A Future for the Past: Regeneration and Compact Living. - RSA

A future for the past: regeneration and compact living


  • Picture of Angus Annan FRSA
    Angus Annan FRSA
  • Fellowship

On visits to Belfast in recent years I was saddened to see my old place of education, both as secondary schoolboy and a technical student, lie empty and unused for some years. Now a breakthrough project in Belfast will see this iconic Edwardian building converted to student residences...

The old College of Technology that has been at the centre of educational and industrial development of the city for one hundred years, and lay empty for a decade or more has been converted to address the growing requirement for student residences. The building was completed in 1907 and was known to generations of Belfast students and trainees as “The Tech”. Like many other UK cities, Belfast has a growing population of students with two large universities and other tertiary education provisions driving the city student numbers to 40,000. The problem of student accommodation is not unique to Belfast with cities such as Leeds, student population 28,000 and Edinburgh also at 29,000. Campus universities have the space to grow and to provide on-site accommodation but city universities have limited space for blocks of residences. The Belfast solution can be seen as a unique example of an alternative approach that shows the way for other cities.

At first sight the “The Tech” will seem to have been an unlikely building for conversion. Built at the height of Edwardian confidence and splendour, it has large rooms with over four metre high ceilings, corridors that could comfortably allow a military tank to pass and a magnificent Grand Central Hall with stained glass windows. The heating and ventilating system was advanced for its day with air ducts throughout the walls of the building, driven by a boiler house and a steam engine. All of this was operational until the closure of the building. The entrance foyer has classical columns with decorative plaster work and a grand staircase with wrought iron balustrading and as the structure is Grade B+ listed, all of these features have to be preserved. The Portland stone exterior elevations have been steam cleaned, needing only minimal repairs and pointing.

The Tech building is typical of many in UK cities that have long outlived their original function and yet stand waiting for some lateral thinking and investment to take them to a new future. Some such city buildings in Glasgow and Aberdeen have found new life as grandiose restaurants and pubs but the Belfast example breaks new ground in addressing a growing problem of student living. Student life in the private rented sector is seen to be a difficult mix with ordinary family living. All the more so in the older terraced housing areas that still surround some universities. As an example, there are well documented problems in city areas such as Headingly in Leeds, where the student 24 hour life style is causing long standing residents to move from the area, giving even more properties over to student lets.

The Tech conversion provides 292 ensuite study bedrooms in clusters with shared living rooms and kitchens plus 121 self-contained studios. There is 100 Mb/s Internet with free Wi-Fi throughout the building. The Grand Central Hall is the hub of the complex with common room facilities. It has been lightly conserved, retaining the stained glass windows with quotations from Shakespeare and other greats of the past. The building was originally constructed with five floors in a double doughnut configuration with ground floor atriums and white glazed bricks lining the five-storey walls of the open courts. The atrium roofs have been removed to create open green courtyard spaces, brilliantly lit by daylight reflected from the glazed brick walls.

Apart from the challenges of converting a listed building, numerous practical problems had to be addressed. Ceiling heights were reduced, taking advantage of a match with the cross bars on the external windows and the high voids used as service ducts. Heating is distributed from a central gas boiler house. With Belfast down-town traffic running nearby, study bedrooms have been fitted up with acoustic double-glazing and the wooden sash window counter weight columns have been specially treated to reduce the noise drum effect which would otherwise occur. Some modernisations from the past were reversed with replica doors constructed to match the surviving Edwardian wooden doors and stained glass panels back lit to advantage. Inescapably the requirements of the Building Regulations and Disability Living had to be met and solutions negotiated with the Listed Buildings agency of Northern Ireland.

The overall aim of the design was to produce premium quality student accommodation that will justify an appropriate rent level and contribute to the reputation of Belfast as an attractive city for Higher Education. The project is privately financed with an overall cost estimated at £16 million and whilst the author does not have access to the business model, it is likely that it will go into profit relatively quickly.

The clear success of this conversion poses the question of whether this approach can be replicated in other cities where grand buildings from the past still stand empty, and perhaps loved only by a few, but in real need of a vision for a new future.

An example might be Camperdown House in Dundee. Sited in four hundred acres of parkland, built in 1828 and ‘A’ listed, it was purchased by Dundee City Council in 1946, but only occasional use has been made of it since as a venue for events. Major roof repairs have been undertaken in recent years and the building was put up for sale in 2014, but there has been no progress in finding a new owner with the vison to create a future for it. It would be a shame if the A listing prevented change and served no real purpose other than to condemn the building to slow decay. This situation was commented on in an RSA Heritage Question Time event held at the Discovery Centre, Dundee some time ago.

Looking to possibilities other than student accommodation, there is the growing popularity of Co-Living with live-work spaces such as Fish Island Village in Hackney Wick, London. This innovative Co-Living approach is an imaginative response to high housing costs and commuting issues, with shared open plan social and work spaces for like-minded enterprises.

These successes show the way to a new approach providing high density affordable living spaces. In a crowded island like the UK with rising house prices and near to two million people on social housing waiting lists, the Belfast project signposts the way to a new future for some of our great buildings of the past and other approaches to housing, particularly for students. The question is can heritage listings be relaxed sufficiently to allow for a new approach to bring these buildings back to life in the way that has been demonstrated by the Belfast project?

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