily just the urban cliché of cafes on the ground floor with housing above.

ADR: Australian Design Review ran a feature on its ‘top five Australian residential adaptive re-use projects‘ a few weeks ago. What would be your ‘top five’ local picks (of any typology)?
SH: Paddington Reservoir Gardens by TZG, NMBW’s Building 45 at RMIT, Hill Thalis’ Substation no. 175, Maria Gigney’s The Barn, and the Smith Street (ware)house by Terroir.

Images (1) Smith Street (ware)house by Terroir, photo by Jonathan Wherrett; (2) Paddington Reservoir Gardens by TZG, photo by Brett Boardman; (3) RMIT Building 45 by NMBW, photo by Peter Bennetts; (4) Substation no. 175 by Hill Thalis, photograph by Brett Boardman; (5) The Barn/Strangio House by Maria Gigney, photo by Matthew Newton.

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09 Apr 12 at 2:32 PM • Anna

The Centre for Design at RMIT actually found that only about 30% of the energy used by a building over it’s total life cycle was in the building materials, though only about 10% for inefficient buildings, and up to 50% for highly efficient ones. Though this does assume a life cycle of 50 years, which might be pushing it for a lot of new buildings…

I think it’s important to think of how a material will be disposed of at the end of it’s life. I did some relatively quick calculations for a client a while ago and found that using timber sheeting externally was actually worse in terms of embodied energy than FC sheet, because if at the end of it’s life the timber just goes to land fill, it just rots and releases methane.


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