The transformation of any existing building, listed or not, is a challenging undertaking. Heritage-led projects require bespoke solutions, customised to respect the historic content of the building and protect its long-term ambition. The transformation of historic school buildings in the 21st century is particularly complex, not just because of the changing delivery of education but also because of the sensitivities in working with historic fabric.

The National Heritage List for England contains over 500,000 listed buildings, of which over 5,000 are historic school buildings. Listed buildings are specifically celebrated for their special architectural and historic interest. In addition to architectural merit, there are other aspects which contribute to their heritage significance, including communal values. They also have social or cultural significance and contain stories that need to be retold.

New Demands

Teaching is no longer about delivering content in a classroom setting and therefore, historic school spaces need to adapt to new demands. Self-studying expands beyond libraries as students prefer grouping together in different settings. Common areas have become less utilitarian and take inspiration from spaces outside of the standard school typology, such as cafes and lounges.

Considerations for well-being and the integration of nature are more emphasised in the learning environment. Additionally, the diversity of today’s multi-faceted society requires that the built environment responds to the needs of its users. Modern techniques aim to provoke curiosity amongst the younger generation and encourage students to take an active role in their education.

In Nottingham, Make’s Teaching and Learning Building, provides new, adaptable technology and encourages social interaction. The learning spaces feature digital displays, interactive screens and lecture capture. A simple but essential provision of USB ports integrated within furniture gives flexibility to the space. There are ample spaces for students to meet and socialise, arranged around learning labs, study rooms and a performing arts space.

Historic school buildings were never built for these contemporary developments and their adaptation requires in-depth knowledge of its existing nature and innovative solutions as to how they can be transformed.

Considering future use

Before proposing physical alterations, changing the use of one space into another should be the first consideration. Make’s work at the University of Birmingham to repurpose a former municipal bank, which is Grade II-listed, transforms former offices into flexible studios for project-based learning activities. Any repurposing should not focus solely on present circumstances but also on future use.

As the continued emphasis on technology will be demanding on historic fabric, the accessibility of any new infrastructure must be considered, so that they can be modified in the future with ease. Spaces that have multiple uses work well in buildings where its footprint cannot be altered. Where new-built extensions are planned, consider how both the historic and the new interface with each other, architecturally and functionally.

Other common challenges are accessibility and compliance with building regulations and construction standards: Accessibility is vital in historic buildings as they must accommodate the needs of diverse groups of people and not exclude the enjoyment of any building user.

Revised fire regulations, following the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, are fundamental to preventing the spread of fire and ensuring that safety measures are in place. And in special circumstances, additional management procedures must be established if modern interventions significantly harm the buildings’ special interest.

The effect of Covid-19 has added another new dimension when considering a building’s design and operation. Whether new or existing, interrogating a building’s configuration is the first step as the circulation of people is fundamental.

Historically, multiple entrances were often incorporated because students and staff took separate routes, and this characteristic lends well to introducing one-way systems. Some 19th century schools dwelled on the plan of classrooms surrounding a central hall; some were designed with separate “wings” where boys and girls entered via their own entrances and staircases. Little physical intervention will be required in these cases to adapt to new circulation and distancing needs, and can just as easily be reversed. Having openable windows and spaces that cross between the interior and the outdoors will assist in tackling the transmission of illnesses, a consideration for staff and students now and in the future.

New extensions should also consider improved hygiene measures at design stage so they can be built-in on day one. For example, specify material surfaces that are easier to clean and sanitise. Contactless features will become the norm, from access-controlled doors to sanitary fittings with integrated sensors.

Constructive conservation

There is a perception that listed buildings cannot be altered and must be preserved in their entirety. This statement is often misinterpreted, as institutions such as Historic England, SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) emphasise that buildings must not just exist but must continue to be in use. Therefore, it is extremely important that the adaptation ensures continuous occupation and maintenance. Historic England encourages the philosophy of “Constructive Conservation” where the right collaboration can be positive for both the advancement of the school and the preservation of the special interest of the building.

Where to start

The starting point of all heritage projects is a thorough understanding of the buildings’ significance and a detailed study of its contents and composition. This includes identifying its original features, distinguishing modern additions and uncovering its social narrative. This forms an understanding of how the historic fabric may be transformed; whether major alterations are likely to take place or if there are opportunities to introduce new interventions reasonably and sensitively.

The sub-division of spaces, quality of light, perception of volume, external expression and relationship with its context are some of many aspects that will give clues as to how the spaces can be altered. Substantial changes may require a more innovative approach or may have to be reversible, should there be a need to restore the space to its original appearance. There may also be opportunities for extensions or new adjacent buildings, and an understanding of the building’s ‘setting’ will influence this.

Protection of a building’s setting ensures that the appearance and appreciation of the building in its context is unharmed if changes are envisaged to its structure and surroundings. Proposals should be planned with consideration to the building in its entirety, not in piecemeal.

An initial spatial masterplan will provide clarity in the relationship between one proposal and the next which can then be executed in a phased approach, mitigating unplanned disruption to students, staff and building operators.

Step by step

Firstly, it is essential to commission a thorough condition survey of the building. This will identify areas in need of repair. In large buildings, some areas may have received poor care, particularly where they are difficult to access. And repairs made with good intentions, but with little understanding of the building’s construction, may have caused harm to the fabric. For example, poor insulating techniques cause contrasts in humidity, and repointing without the right mortar prevents the building from being able to move.

Any alteration to a listed building will require consent. It is imperative that preapplication consultations and statutory engagement are sought from an early stage. Proposals which respect the building’s special interest with consideration to scale, use, external appearance and access, will give better confidence to authorities that the alterations will not significantly harm the building’s historic value. Continuity of consultation is also recommended as good practice to keep case officers abreast of design development. Inevitably, amendments to the consented plans may be required and it is wise to discuss changes to preagreed principles before submitting formal applications.

As the design becomes more detailed, questions on the principles of conservation are likely to arise. Does replacement have to be like-for-like, down to the chemical composition of the material? Will the new interventions replicate the existing or will they be completely new in appearance to differentiate between the two? It is crucial that stakeholder engagement should take place early in the design process.

Ongoing work by Make with the University of York puts end-users’ needs at the heart of the design process, involving both staff and students. As the design progresses, consultations with specialists will help inform the design and ultimately cost of works.

Ideally, these are carried out upfront, whilst a suitable consultant team is assembled, one with specific experience and skills compatible with the period of the building. A common dilemma on historic projects is that the cost of refurbishment is difficult to quantify, more so when repairs are extensive.

At Hornsey Town Hall, a traffic light system aided the definition of the scope of work. Elements were categorised into three different levels of repair. An allowance for unknowns discovered during construction work is fundamental as there will always be an element of uncertainty until the strip-out of the building commences. The stages after the project completes are equally as important, where care and maintenance must continue through the implementation of management strategies.

Occasionally a Heritage Management Plan is required to document the significance and condition of the building, to set objectives for implementing works and to monitor progress. Heritage Partnership Agreements may be a suitable collaborative approach for historic buildings that require routine work. It is an agreement between local authorities, building owners and occasionally with third parties such as Historic England, to define a list of permitted works which can be consented through a different procedure, thereby saving time and resources.

The transformations of historic buildings are often complex and have great demands. While every project takes a different turn, the outcomes are highly rewarding – as the lives of these buildings have been extended and future generations are able to experience and enjoy them.

Successful projects stem from solid background studies, the practice of good judgement and the effective collaboration of a multi-disciplinary team with a shared vision.


Top tips
•Understand the condition, architectural and social significance of the building.
• Consult statutory bodies and engage with stakeholders.
• Have an overall vision which addresses present and future needs.
• Appoint appropriate specialists with relevant skill and experience.
• Plan for unknowns and new discoveries.