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We can’t rewrite history - but we can make it perform better!

Sustainability By Celine Cannam, Principal Engineer, Building Services – 08 November 2021

3 old books resting on a window ledge of an old wooden window

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Celine in a white sleeveless top stood on a path surrounded by grass and trees

Celine Cannam

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Every building has a story. From the architecture and design, to the lives and activities of the people who have occupied it, buildings are the custodians of moments in time.

From a sustainability point of view, retaining this built history is a major win. Sometimes, of course, a building has such significant flaws, damage or decay, that it’s impossible to retain.

But where restoration and upgrading is possible, there is a great sense of achievement in bringing them back to life. Our work makes them cleaner, with more comfortable indoor environments, improved operating efficiency and reduced energy use, reduces risks of mould, and gives them significantly extended longevity.

Retaining the beautiful buildings in our cities and restoring them so future generations can become part of their story is a process involving intense collaboration. On a major refurbishment, renovation or upgrade we work closely with architects, Heritage architects and structural engineering design teams. Every single discipline has a part to play.

Walking into a 250-year-old building, you can see a visual history of changes made to the building. Owners and tenants tend to add things and leave those traces behind. For example, most of buildings constructed before the advent of electricity had heating-based design, so we often see fireplaces, and woodburning stoves that were used for warmth, cooking and hot water. For comfort in summer, natural ventilation and shading combined with thermal mass and decorative diffusers high up in the walls could help condition air in the space and these features often remain. The natural buoyancy effect of air and an understanding of how air moved through space at different temperatures was part of the architectural thinking.

Retaining as much of the existing building fabric as possible is a positive challenge. It sets parameters that encourage us to innovate and examine ways we can fix conditions in a space while retaining the character and original design features.

Discovering what we have to work with involves exploring the site, and also using tools such as point cloud 3D scanning, thermal imaging, thermal scanning and other advanced tools. But to achieve the full impact of these tools, you need to have a thorough understanding of fundamental elements such as plant location, ductwork, risers, cabling and reticulation pipes. These are the certainties we bring to the building services and structural design process, along with our own technical expertise.

As well as looking at what we have and undertaking detailed modelling of thermal conditions and energy use, our thinking and the modelling also considers future-proofing, and how to make the building climate adapted for hotter ambient conditions.

Finding solutions that will work within existing building constraints is a process of collaboration and recognising that most inventions are a continuation and evolution of what we already have – just taken further in terms of efficiency, sustainability, performance and resilience.

We are always asking what we can re-utilise. For example, we can look at re-using gas infrastructure for greener hydrogen. Anything we can re-use that is already part of the building is a win. One of the advantages with modern plant compared to older systems is the elements such as compressors, pumps and boilers are often smaller, so new equipment can comfortably fit where the legacy systems did. The result though will be building services that use at least 20% to 30% less energy.

I believe every building has a reason for being, and every building represents a moment in our architectural history, whether that is an early 1900s stone building, a 1970s office building or an early 2000s fully glazed tower. When we raise the building performance and systems to the current codes and standards and improve the ventilation and make it healthy and alive, we are also keeping our urban history healthy and alive.

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