Heritage reinvented: the architects bringing heritage buildings back to life

As demand for more residential and commercial space in our inner cities continues to grow, architects are helping to give new life to Australia’s stock of heritage buildings.

For some architects, such as Terence Yong, the opportunity to find a new role for a building dating back 100 years or more is the ultimate professional challenge.

“I’m a retrospective person,” says the Sydney-based architect. “I love old music that no-one in my age group likes. That’s why heritage projects suit me.”

One of Yong’s most recent heritage projects was transforming a former Catholic convent tucked down a tiny Surry Hills’ alleyway into a contemporary 35-room hotel called the Little Albion Guest House.

“Our idea was to celebrate the life of the former convent and at the same time celebrate the heritage precinct in which it is set,” he explains. “The convent is surrounded by a church and a school hall, plus a row of workers’ cottages. So we also needed to consider what impact the new guesthouse would have on the neighbours.”

Little Albion Hotel by Terence Yong Architecture.

Where possible, Yong tries to source building materials, such as traditional brick and roof tiles, that are sympathetic to the original construction. “Finding new building products that reference the past and are locally available is particularly helpful,” he says.

At the same time, Yong is adamant that old buildings must incorporate new design techniques and modern materials if they are to remain relevant in the 21st century. He cites the WorkHouse, a small commercial building in Sydney’s Chinatown dating from the 1950s. “This is the first Harry Seidler-designed office and retail building that has been transformed into a first-of-its-kind boutique workplace with a mid-century twist and a social sustainability agenda,” he says.

Despite the restrictions imposed by numerous heritage laws, practitioners say that the rewards of this type of work far outweigh any inherent frustrations. Balancing the demands of a building’s heritage value and the need to find a relevant adaptive purpose is something that has dominated the professional life of Perth architect Philip Griffiths – a man who has worked on some of Western Australia’s most significant heritage sites, including the Archbishop’s Palace, His Majesty’s Theatre, Fremantle Prison and Rottnest Island Cottages.

While the availability of specialist building materials and techniques has made the task of preserving old, poorly maintained buildings a little easier, Griffiths says that essential challenge of the heritage architect is unchanged.

“A lot of what we do is unpicking bad maintenance or neglect,” he says. “Most often, neglect has some water problem at its heart. Sometimes we are simply fixing the mistakes of previous restoration projects.”

Products such as Helifix’s Helibar – twisted stainless steel used to reinforce cracked brickwork – and new silicone paints have made the job of preserving older buildings a little easier, although Griffiths says sourcing bespoke materials can still prove a challenge in Australia.

“When we worked on Dumas House [a 14-storey government office block in Perth dating from the 1960s] it took us two years to find the glazed tiles that we needed,” he says. “We were able to source them from Bristile Roofing.”

Dumas House by Griffith Architects.

Like Yong, Griffiths spends a considerable amount of time researching the history and evolution of a heritage building before doing any drawing.

“It’s also about exploring all the layers of a place,” he says. “For example, we’re currently working on a project in Hobart where they began building in the 1830s but later rubbed that out and started again. But all those layers are still there and need to be respected.”

Thanks to the work of activists and historical societies, public awareness of Australia’s heritage stock – some of it, like Dumas House, from the mid to late 20th century – is now higher than at any time in the nation’s history.

Griffiths has also seen a shift in the attitude of clients who are now more flexible in their commercial expectations, allowing the building to retain its design integrity.

“The property industry is more sophisticated these days,” he says. “In the past, a lot of people came with the attitude of, ‘How much can we cram into the available space?’ But now there are more people asking, ‘What is this place telling us we can do?’ – which is a huge flip around.”

Despite the strict conditions imposed by a heritage listing, Griffiths says that with the correct research and an innovative design brief, most old buildings can be successfully preserved and repurposed for future use. “The compromise is generally when you have to reconcile what the building wants and what the client wants,” he says. “Or you have to reconcile that there is not enough money to get the outcome you would like.”

Of course, the heritage landscape is not uniform across Australia. Some states are less sympathetic than others to the notion of preserving decaying old buildings, preferring to clear heritage sites for new development.

Maurice Potrzeba, a specialist heritage bricklayer in Brisbane, says that while Queensland is now moderating its obsession with glass and concrete, sourcing suitable bricks remains a challenge in the state.

“In the south, when an old building is demolished the bricks are usually cleaned up and recycled, but in Brisbane most of them are used for road base,” he says.

Potrzeba, a fifth-generation bricklayer, has worked on most of Queensland’s major heritage projects over the past 20 years. His firm specialises in repointing, tuck pointing, stone masonry and other traditional techniques

“Everything is still done by hand,” he says. “Even our repointing is done by manually pushing the mortar into place. In other parts of Australia, they use a gun which I don’t believe gives such a satisfactory result.”

An exponent of traditional building crafts, Potrzeba tries to source all of his materials locally, but due to the lack of heritage-style bricks, must source these from Britain. “I only use traditional materials, so I often need to get specialist bricks made in the UK and sent here, but I do look locally and the situation is starting to improve.”

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