Skip to main content

Repurposing spaces in our built environment – the time, the place

Repurposing By Gary Rollison, Partner, Structural Engineering – 22 February 2023

Velvet chairs in front of a central fireplace in a dark walled plush lounge


Gary Rollison sitting on sofa arm with marble background

Gary Rollison

View bio

It is fair to say that the world has changed significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic. What we do as well as where and how we do it. Nearly every aspect of our lives has changed: living, working or our social/leisure time. Seeds of change had already been planted before the pandemic, only for the ensuing worldwide events to bring about more rapid proliferation of changes to our daily habits.

The changing face of our high streets is evidenced by data from the Centre for Retail Research which has shown a steep rise in retail space vacancies, known as ‘voids’ in the retail sector. In years past the steady void rate was typically around 3% but by 2018 it had sharply risen to 11.1%. By 2021 it jumped to 15.8% even before the full impact from the pandemic was realised. In the commercial workplace sector, a report for the The Times has suggested there is now enough empty office space in London to fill 45 skyscrapers.

Essentially what is happening right now for many places, be they town centres, high streets or once bustling cityscapes, is a scenario where existing buildings, originally designed and built for a particular use, are now simply in the wrong place for their intended purpose. The answer however is not to knock down and start again. Many buildings can remain with some simple thinking as to how a new, re-purposed use could bring it back to life.

How can we do this? We need to start thinking outside the box. Just because a building was built as a shop or office – why does it need to stay that way? Forgetting the original purpose and need for a building allows for huge opportunity in most built stock for it to be re-invented for current and future needs that are more suited to its placement. People’s habits have changed and the built environment needs to adapt too, but without wholesale rebuilding to deliver the new uses for the needs of today and the future.

A key example of how we have delivered such re-invention and re-purposing is the new Amano Hotel in London’s West End. We worked with Manex Properties who saw the vision of how a building sited in what had become the wrong place for an office could be absolutely the right place at the right time for a hotel.

The Amano Hotel in Covent Garden now offers 141 boutique bedrooms with a roof terrace bar offering panoramic views across London’s theatre district and the West End. A world away from the dead-pan five-storey 1980’s office building that was seeing increasing floor vacancy. Located on Drury Lane, the Amano group saw the potential of the location and capitalised on the demand from local theatregoers and tourists. After early involvement from our structural engineers, it became apparent that the existing building could sustain the addition of another two floors to the building for highly valuable hotel rooms, and vitally the rooftop bar, the jewel on the crown.

Gaining a thorough understanding of the original building’s design was of vital importance in beginning to show how this building could be repurposed for a new beginning as a hotel. Our structural engineers were able to successfully hunt down all sources of record and knowledge to gain that understanding and go on to enable the client to fulfil all their aspirations for the future hotel.

Repurposing longstanding and readily adaptable building stock such as the Amano hotel has many advantages, the greatest being the saving in embodied carbon. Doing so also brings about considerable savings in demolition and re-construction cost, as well as programme savings in delivering a building back to its new market more rapidly.

Former office and retail spaces frequently fit perfectly into a wide range of re-purposing uses. Offices designed in the 1980’s and 90’s often provided for higher floor use loads compared to those of today. Because of this, the greater capacity in older buildings can be ‘redistributed’ by adding floors still within the buildings. This could be used effectively for re-purposing to hotels or residential where loading requirements per equivalent floor would be lower than original floors.

The opportunities presented by what has now become a significant volume of redundant retail space across the UK both in high streets and shopping centres are huge. Typically, the large volume spaces that former retail units can provide allow for a whole spectrum of re-use, especially leisure entertainment which is highly compatible with accompanying residual retail placement. This creates an all-round social venue, extending stay time and offering footfall benefits.

Such re-purposing opportunities of buildings that have become obsolete in their ‘place’ are immense. We are seeing a significant trend where the roofs of less used multi-storey car parks are being re-purposed for leisure uses such as social tennis clubs, five-a-side football, bars and ‘street food’ hubs. Retail spaces of all sizes are being re-used for multi-floored "play" centres including e-karting tracks, bowling, indoor golf, escape rooms and e-games, delivering entertainment for all ages as well as providing continuity of use and income. There is also a vital need for our high streets and the shopping centres in them to become better focus points for urban communities and so the likes of medical and health centres, local authority centres as well as residential apartments are all re-uses that can comfortably ‘fit’ into former retail spaces.

The repurposing opportunity is endless and offers huge benefits all round whether to owners of those buildings with redundant use or those seeing an acquisition and re-purpose potential.

Please get in touch to talk about how we can help across our various disciplines and how we can bring new life back to your buildings. Additionally, our sustainability specialists can help you get to a place of meeting future ‘brown’ to green’ and Net Zero Carbon needs in this process.