Building Fabric Reuse: Looking to the past to solve the problems of today.

To quote a popular sentiment, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. While that might seem a bit of a cliché these days, there’s a lot we can learn from it. Don’t worry, we’re not trying to become your new life-coach. We’re keeping the attention firmly on what we do best.

In the realm of structural engineering, there’s a lot to learn from the methods and materials of the past. If we were to look at a history of structural engineering through the centuries, we’d get a clear picture of it’s evolution. We’d notice the incremental progress and iterations of building processes, evolving in line with material developments.

In the here and the now, the industry is heavily regulated to ensure all of our work is safe and long-lasting. The winds of change are shifting around how we can make the best of “space”, how we can smartly use material in such a way to minimise carbon production and engineering ‘know how’ to create spaces that provide a sense of place and improve wellbeing.

Answering all these questions in detail is beyond the scope of this piece but we will look at how our approach to the adaptive reuse and reinvention of old buildings can help us unlock the potential of sites, preserve historic fabrics and in doing so reduce carbon.  

Let’s talk reusing building fabrics.

What is fabric reuse?

Building fabric reuse is about taking the physical essence of an existing building and reinvigorating it with renewed purpose, function and even aesthetic value. It’s about embracing the existing bricks and mortar, beams and columns and even the foundations of a building, and integrating them into something new – something extraordinary. It’s the best kind of recycling, saving the environment and preserving history, all while being commercially astute.

Good for the Earth, Good for the Purse

The benefits of reusing building fabric are as many and varied as the materials themselves. Let’s start with the obvious: it’s eco-friendly. We’re reusing, not discarding, which means less demand for new materials, less waste, and a smaller carbon footprint. Mother Nature, you’re welcome.

Then, there’s the financial sense it makes. Why buy new when we have perfectly good, and sometimes even superior, materials at our disposal? Reuse can cut costs significantly – and let’s be honest, that’s an important motivator.

But let’s not forget the soul of the matter – our heritage. Reusing building fabric allows us to hold onto the past, to keep the story of a building alive. It’s not just a nod to aesthetics, but a celebration of cultural and historical significance.

The Not-So-Smooth Road to Reuse

Yes, reusing building fabric is beneficial, even romantic in its own right, but it’s not always a walk in the park. Some materials have a bit of wear and tear, and assessing their quality and durability can at times be a challenge. Also, there’s the tricky business of dismantling and storing these precious relics without damaging them. Let’s not even get started on the bureaucratic hurdles – building codes and regulations aren’t always as forward-thinking as we’d like.

All that being said, challenges are there to be overcome and who better to overcome them than engineers? With industry collaboration and engagement from policymakers, we can start to find solutions to these problems.

Recasting Our Heroes: Timber, Masonry, Steel and Foundations

Timber: The Old Reliable

Timber, with its raw beauty and resilience, is a prime candidate for reuse. Those old beams and boards can spring back to life in a heartbeat, but they do need a little TLC. Inspecting for decay, insect damage, or structural issues is a must, and some may need to be treated or reinforced before they’re ready to steal the show again.

Masonry: The Resolute Stand

Bricks and stone blocks are probably the first thing you notice when it comes to heritage buildings. Far from being just a simple structural component, they have an aesthetic that tells a story all of its own, holding up the weight of centuries. But before they’re ready for their next act, they need a good clean to remove old mortar and an assessment for structural integrity. Each stone and brick is unique, and their specific properties should be considered before reuse.

Steel: The Unyielding Backbone

Steel elements – the stoic heroes holding up many a modern edifice – can also join the reuse party. Steel doesn’t age like organic materials, but it still needs a thorough check-up. Corrosion, structural fatigue, or damage can sneak in, and the connections – crucial to the overall structural integrity – need particular attention.

One of the challenges of this is that it can be relatively pricey to test steel, not to mention the fact that such facilities are not particularly widespread. However, reusing steel as opposed to smelting new is still significantly cheaper and less carbon-intensive.

Foundations: The Unsung Hero

Even the foundations – the unsung heroes often overlooked – can be reused, particularly if the building footprint remains unchanged. It’s a complex process, though, involving a thorough analysis of load-bearing capacity, soil characteristics, and signs of settlement or damage. Geotechnical surveys and assessments might be required – all part of the grand adventure.

The Winds of Change in the Industry

For building fabric reuse to really spread its wings, we need a shift in the winds of the industry. Education is the first port of call; we need to shout the benefits of reuse from the rooftops and get everyone on board.

Next, we need a roadmap – guidelines, if you will, for assessing and incorporating reused materials into new structures. Regulations too need a makeover. It’s high time they shed their rigidity and embraced a future that accommodates reused materials. This could be, incentives for green buildings, or policies to discourage unnecessary demolition and waste. Of course, all of this should be achieved while still maintaining the very best standards of safety.

Practical support will be a boon. We need better supply chains for reused materials, training in dismantling techniques, and easier, more cost-effective methods of reuse. Let’s not forget the crucial role of research and development. Who knows what fascinating techniques we could discover for refurbishing older materials or innovative ways to repurpose them without compromising structural integrity or aesthetic value?

Putting reuse into practice and renaissance

Here at renaissance, we’re passionate about the potential that reusing fabric has for our industry. Here’s a short collection of projects where we’ve preserved and reused materials from the building itself, or materials (like steel) from other buildings.

The Press – The conversation of the Grade II listed Co-operative Press into 66 high-quality apartments and associated amenity space. The reuse and preservation of existing timber frames was used throughout this award-winning heritage project.

The Glassworks on Back Turner Street – The reimagining of a Grade II listed bottle factory into a modern office space. This project involved the preservation of the existing bricks and masonry of the front façade.

Castern Hall – Deep in the rugged beauty of the Staffordshire Peak District sits Castern Hall, a rural home steeped in history and heritage grandeur. The project involved preserving and providing remedial works to 18th-century masonry.

Salford Youth Zone – Salford Youth Zone will be a state-of-the-art space that dramatically expands the opportunities available to young people in Salford. The structural frame of the project used recycled steel.

Tapping into the potential of building fabric reuse

The past isn’t outdated; it’s a resource yet to be fully tapped. It’s about preserving our architectural heritage and promoting sustainability in the construction industry. It’s about taking on challenges head-on and utilising the potential of the past for a better future.

In the end, it’s not just about reusing materials, it’s about honoring their history and the memories they hold. So let’s roll up our sleeves, look to our old buildings, and usher in an era of responsible, creative, and sustainable engineering.