Designing with authenticity
‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is a mantra I’m sure we’re all familiar with. But how well have we learned our 3Rs? When it comes to the recycling part, we’re not doing too badly – WRAP’s most recent recycling tracker found that 89% of the UK-wide households it surveyed now regularly recycle; but in the other two areas there’s still plenty of work to be done. Waste reduction remains problematic, with the latest Defra figures revealing UK households produced 27m tonnes of waste in 2020, an increase of 2.1% from 2019. And when it comes to reuse, well…
There remains a significant societal barrier to the reuse of items based on an aesthetic, economic and practical viability perceptions. The modern consumer marketplace has created a culture where obsolescence is accepted and value is placed on new things to signify status and progress. It has been made far too easy – convenient, even – to discard valuable and high-quality products and materials when, with a little forethought, they could be reclaimed, reused, repurposed or even upcycled.
Those same consumer attitudes are often reflected in the interior design industry where ‘out with the old and in with the new’ can often be the default, if tacit, position; however, I want us to start breaking this mould and challenge our clients to consider the value of a circular economy to both their business, society and planet. At SGP, our core values are ‘We Care; We challenge; We deliver’ and we must strive to do so in all aspects of design.
As I argued in my previous piece, ‘Retrofit for Purpose’, we should adopt a presumption against the demolition of existing buildings and first consider the ways in which we can refurbish and repurpose to bring them back into active use.
Purely from an environmental perspective, retrofit makes perfect sense because of the significant embodied energy savings made when compared to the high embodied energy costs of demolition and new build. However, I would also argue that, from a design perspective, refurbished buildings can excite as much as new and that their retention can conserve and enhance the character of towns and neighbourhoods whilst also adding authenticity to a scheme.
That authenticity extends to the interiors of refurbished buildings, where existing features can be retained to lend character, fixtures and fittings can repurposed to reduce waste and add vibrancy, whilst vintage or upcycled items can be added to create entirely unique and memorable focal points.
This is not to say that new or ‘on trend’ elements cannot be incorporated into refurbished buildings – for instance, the current trend for Scandi design, with its minimal style and neutral colours, can complement the rugged character of a former industrial building to reveal its hidden beauty. However, context is everything and interior designers must work with the history of the building and the surrounding environment to create harmonious and functional spaces.
When you refurbish an existing building, no matter its age, there is always some history that comes along with it. So, too, the surrounding neighbourhood. Whilst still considering a client’s core requirements, our interior designers can draw on that history to create a bespoke proposal for each project. Not only can we reference the history of the building or its neighbourhood in the design, but we can reclaim and reuse original items in the refurbishment to create a distinctive, yet timeless style, immediately anchoring the scheme in its locale. This is particularly important in the hospitality sector, where there is an increasing emphasis on the ‘boutique’. Hotels, bars and restaurants are looking to differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace by providing unique and authentic experiences for guests and visitors.
A good example of this approach can be seen at 55 Whitefriargate in the centre of Hull, where we have recently designed and delivered a private members’ bar run by Hotham’s Gin School. Housed on the ground floor of a Grade II Listed former bank building constructed in 1878, and part of a broader mixed-use refurbishment scheme, we felt it was incredibly important to both maintain and evolve the story of the building in our design, retaining and reusing as many elements of the fabric as was feasible and referencing the proud history of this part of Hull in fixtures, fittings and furnishes. The scheme has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 British Institute of Interior Design (BIID) Awards.
Our design for the bar works with the relatively low ceiling height to create a 1920’s speakeasy feel, with dark painted retained brick, chevron wood flooring and low-level lighting. The beautiful timber from the old cashiers’ stations and clerks’ cubicles has been re-used as feature panelling on the walls, and also as partitions, with the bar back being built from old bookcases found elsewhere in the bank. Exposed metal work harks back to the reinforced steel of the vaults whilst the original metal grills become back-lit wall features, draped in ivy to mix natural and man-made materials.
We have even embedded equipment used in the refurbishment process in our design. The circular saw blades used to cut through walls, usually disposed of once blunted, have been re-purposed as decorative wall features where their reflective surfaces reveal the story of the building’s restoration to guests.
Once the decision to refurbish and repurpose an existing building has been made, it takes experience, technical know-how and sectoral insight to marry existing building fabric with the requirements of a client. However, the architects and designers at SGP thrive on finding inventive ways to make something great again. Extensive historical research of both the building and its surrounding area ensures we are creating a place that is both authentic and firmly anchored in its locale. Making every effort to incorporate reused, reclaimed and upcycled building fabric and materials, directly hardwires sustainability into the heart of the design, reducing waste and embodied carbon, whilst creating a truly bespoke space for clients.