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Becoming a Conservation Architect

Gwyn Jones discusses his recent accreditation, a culmination of a career working with existing buildings.


I was delighted to recently gain my RIBA Conservation Architecture accreditation, a culmination of a career working with existing buildings. At Studio Egret West I have been fortunate to work on several outstanding examples of 1960s brutalist architecture including: Four Point Towers at Thamesmead, south-east London; Grace Owen Nursery as part of Park Hill in Sheffield; and Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London. Each project has brought different challenges to conserving the existing setting, form and fabric and offering a new 'second life'; below I discuss two of these schemes.

Grace Owen Nursery at Park Hill

Grace Owen Nursery was to be relocated as part of the first phase of Urban Splash’s redevelopment of Park Hill, Europe’s largest Grade II* structure. Studio Egret West and Hawkins/Brown collaborated on the initial masterplan for Park Hill, along with the detailed design of 300 homes and commercial units which completed in 2013. Studio Egret West then undertook the complete internal refurbishment of the existing Grace Owen Nursery School, which was completed in 2015.

The redevelopment of Park Hill embraced a radical conservation strategy, whereby the existing structural grid and megastructure was to be retained and conserved. At the ground condition, several mixed uses were proposed and full height glazing was used to embrace the landscape and to reveal the original structure.

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Grace Owen Nursery Model under construction
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Model of Grace Owen Nursery
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Following a cost reappraisal of the nursery, we re-planned the internal layout using a rectilinear language that responded to the rigorous grid of the structure with perimeter columns and central H-cores. Within the rectangular plan, we generated more playful spaces with short walls and square cut outs to make the spaces more dynamic as well as allowing for passive overlooking. As a conservation led fit out, we wanted to expose as much of the concrete as possible in the design, considering that that it had significant heritage value and had undergone substantial repair. We allowed for the concrete walls to be seen at high level above the finishes and to be revealed at the back of the bespoke joinery.

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It was important to retain the existing Grace Owen Nursery at Park Hill and allowing it to become part of its new identity. It was also very rewarding to work on a scheme that fitted in so well into the Park Hill megastructure and to provide a wonderful nursery for young children. The use of colour throughout the scheme added dynamic vibrancy to the scheme. And every so often a glimpse of the Park Hill megastructure can be seen.

Four Point Blocks, Thamesmead

For the Four Point Blocks at Thamesmead, I undertook a conservation led feasibility study for Peabody to investigate options for enhancing the setting and improving the existing fabric. The Four Point Towers represent a heroic modernist idea for the new town at the eastern edge of London. Despite the modernist planning and dramatic architecture, the Towers are not listed. I summarised that their significance was derived from: the urban plan and its social, political and cultural context; their setting beside Southmere Lake; and the brutalist architectural language. The Towers setting by the lake was both confident and problematic. There was no connection to the lake and the parks nearby, a raised concrete podium separated the pedestrian from the ground plain. We balanced the need to keep the setting and to bring new life to the ground condition.

The fabric of the Four Point Towers used a large concrete panel system. The Brutalist aesthetic was embodied in the white spar faced concrete panels with captivating corner window to the kitchen and generous full width insert balconies. To conserve this abstracted, brutalist fabric, we collaborated with the BRE in a workshop to examine the performance of the existing walls, floors and roof. Together, we developed new internal alterations that could be made to improve the internal environment.

The communal value of Thamesmead was confirmed when I attended a RIBA talk and exhibition in April 2019, to celebrate 50 years of the model town. The talk covered the history of the settlement and a critical appraisal, future development, cultural value and community. Dr Phil Askew of Peabody presented a future vision for Thamesmead. Consolidating the identity of Thamesmead is vitally important, and our conservation led approach to retaining the Four Point Towers would contribute positively to the next fifty years of Thamesmead.

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Concluding remarks

Remaking the three Brutalist buildings which I have worked on at Studio Egret West - Grace Owen Nursery at Park Hill, Balfron Tower in east London, and Four Points Tower at Thamesmead - is a balancing act of preserving a historical asset whilst developing a second life for them. My approach to conservation is based on researching the history and stories that lie behind each building. By gaining a deeper understanding of the site, context and the building fabric, I seek to establish the significance of the historical asset.

All three residential buildings embrace the modernist Megastructure concept where both change and adaption were intrinsic in the design. The service components and the interiors were meant to be changeable. At Park Hill, the megastructure was repaired and conserved whilst we worked within the concrete structure to give it a second life.

Our approach to conservation is to repair and reuse the existing structure, so that we retain existing embodied energy, and reduce the demand for new materials. We aim to achieve the best BREAAM rating for each of these second life projects based on their specific characteristics. Working with the BRE I was able to address poor internal environments by insulating inside the external walls, so that the brutal materiality was preserved. We modelled different insulation and wall build-ups – testing challenging internal junctions to ensure a contemporary standard of living could be achieved. By retaining the existing structures and engaging with the found landscape we sought to augment the existing communities to make these developments truly sustainable.

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Becoming a Conservation Architect