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  • Laura Jessup

Flexible Heritage

The past 18 months has seen a massive shift in the way we all work. As more of us return to the workplace, we wonder if traditional approaches to commercial spaces have changed for good. Flexible solutions, adaptable spaces and built-in future-proofing are perhaps more important now than ever. As companies recover from a prolonged period of financial uncertainty, investment in old buildings can seem a risk, but we know from first-hand experience that old places can create amazing spaces for clients and still give strong returns on investment.

We are often told that old buildings are inflexible, and that designation is a barrier to economic viability. But our experience shows us that old buildings not only offer unique and attractive environments, but, with the right interventions, can keep on evolving to serve user needs well into the future.

Even before the pandemic, it was evident that the future of the workplace is neither rigid nor generic. The creation of workspace hubs, communal spaces and multifunctional rooms within historic properties was already well underway. The room layouts that were previously considered to be a hindrance, now seemed to offer ready-made solutions with large open spaces perfect for a communal set-up and small characterful offices well suited to businesses with flexi-working patterns . With over 400,000 listed buildings in England alone, we need to continue the trend of re-using those assets that are already in place in our towns and cities; not just because it’s a greener way to live, but because old buildings are still incredibly useful.

A good re-use scheme is one that can work beyond the right now. ‘Long life, loose fit, low energy’ principles surfaced in the 1970s, and are still relevant today. We approach our projects with the long-term in mind, encouraging clients to put aside pre-conceived ideas and start at the beginning - with a solid understanding of what their building was, what it is now and how to best harness that unique significance to create something new and useful. Successful heritage schemes can be endlessly adaptable if unnecessary interventions are avoided.

From small-scale independents to large-scale nationwide companies, businesses of all shapes and sizes can benefit from the unique features of listed buildings. They bring character, they draw people in, they tell a story and they provide spaces that can be recycled over and over again. They are perhaps the greenest solution to an ever-increasing climate emergency and their capacity to adapt and flex to fit changing work patterns is a huge advantage for both owners and occupiers.

More needs to be done to set out the financial benefits of re-using built heritage, but Historic England’s Heritage Counts reports are interesting reading,

· 1 in 4 businesses agree the historic environment is an important factor in deciding where to locate. For comparison, this is on a par with the importance of road access.

· Businesses that occupy listed buildings generate an average of £13,000 extra gross value added per year.

· Between 2012 and 2018, occupation of listed buildings by brand companies increased 154%

· Listed retail, office and industrial properties had returns equal to or higher than their non-listed equivalents (1980-2011).

We hope that the return to work will see a continuing move towards bringing the unused and unloved spaces that are still to be found in our cities, back into meaningful use. With the right approach, historic buildings could offer just the adaptable solutions the market needs right now.

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