An RIBA President of the 1970s (Sir Alex Gordon) coined the phrase ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’, as a maxim for good building. I’ve always liked that, but few others seem to remember it. The low energy bit is now generally accepted, but the first two requirements (that buildings need to have a degree of permanence, and be capable of adaptation to a variety of uses over their lives) seem to be somewhat ignored. The intended life-span of a building is frequently unstated by designers, design is often tailored closely to current needs as if they are unlikely to change, and many buildings are structurally unsuited to adaptation. And yet it seems that most of my favourite buildings have lived long and chequered lives, served a variety of occupants, and been frequently adapted and refurbished.
Having travelled in and out of London’s Liverpool Street station during the Broadgate development of the 1980s and 90s (and had a number of students on placement at the project), I was horrified to read last week that two of the buildings are to be demolished for redevelopment. The Twentieth Century Society has called for the whole complex to be protected. Leaving aside architectural merit (whatever that may mean – as Prince Charles might have said) can it really make environmental sense to demolish apparently sound buildings a mere 20 or so years into what might have been an expected life of 60 or 80 years? There is a need for someone to assess the carbon implications of such decisions, taking account of the original environmental investment, the implications of demolition and replacement, and the opportunities for environmental improvement of the existing building. In my view there should be a strong presumption in favour of retention, backed up perhaps by planning consents indicating an intended design life, and requiring further consent for demolition within that period.
There is still a case, of course, for short-life structures – as London 2012 is demonstrating. It was always intended that the main athletics stadium would be, in part at least, a demountable structure – and it seems now that it will be converted into a football stadium for the West Ham club. The 12,000 seat basketball arena has been designed from the outset as a temporary structure, and there is a suggestion (The Spectator, 16.04.11) that it might be sold on to the organisers of the Rio 2016 Olympic games. There are many different ways of achieving sustainable construction – and all of them require a thoughtful approach to the life of the structure, however long or short that is going to be.