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Nov 2012

The complexity of listed buildings- Bob Ghosh, K4 Architects

Listed buildings should come with a bit of a health warning. They can become a costly obsession and are certainly not for everyone. A number of our institutional clients will always avoid bringing sites with listed buildings into their portfolio, given the inherent problems that they carry.

However, others see heritage as the means to create places and identity, which sometimes have immeasurable value in real estate terms.

K4 Architects are privileged to be working on some of the most significant heritage projects in Birmingham, including the Central Fire Station, Warwick Bar and The School Yard in Harborne. Although the assets are in levels of disrepair ranging from moderate to severe, without these buildings, the places would not have the same meaning or character. Through both their architecture and their historic uses, listed buildings add a layer of richness to the environment which cannot be otherwise created or manufactured. Nevertheless, the design process is far more involved and complex, as is the construction.

I sit in a quirky first floor office with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, a flagstone floor and a steel strongroom door. My view is a disused banana warehouse and cattle bridge and a historic stoplock, which later became the beginning of the Grand Union Canal. The room itself was Birmingham Canal Navigation’s archive room, where they kept canal records and probably cash collected in toll from the nearby lock. When we took the lease on this building, our instinct was not to modernise, but to peel back the layers of history. The 1970’s steel radiators therefore ended up in a skip and we reinstated all of the fireplaces, which we use to burn biomass.

In the case of the School Yard, the client EDG and K4 share this sense of fascination with the listed building. The essence of the project is to rediscover the inherent qualities of this building and make only subtle changes to the envelope and internal structure.