Opinion

Out with the new, and in with the old

Dan Wheble, CEO of flexible office business at The Boutique Workplace Company, shares his thoughts on why it’s time to end the obsession with destroying periodical buildings and replacing them with modern ones

Along with most of our industry, I’ve been following the planning application of the historical Douglas buildings on the Isle of Man, and plans for its demolition. Not only in a conservation area, but the late Victorian buildings are described as “unique”. I am very glad that these plans have been firmly rejected, with a committee member commenting that “too many historical buildings are lost”.

This convention has set the tone for my business too, where I see so much potential in characterful buildings. I despair at the plans that were announced earlier in the summer for the Marks and Spencer flagship store on Oxford Street to be torn down and redeveloped into a more contemporary offer; it’s always a bitter pill to swallow when I hear about plans to replace beautiful periodical properties with new ones.  

Yes, I agree we need to modernise, but we also need to preserve our heritage and national architectural treasures. We have a rich history in this country, particularly within the city-centres, and it is a shame that local councils and planning authorities cannot take the provenance of buildings into consideration.  

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Most of our cities are home to famous landmarks and London could easily be considered a museum in its own right. Modern cities like Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Shanghai are accustomed to buildings going up and down quickly. We do not (or should not) have the same attitude with our cultural buildings. 

More than just bricks and mortar  

At The Boutique Workplace Company, we have proven with over 40 restorations that old buildings can fit into a modern lifestyle. They can be dog friendly, incorporate gyms, have green spaces, be open planned or house smaller offices all in the existing building. Our Marylebone location is a Grade II listed 18th century terraced townhouse that we have developed into a fully-functioning contemporary working space. 

The fitted kitchens, on-site showers, air conditioning and secure bicycle storage could not be further from what this property was intentionally built to be used for. But what if the plans were to knock it down and replace it with a characterless box? Does that do justice for what is considered to be one of the most premium neighbourhoods of our nation’s capital?  

When restoring a property, we refurbish it to the exact standards that would be expected. For example, a selection of our locations used to be residential properties so we were determined (and instructed) to retain original sash windows, high ceilings and ornate fireplaces. We then add crisp and clean modern elements to make it a comfortable space for our tenants. Building facades, features and interiors are so important and a key part of the appeal of working in these areas – particularly in historic cities such as London – because no one wants to work in an uninspiring office. 

The beauty is they don’t have to if we continue to love and restore the buildings we already have on our doorstep. Modern buildings will not look modern in 50 years’ time, and more importantly there will be no story to tell, and the historical landscape will be lost. 

This way is more sustainable

Setting beauty and history aside, there are arguments that it’s a more cost-effective solution to tear down the Marks and Spencer flagship store, but what about the effects it will have on the environment? It has already been noted that the Marks and Spencer demolition will release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, and the construction industry has such a huge impact on climate change, water pollution and landfill waste. We need to be looking at ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, not add to it.

Refurbishment uses less materials and resources, which is more important now than ever before. I know, however, that certain aspects of modern day living – for example double glazed windows – would require less heating, and on a listed building getting consent to replace windows is often a timely and expensive process.

Nevertheless, character is important in a building, and replacing traditional windows on period properties with plastic alternatives, I always find heartbreaking. Developers can maintain character, it just needs sensible planning, care and attention.

It’s what the people want to see

The Boutique Workplace Company has recently opened its first offices in Birmingham – home to the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The games have attracted thousands of visitors from around the globe, reinforcing that one of this country’s biggest strengths is tourism – a key contributor to our economy.

To continue to demolish beautiful buildings that are soaked in iconic history would wipe parts of our heritage off the map completely.

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