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Last edited 24 Nov 2023
Repurposing of buildings
Of the many terms associated with works to existing buildings, it is perhaps an overlooked aspect of architectural intervention. One might say the last forgotten R in the types of works to existing buildings, after refurbishment, remediation, renovation, restoration, and retrofit. Repurposing may involve some of the afore mentioned works but not always. It is not a new concept but it in a world of material scarcity and rapidly changing societal dynamics, particularly after the pandemic, it is a concept that is becoming increasingly contemporary.
In terms of planning, the repurposing of a building may be considered a change of use, depending on the existing use class, the intended future use class and the intended period of use. Under current planning laws (The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) England, Order 2015) there are various existing use classes, some of which include permitted development rights for temporary use, which mean a planning application is not required. For more permanent changes of use or between specific use classes a planning application may be required, in either case if involved in the temporary or permanent change of use of a building it is recommended to seek further advice from the local authority.
 Informal repurposing of buildings
Many examples of repurposing are overlooked precisely because they are informal, often temporary solutions to make use of existing empty spaces based on immediate needs. For example the gradual conversion of London's canal-side warehouses into artists' studios in the 70's and 80's, then to live / work units in the 90's, many finally ending up as high end housing. Likewise informal or arranged 'squatting' of empty office buildings in cities such as London, New York, Rotterdam and others, in some cases by arrangement as a means of creating active security in a building, preventing illegal squatting.
There are many specific examples of temporary repurposing of buildings for particular uses, for example in Central London the charity Crisis runs the Crisis at Christmas appeal, which calls for empty buildings across the capital in the lead up to Christmas. After empty buildings are located, which have previously been banks, offices, warehouses, religious buildings, schools and so on, a team of volunteers set about converting them into a Christmas centre with sleeping accommodation, a restaurant, cafe, hairdressing salon, washing station, clothes station and so on. The centres then remain open and fully staffed by volunteers for around one month over the festive season.
 Formal repurposing of buildings
Other forms of repurposing might be more formal and often related to the historical significance of a certain structure, one where the previous use was no longer relevant. There are many examples of often iconic, often industrial buildings that are no longer required to function as originally intended but gain a new lease of life through repurposing. Some of the best known examples in London include urban power stations converted into cultural centres, such as Bankside Tate Modern, Wapping power station or the long awaited redevelopment and repurposing of Battersea power station. There are also many other categories of repurposed buildings for cultural uses from war time bunkers in Berlin to water towers in Norfolk, factories to maker spaces, warehouses to schools, church buildings to cafes and swimming pools to skate parks.
More recently both in New York, London and some financial districts that have been struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and new ways of working have resulted in swathes of empty office buildings. This is increasingly being seen as a potential solution to the housing crisis in cities, looking to more formally repurpose high rise offices as residential units. In 2022 The Guardian reported that as much as one fifth of the office space in London and the south-east of England may not be required in the post-pandemic world of work, as employees spend less time at their desks. Many of these more permanent approaches to repurposing will not only require individual planning permissions locally but may require actual changes to planning policies for wider areas. In 2023, the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams issued recommendations for zoning changes and tax incentives to large commercial areas in the city, which it is thought could free-up, up to 136 million square feet (12.5 million m2) of office space to be potentially converted in to residential units. This has led many to ask if London might look to do the same ?
- Alterations to existing buildings.
- Change of use class.
- Do the building regulations apply to works to existing buildings?
- Live/work unit.
- Material amendment.
- Material change of use.
- Minor material amendment.
- Non material amendment.
- Planning permission.
- Permitted development.
- Renovation v refurbishment v retrofit.
- Types of work to existing buildings
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