The value of heritage in the built environment is unquestionable, however the quality of that value is subjective and different for everyone. This subjective tug-of-war can hamstring good quality new development.
Where does the preservation of building heritage start and stop? An obsessive literal stand would see us put back all the trees. Conversely only the most noteworthy examples of heritage architecture would be allowed to remain with the remainder replaced with modern perhaps higher density designs based on universally accepted design principals that provides greater benefits for the community into the future.
It is important for future generations to learn a from past built environments, a little like what a museum may teach us. But finding the happy balance between retaining the old and building the new is not so easy. That balance has arguably not been achieved with local authorities being unreasonable about allowing old building demolition in relation to new developments, forcing developers into reduced quality outcomes.
Building heritage and the nostalgic emotions it stirs is very curious. No other historical thing does this to the degree buildings do. It borders on unhealthy. How many of us use 100 year old cars, or 100 year old tooth brushes? What about 100 year old washing machines or ovens? Yet so many old buildings are cherished.
Adding to the curiosity of the emotional response stirred by old buildings is that it is irrational because technically old buildings are poorly designed and a far cry from what is expected of a new building. Even refurbished old buildings are a poor substitute because when you start with poor quality, the end result reflects this. Like if you cook a diner starting with poor ingredients, the result is a poor quality meal. And refurbishments or working around old buildings is always a compromise. What do you get when you combine design with compromise? Demise.
Many old buildings were created out of expediency, making an architecture of make-do at the time. Let’s use the example of the old Queenslander house.
These relics are flawed from the outset; they are drafty, they are fire traps, they attract and harbour vermin, they are boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. They fall well short of modern standards of design and construction. Let’s look at some of their characteristics compared to modern design for some insight.
The characteristic verandah gave relief from trapped heat inside and long rain periods. Today modern design and technology alleviates these problems, and thankfully the deck has largely replaced the verandah with its narrow impractical shape, its posing a security risk by having many external doors easily accessed by an intruder, and its blocking of winter sunshine into the house interior.
The characteristic high-pitched roofs lifted hot roofing iron away from occupants, and with the short length roof sheets only available at the time, sheet end laps had less chance to leak from windblown rain when laid to a steep pitch. Today, steep roofs are undesirable due to their unacceptable fall risk. Also, they are unnecessary as insulation controls heat, and sheets come in long lengths without end lap.
The characteristic high ceilings, like the high-pitched roof, kept heat away from occupants. Today, modern insulation blocks heat and better air flow principles are used, so lower ceilings are possible meaning lower buildings can be built with reduced wind load, reducing costs. Lower ceilings also allow more effective winter heating, and give easier access to lights and smoke detectors, and to fans for cleaning.
The characteristic central corridor with square rooms each side provided the preferred basic accommodation and dark interiors with minimal design and use of all-obscure glass was almost universal. Today, light filled, tailored layouts which look outward and are spacious, and are more thermally and acoustically comfortable, are preferred.
The characteristic timber construction (stumps, frames, weatherboards and T&G linings) were the result of plentiful timber supply, and timber construction suited the technology of the day. Today this construction is environmentally irresponsible, expensive, high maintenance, a fire hazard, and a high termite attack risk.
The characteristic high-set on stumps provided: a cool space under-house in summer; a platform could be built on sloping ground which was not easily excavated in those days; separation of living areas from dust, livestock, vermin and snakes; and some protection from unpredictable flooding. Many of these conditions are not applicable today.
It is important to retain some heritage, but it should not be at the expense of both modern urban and evolutionary development. Thinking that is biased towards emotional nostalgia is constrictive and needs to be rebalanced with a more practical combination of sensitivity and pragmatic forward-thinking, to avoid the subjective tug-of-war that can hamstring good quality new development.
Greg Blain is an Australian Architect, having started his career in 1978 as a first year architectural student in Brisbane, QLD. Greg registered as an Architect in 1989 and licensed as a commercial Builder in 2000. Greg has concentrated his decades of experience to now focus on helping Architects and Designers achieve better results with documentation and other Practice matters, through his company ArchiAssist Pty Ltd.
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