By Lydia Firminger, Associate Principal, CallisonRTKL
When thinking of the Build to Rent boom, it is easy to focus purely on new build; the glossy 30-storey glass and steel towers that grab headlines, redefine skylines and act as shining beacons that reflect the high levels of investment going into the sector. These ‘from scratch’ projects certainly play their part in the development ecosystem, however in the wake of the pandemic, shifting societal behaviours and the green agenda, we simply can’t ignore existing building stock – there is a huge opportunity to repurpose, reuse and revitalise what we already have. Nor do we want to ignore the varied and rich landscape of existing buildings that form and often give identity and character to our towns or cities.
For one thing, this approach to development is much more sustainable. With the built environment contributing to around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, it is clear that knocking down and rebuilding is simply not viable anymore. Aligned to this, as a firm we have recently committed to all ourprojects being zero carbon for operation by 2030 and carbon neutral (including embodied in construction materials) by 2050. As part of this commitment, we have developed CLIMATESCOUT, a free to use open-source tool that can help urban design and development stakeholders design more sustainable buildings that better respond to their environments.
Retail property’s role in shaping place
All aspects of life have been impacted by the pandemic but probably none more so than the retail landscape, which has fundamentally changed and has seen existing challenges accelerated. While easy to mourn the losses, it also presents a vast opportunity for existing retail hubs to reimagine themselves – a key part of this will be transforming large floorplate shopping centres and department stores to create vibrant mixed-use destinations that foster long-term success.
At CallisonRTKL, we have developed a ‘Recrafting’ methodology to help clients breathe new life into their existing assets to meet the demands of this new economy. This has three key parts, firstly Re:define – looking at changing citizen needs (we like to think of them as Generation C) and what they value; Re:craft existing assets by curating, blending and reshaping the experience and finally; Re:spond by applying a mixed-use approach and specialisms to create a rich tapestry of lifestyle experiences. Never again should we see swathes of cities defined by one use-type; the future is blended spaces, with high quality dedicated rental housing forming a fundamental part of this.
A key part of ensuring the success of these new spaces and destinations is in the curation of experiences geared towards the end user. The resident or visitor expects to engage, discover, and be delighted within our city’s spaces. The use of lively F&B and structured event programmes as part of well-designed public realm can be central to this, immersing the senses and returning high streets to the energetic scenes of thriving former market spaces which once spilled into our squares and streets.
A case in point
As an example of this repurposing, in Leicester we are working with Hammerson, owner and manager of the flagship retail destination Highcross to redevelop a former 12,000 sqm Debenhams store into new homes for rent in partnership with Packaged Living. The development will transform the former Debenhams store into over 300 new homes for rent and create an improved public realm with new, albeit smaller commercial spaces, alongside bespoke resident amenities including a roof garden. I firmly believe this is the future and Hammerson isn’t the only once ‘pure play’ retail landlord looking to diversify into other sectors, with John Lewis Partnership having also identified 20 of its own sites that could be used to provide sustainable rental housing.
This blended approach is also central to our work in Reading. At Station Hill we are transforming a 25,000 sqm shopping centre, 6,000 sqm 1960s office and 18,000 sqm NCP car park into a thriving mixed-use development including 1,300 Build to Rent apartments, a new hotel, blended retail, F&B and leisure and new offices. This typifies what we believe should become a future blueprint for development – a truly mixed-use destination that creates a circular economy that has a resilient and robust future.
It is not just the regions that can benefit from this. In London there is an abundance of expansive historic blocks with courtyards at their centre that have potential to be reborn. While Historic England and planning authorities have traditionally been reluctant to see these buildings carved into and opened up, I firmly believe we need to move with the times – there is vast potential to unlock new opportunities behind these historic high street frontages.
There are signs for optimism, just recently the City of London Corporation announced it was reviewing its exemption from permitted development rights (PDR) after announcing it plans to convert vacant office space into 1,500 new homes by 2030. Perhaps other local authorities will follow suit and start to see the value that Recrafting can bring to our street and communities?