Through the lens of Purcell project, Silvergate Cottages, Architect Charlotte Pession reflects on the balance of readapting existing buildings to preserve our architectural heritage while meeting important sustainability goals.

In 2019, the construction industry was responsible for almost 50% of carbon emissions. This is not only related to the production of buildings during their construction, but also during their operational process and at the end of their life cycle.

Covid-19 has resulted in the decline of pollution levels giving our natural world “breathing space” while in the built environment, it has given us the time to reflect on new measures of working, the flexibility of our existing buildings, and sustainable solutions. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of designing flexible spaces and Purcell is in an excellent position to navigate this. We are leaders in working with historic buildings having promoted retrofit and the reuse of existing materials for decades.

In many of our projects such as the Centre of Refurbishment Excellence in Stoke-on-Trent, we have successfully achieved BREEAM excellence considering the buildings’ heritage significance whilst improving its energy performance.

We hold high standards of sustainability within our business, with Purcell achieving our Carbon reduction programme in line with the Kyoto Agreement four years ahead of schedule and in view of achieving the 2050 UK goal to reach zero net carbon. We have also joined the Royal Institute of Architect’s 2030 Climate Challenge.

A project which illustrates the importance of readapting buildings of heritage with sustainability at the forefront is our East region’s work on The National Trust-owned Silvergate Cottages in Norfolk. In 2015, there was a major fire and the buildings’ thatched roofs and upper floors were damaged to the point of collapse.

Our team salvaged as much as possible of the first-floor structure and reconstructed the roof. 90% of the windows were saved as important elements of the building’s historic character (illustrated in our Conservation Statement). We improved the windows’ energy efficiency by installing new secondary glazing windows with no air leakage.

The roof was insulated at the attic and rafter levels, and the addition of an air source heat pump system provides hot water and heating. The addition of these efficient systems into the historic cottages has increased the buildings’ energy efficiency and was an important facet of our sustainability strategy.

There was also a lot of consideration about carbon emissions and the selection of materials. Most of the materials are natural and where possible are locally sourced. Due to the damages, the electrical system was rewired and the performance was improved by installing LED lighting.

Our work on Silvergate Cottages champions the reuse of the buildings’ fabric as much as possible, applying sustainable strategies to the design to reach optimum solutions. The National Trust, our client is committed to sustainability, and the project is now used as a benchmark for future refurbishment.

Readapting existing buildings with flexibility and energy efficiency at the forefront while safeguarding their significance is key to ensuring the future of our architectural heritage while meeting sustainability goals. Throughout our projects, in addition to our work across Silvergate Cottages, we benefit from collaborating with wider consultant teams to achieve these ambitions. Despite the challenges that Covid-19 has brought, it has given us the chance to reflect on our existing environment and the future spaces in which we want to live. We don’t need to be using new materials or resources, and instead, we should continue to reinvent existing buildings for our future.