Flexible, Adaptable, Sustainable: Building for the Future

by Angela Connelly, School of Environment and Development

1 Angel Square: Central Atrium, (c) Matthew G. Steele

1 Angel Square: Central Atrium, (c) Matthew G. Steele

I recently had the opportunity to tour the newly opened (though only partially occupied) 1 Angel Square[1]: the latest addition to The Co-operative Group’s real estate portfolio. Led by the architects 3DReid, the tour began with an insight into the genesis of a building likened to a “sliced egg” or even a “walnut whip” (McLachlan 2013).

The Co-operative Group, we were reminded, has long been a visionary client. Whilst Manchester’s city centre still showed the scars of the 1940 Christmas blitz; rebuilding work being inhibited due to austerity, the Group commissioned what became the tallest structure in the UK: CIS tower. Opened in 1962, and Grade II listed in 1995, CIS Tower looms above a foundational podium: 25 storeys of glass, aluminium and black enamelled steel, a design that owed more in its conception to American skyscrapers than the concrete structures more commonly found throughout Europe (Forty 2012). Indeed, concrete and stone were not chosen because of their tendency to discolour owing to the polluting atmosphere (the Clean Air Act had only been passed in 1956).

CIS Tower fulfilled a wish that the building should add to the prestige of the Co-operative Group; improve Manchester’s appearance; and provide the very best in accommodation for their staff (Hartwell 2001: 241). The lush teak-clad interiors of the executive suites on the upper floors, designed by Mischa Black and the Design Research Unit, are now deemed inappropriate by the client because of the implied prestige and power they represent. More recently, when the mosaic tiles of the service tower needed replacing, the Co-operative Group retrofitted weather proof, photo-voltaic panels that generate electricity for the building in line with company commitments to tackle climate change. However, when it came to appraising the sustainable credentials of a portfolio of buildings that stretches across 150 years, it seemed rational to build afresh given the costs of refurbishing and retrofitting.

Whatever one thinks about the aesthetics of 1 Angel Square, its selling point is the outstanding BREEAM rating – the highest rating of any building in the UK – at 95 per cent (Wilding 2013). Some very old ideas in architecture such as passive ventilation and building orientation are integrated with the new. Building Information Modelling (BIM) aims to ensure that, up until the year 2050, the building will still function as originally intended given projected climate changes. 1 Angel Square’s double skin facade minimises heating and cooling loads by using brise-soleil. Further, the architects have fitted a closed loop energy system: the combined heat and power (CHP) units are fuelled by waste rapeseed oil produced on the Co-operative Groups UK farms. Not only adaptable to the future climate, the flexible (and democratic) office spaces are designed to be easily reconfigured or extended. This also responds to the perceived inflexibility of the CIS Tower’s working space given subsequent developments in technology and the changes wrought by mobile telecommunications.

Seduced by the superb views of Manchester available from the roof terraces on the 14th floor of 1 Angel Square, I nevertheless had a nagging question. It is not about sustainability, however that might be interpreted, instead, it is about “designing” flexibility and adaptability: how much can we anticipate? Here, my mind turns towards the past rather than the future.

Exterior Oldham Street October 2010

Exterior Oldham Street October 2010

The Albert Hall in Manchester

The Albert Hall in Manchester

The research for my thesis concerned a particular type of religious building. Not the traditional sort of church that immediately springs to mind with a Gothic spire, intricate detailing, naves, pews, and glory-unto-God. Rather, the Methodist Central Halls (those that do remain) are very commercial looking buildings. The first of their type is located on Oldham Street in Manchester. An innovative development at that time, the Methodists took the step of including rent producing shops on the ground floor – a necessity in a city with high land values (Connelly 2012). The brief for such churches, as I discovered, was relatively simple: the buildings had to be flexible and adaptable, sufficiently anonymous perhaps, should the Methodists have to sell the building. Alternatively, if a success, the rent-producing shops could be easily converted to religious work. They never were.

I suspect that most people who have had cause to enter the Manchester Central Hall recently may have done so to buy some music, attend a residents meeting, the Girl Guide’s HQ or perhaps a Weight Watchers meeting.  One lesson that I learned from looking at the Methodist Central Halls is that what one generation bequeaths to another is not necessarily a gift readily received. New becomes old, people move away, social practices change, the building becomes perceived as inflexible and constraining. Sometimes, someone new will come along with enough money and vision to turn it into something that has relevance today – as the bar chain Trof are doing with another old Methodist hall on Peter Street.

What such musings should highlight is that the relationship between building design and people is complex and not one-dimensional. Buildings should be regarded as systems that need to work as a whole and nourish the human beings who use it. They change slowly; often imperceptibly. And they need to be studied in their entirety: not only in terms of space but also time. Their meaning will subtly alter and this can be traced through narratives of buildings at work. As the sociologist Thomas Gieryn (2002: 35) points out:  “They [buildings] are forever objects of (re) interpretation, narration and representation – and meanings and stories are sometimes more pliable than the walls and floors they depict.”

When the ecologist Stewart Brand wrote How Buildings Learn (1994), he identified three forces that result in change: technology, money, and fashion. He inverts Louis Sullivan’s classic dictum: “Form ever follows function” to become “function reforms form” (Brand 1994: 3) and in doing so points out that how buildings learn over time is just as important as the question of how they are designed in the first place.   In a similar vein, Richard Sennett lauds the inventiveness and innovativeness that comes through the repair and restoration of old buildings (Sennett 2012).

And so, I come back to 1 Angel Square. The real test will also come through time; there will undoubtedly be a period of social learning whereby the occupants will have to adapt their behaviour. One hopes that it will indeed realise the Co-operative Group’s aims and that it can act as a catalyst to regenerate what has been a problematic area for the city planners. But I suspect that time, and occupancy, will also result in a slow realisation that the initial ideas are not as flexible as presumed: what new technologies are around the corner? Just how far, and what knowledge do we take into account, when planning for the future?

References

Brand, S. 1994. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (London and New York: Viking)

Connelly, A. 2012. “A pool of Bethesda: Manchester’s first Wesleyan Methodist Central Hall”, The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library  [special edition ‘Architecture and Environment: Manchester in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’], 89:1, 105-12

Forty, A. 2012. Concrete and Culture: A Material History. (London: Reaktion Books).

Gieryn, T. 2002. “What Buildings Do,” Theory and Society, 31:1, 35-75.

Hartwell, C. 2001. Manchester, Pevsner Architectural Series. (Yale: Yale University Press).

Sennett, R. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. (Yale: Yale University Press).

Wilding, M. 2013. “3DReid scoops highest ever BREEAM rating”. 17th January, Building Design [online]. http://www.bdonline.co.uk/sustainability/3dreid-scoops-highest-ever-breeam-rating/5048575.article

McLachlan, J. 2013. “Co-op’s vast Manchester HQ by 3DReid” 18 February, OnOffice [online]. http://www.onofficemagazine.com/projects/item/1917-co-ops-vast-manchester-hq-by-3dreid


[1] http://www.co-operative.coop/estates/Developments/1AngelSquare/

 

Angela Connelly is a Research Associate at the University of Manchester. She completed her thesis at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre in 2011, a collaboration with the Methodist Church Property Office and funded under the AHRC/ ESRC Religion and Society Programme.

She is interested in how people, buildings and institutions innovate and adapt over time. She is currently working on the EU-FP7 Project: Smart Resilient Technologies, Tools and Systems and is developing best practice guidance to flood resilience technologies for England and Wales.

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