Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Rock and Roll Architecture

The Boilerhouse Battersea. Not actually a conversion by temporary internal structures but close enough.



I have been imagining ways to reuse redundant buildings. There's nothing unusual in that yet I can't find any examples, some close but not quite, of what I have in mind. 

In my part of Suffolk we have several churches without sufficient congregations to support them and rural agencies have been approached by people looking for ways to protect those buildings and keep them in use. The church authorities could be amenable to leasing them for a socially useful purpose. There also happen to be some nice water towers.

Suffolk generally lacks backpacker or otherwise affordable accommodation for visitors on a budget  yet East Anglia has plenty to attract them.

So we should consider how to convert one into the other. After all, St Paul was a tent maker.

Things to consider:

Many of our churches, water towers and similar buildings are in a place of natural beauty so such adaptation should not impact the exterior.

They also have a historic interior fabric that the owners (and the community around it) wouldn't take kindly to significant amendment.

Churches are strapped for cash to maintain them. Home owners with chancel repair liabilities are refusing to pay them.

There isn't much demand in Suffolk for more community space like village halls or much excess demand for space that can't be met by village halls. Yet some village halls and now-redundant schools have realised the potential market for accommodation and have considered part conversion as hostels as a way of making their buildings sustainable.

Funds from investors and public agencies are likely to be tight but there are many social benefits from local skills development and such plans could be a catalyst for employment.

Both churches and water towers offer large interior volumes but don't have much infrastructure, in the way that you would use to convert an old prison into a hotel. Converting buildings to high specification sleeping accommodation is naturally expensive but spartan accommodation need not be uncomfortable.

Architecture can be exciting. Sleeping/staying in a novel space can add value to the experience.

I imagine a solution lies with the reuse of modular building components combined with tensile fabric structures, warehouse racking and flooring and portable kitchen and bathroom units with the portable utility distribution systems that are already on the market. That approach could enable the adaptation of sensitive buildings with large but delicate interior spaces into multi purpose accommodation which would protect the historic fabric and, if need be, could be removed later leaving the original structure intact.

I call this approach 'rock and roll architecture'. It takes the technology widely used in festival staging, film production and circuses who turn up and erect a village overnight then move on without a trace.


A tent erected inside a Berkeley barn to house a NMR machine at a critical constant temperature.
School library reading area made of recycled waste materials from nearby furniture factory

At one particular site I know, it looks possible to bring in modular kitchen and bathroom units and erect a mezzanine floor above them with wooden beach huts (with a nod to nearby Southwold) for sleeping accommodation. A translucent fabric tent suspended from the ceiling - or even a bog standard wedding marquee - would cut down the draughts and protect the interior to be the common areas.


Yoshitomo Nara + graf installation in Baltic, Gateshead 2008
Stacking on mezzanines. Small caravans could be dismantled and rebuilt indoors as private space.

This image an Amsterdam theatre set from 2005 designed by Catherina Scholten for a production of Checkov’s Ivanov went viral on the internet as a  'Hillbilly High-rise'.
scaffolding and lino samples recycled into mezzanine cafe
one of many sleeping pod ideas on the market

This approach is similar but quite different to the now commonplace reuse of shipping containers or modular outdoor structures for accommodation. One challenge is although you don't have the weather proofing problems building inside an old church, access could be a lot tighter. All materials might have to come through a 6' x 6' door. Ideally the heating plant could be housed in a trailer next door. Human waste might need a macerator to transport it to the sewers as it might not be routed underground. 

I think a plastic design and build approach is feasible. If you needed to extend or adapt or completely rethink a project, the construction methods are simple and cheap enough to allow experiment and find the optimum solutions by trial and error. While temporary structures are not as durable as permanent conversions, they probably have a much faster ROI and there is the advantage that if a hostel - or another use - doesn't pan out, then there isn't an expensive white elephant left behind. But if the plan does work, then de-installation won't create a huge amount of waste nor significantly increase the cost of conversion.

I don't know if temporary adaptation has as much planning regulation as permanent structures but from what references I see, it don't think so. Certainly the best way to preserve historic buildings is to keep them in use. Materials used in portable and modular construction are generally already compliant with fire and structural regulations. A social enterprise set up to undertake conversion projects would be using low-tech production methods that are rapidly scalable and the learning and skills of the personnel - which might be recruited from NEETs - will be transferable into other occupations, along with the materials and techniques being compatible over a range of sites.

The only example of internal temporary structures I have been able to find so far is All Souls Church in Bolton. OMI Architects have got approval to convert a redundant church into a community centre by erecting pods inside the existing space. This bespoke solution is more permanent, and at £3 million pounds, much more expensive than what I envisage but it serves to illustrate the potential.

Architect Jim Eyre who created the 12,000 seat basketball arena, one of the biggest temporary structures ever built for an Olympics, told the Independent: "We're seeing intensive use of temporary structures and in future Olympics I expect this to increase.. I find the idea of 'nomadic architecture' appealing. Temporary buildings can become more adaptable, transportable or reconfigurable."


If you are a vendor or property owner or community interested in the reuse of buildings in this way, please get in touch.

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Bolton All Souls - OMI Architects

Tensile fabric is great for structures and space dividers
MiNO by Antonio Ravalli Architetti
Antonio Ravalli Architetti
PKL modular kitchens


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