Kelsall Architects

Days in the life of Manchester Architects, designs, buildings, ideas and drawings

Buildings, projects and ideas from Kelsall Architects

Working with old buildings


We are blessed in this country with a rich built heritage, which means that a large portion of the UK’s development involves the reuse or redevelopment of existing buildings. We believe it is important to appreciate our existing buildings when we redevelop and see them as opportunities instead of obstacles. Buildings should be lived in, worked in and played in, they need to be cherished because they form the backdrop to our lives. That’s why we love working on old buildings, because of the human stories they tell from the past and the opportunity to create more stories in the future.

Buildings should be lived in, worked in and played in, they need to be cherished because they form the backdrop to our lives

Some buildings are a bit like the old man you get in the corner of your local pub... quiet and unassuming on the face of it, but buy him half a bitter, sit down for a chat and he’s got an endless supply of interesting stories to tell you! At Kelsall Architects we like listening to those stories, we like to dig below the surface to understand the character of the building, its past life, its personality. It helps us when we’re designing it’s future life. It also helps us understand where to apply a few simple principles we like to follow when working with existing buildings. These range from light touch repair to brand new contemporary additions. Here is a quick overview of our approach:

We see ourselves as custodians of the built environment and our job is to leave it in a beautiful, more valued and more sustainable way than it was left to us
  • Repair - the making good of certain parts of the building using the same or similar materials, but done so that it is obvious what is old and what is new. This allows the history of the building to be read.
  • Renewal - the replacement of elements of the building like for like to protect the building and increase the longevity of the structure. Undertaking such work will help to ensure the future of the building and its enjoyment by the next generations.
  • Restoration - the recovery of damaged or lost parts of the building and restoring them to how they once were. This is particularly important for highly crafted or artistic parts of a building but can reduce the authenticity of the original work, so a sensitive approach needs to be taken.
  • New interventions - additions that are contemporary in style and material, yet complement the existing character of the building. This, secretly, is our favourite bit, because we get to add our layer of the story and it is generally these bits that make old buildings useful and enjoyable for people today. On our Wood House project, we have used structural glazing and steel for the new addition, the transparency and lightness of glass contrast with the wonkiness and solidity of the old stone house. The original stonework can be seen through the extension and you can read the history of its 200+ years of existence.

Great design comes from balancing the above principles to create a sensitive and commercially viable scheme, which is where experience and a keen eye for detail come in.

Prior to starting Kelsall Architects, I had the pleasure of working on several refurbishment projects, including Wade Deacon High School and the University of Hull Brynmor Jones Library with Sheppard Robson Architects. The latter was an RIBA award winning redevelopment and refurbishment of two existing buildings, one Art Deco one Brutalist, to create a holistic, modern and exemplary library that lies at the heart of student life. Taking a similar approach in that project, we deliberately exposed a lot of the repaired coffered slab in the brutalist building to emphasise its character; whereas in the art deco building we designed replica light fittings to match the original 50’s lights that had been removed in the intervening years, restoring a little bit of art deco chic to the renovated space.

We saw first hand another great example of this approach whilst on a trip to Tasmania a couple of years ago, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Port Arthur Historic Site is an old penitentiary building that has been repurposed into an immersive and somewhat eerie tourist experience. Redeveloped in stages by TZG Architects, it is a fantastic example of conserving a badly dilapidated heritage building by using a combination of repair, renew, restore and new interventions. The restored cells provide an insight into inmate life, whilst the propped prison walls show a great contrast of old and new… if only those walls could talk, what secrets would they tell!

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No matter how big or small, it is a pleasure working with old buildings. We see ourselves as custodians of the built environment and our job is to leave it in a beautiful, more valued and more sustainable way than it was left to us. In that sense, it is immensely satisfying to be able to do our bit to ensure old buildings are brought back to life and enjoyed both now and by future generations.

Paul Kelsall