Blog: 15 May 2017Defurbishment: less really is more…

Martin Denley

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Martin Denley

Architectural Associate

Bristol office

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As our cities grow through urban intensification, rising employment within the business and commercial sectors has led to demand exceeding supply of high quality office space. Investors in both the private and public sectors are now increasingly looking beyond the capital to regional hotpots where there is further opportunity for growth and the potential for increased yield through stronger rental values. As a result, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol are all enjoying a high demand for Grade “A” office space.

As demand for new build “Grade A” accommodation outstrips supply, investors are increasingly turning to existing building stock and the opportunities these offer for re-invention. One approach to this, emerging from the growing creative industries/SME’s in Shoreditch and Clerkenwell in East London, and pioneered by Silicone Valley Tech Start-ups, has been labelled “Defurbishment”.

As early adopters of the low cost, short term lets in historically less commercially astute urban locations where there is little or no commercial demand, these occupants have concentrated on a design-led approach to their premises. The dated beige suspended ceilings are stripped back, along with the carpets and partitions to reveal the raw building fabric and a spirit of global austerity. As with the appeal of vintage fashion, the resultant architecture of distressed and aged beauty, seems to sit more comfortably/clash well with their tech led approaches.

In recent years, with our burgeoning creative industries in Bristol we have certainly seen this phenomenon grow. We have our fair share of gritty, defurbishment projects, but I am particularly interested to see this approach filtering into our mainstream commercial accommodation responses.

31 Great George Street in Bristol for example, was built in the late 80’s. An award winning, seven-storey , “Post-Modernist” building, its location in the heart of Brandon Hill Bristol Conservation Area, adjacent to Brandon Hill (Bristol’s oldest park) and offering commanding views of the Bristol skyline and historic Harbourside, has resulted in over 25 years of sole occupancy by Price Waterhouse Coopers. When brought into the project by the buildings new owners Hermes Asset management however, the building offered an outdated layout, with poor H&V systems, constrained floorplates, poor light levels and dated finishes.

Given the scale and location, conversion from office to residential and potential subdivision into multiple occupancies were both considered, but with rising local market values the most suitable use for the existing building remained office space.  What we could do differently however, was reflect some of the ‘defurbishment’ techniques, in order to provide greater flexibility and appeal, while also tackling the key challenges.

By stripping the building back to its concrete frame, we increased ceiling heights from 2.5m to 3.4m and could utilise the concrete mass to passively heat and cool the building. With this additional space and structure, we could experiment with lighting; suspended lights, up lights and a DALI lighting system; all of which enables users to adjust individual lights to suit their needs and requirements. A reinstated former lightwell was an added bonus in improving natural light and enabling us to provide passive stack ventilation.

The result is by no means the gritty exposed brick look of Shoreditch, but I feel we have taken the most appealing, beneficial elements of this approach, working under a ‘less is more’ ethos perhaps, to deliver maximum benefit for the occupant. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the buildings new occupants utilise the space for the next 25 years.

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Defurbishment, Refurbsishment, South West, Bristol, Great George Street