Old buildings bite back - but it's exactly those twists that make refurbs so rewarding

The Lego building at Reading University, designed by Howell Killick Partridge & Amis and due to be remodelled by Hawkins Brown

The thrill of repurposing a historic building is worth the inevitable headaches, argues Nicola Rutt

To embark on any kind of refurbishment is to take a step into the unknown, and requires a very different mindset from that for a new-build. There is continuous dialogue between existing building and project team, sometimes calm and acquiescent, often argumentative and unpredictable. It is difficult to know how much the building will submit to the requirements of the brief, and how much it will resist. But from this struggle comes real creative opportunity.

A building’s presence goes beyond the physical and plays a part in local history, ingrained to varying degrees in the memories of local people. Many buildings are in the background and go almost unnoticed until plans are made to alter or demolish them. Often, we do not realise that we care about a building, or have some level of emotional attachment to it, until it is threatened, when suddenly our memories come rushing to the front of our minds.

The philosopher Alain de Botton describes how works of architecture ‘talk to us’ in his foreword to Architectural Voices by David Littlefield and Saskia Lewis (2007). His theory is that our attraction to a building is more than aesthetic, relating also to ‘certain moods that they seek to encourage’ and ‘an attraction to a particular way of life’ that the building promotes through its architectural features.

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