Architecture and Design

China eyeing European know-how to breathe new life into industrial buildings

Adaptive reuse of long-neglected urban structures is popular in London and other European cities, and in Australia, prompting interest from China. But the projects are not easy to accomplish

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2016, 10:57am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2016, 11:48am

For 150 years, they dominated the London skyline: the towers of Pancras Gasworks, a spectacle of behemoths up to 25 metres high and 40 metres in diameter. An engineering marvel of the 19th century, they manufactured gas converted from coal, and stored it to warm homes and businesses through the long, cold English winters.

By the time the gasworks were decommissioned in 2000 – and dismantled to make way for the channel tunnel rail link – they had been grade-two heritage listed. New purposes were sought for these mighty landmarks of Britain’s industrial past, to be relocated adjacent to Regent’s Canal as part of a larger development of the city’s King’s Cross area.

READ MORE: More Hong Kong heritage being saved, but critics question uses it’s being put to

One now houses a park and event space (designed by Bell Phillips Architects, and opened in November 2015); another set of three linked gasholders – numbers 10, 11 and 12, known as the Siamese triplet – are being converted into an ambitious residential scheme by WilkinsonEyre.

READ MORE: Preserving what's left of Hong Kong's lost architecture

Adaptive reuse projects are not uncommon in the UK and Europe, albeit less so when the new purpose is residential. Among the more notable projects is The Frosilo, a radical waterfront conversion of 1960s concrete silos located in the old harbour area of Copenhagen, where Dutch architecture firm MVRDV “hung” a series of glass apartments onto the structures’ exterior, leaving the empty interior preserved.

At the other end of the scale, a disused block of public toilets in Keswick, northwest England, has been converted into small flats to help solve issues of housing affordability in the Lake District town.

In Australia, Hassell architects is transforming Sydney’s historic Flour Mills at Summer Hill into contemporary apartments as part of a new residential precinct. Stages one and two are under construction (due for completion during 2017), while stages three and four are seeking final development approval.

WilkinsonEyre notes a new drive in China to reuse and regenerate. “We have had a number of approaches recently asking about our work on Battersea Power Station and the King’s Cross Gasholders with regard to potential future projects,” says Matthew Potter, an architect based at WilkinsonEyre’s Hong Kong office, which opened in 2012. “Often this involves the regeneration of large parts of the cities in question and the disused or outdated industrial buildings they contain, so this is certainly a very current issue.”

Nevertheless, it’s not always easy. The sheer weight and size of the gasholders triplet, for example, were daunting. They are composed of a total of 123 cast-iron columns, each weighing between eight and 10 tonnes, with cast-iron capitals and three tiers of wrought-iron riveted lattice girders. When standing upright, the columns are strong – but become very fragile under tension, when being lifted or moved, Potter explains.

Despite their age, the gasholders remained in remarkably good condition, largely preserved from decay by 40 layers of paint applied over the years. Once the paint was removed, and the structure tested for strength both individually and co-joined, more than 640 components were manually inspected to identify stress, and repaired where necessary.

Next was to see whether the frames could be re-erected as a self-supporting, stand-alone structure. “We were very keen that the guide frames should not take any support from the new residential buildings and that the listed structures would be entirely free-standing as per their original condition,” Potter says.

The central nature of the gasholders – named as Gasholders for the residential scheme’s impending launch – was another challenge, adds Jeff Lee, one of the architects on the team. “You tend to not choose to build a round building,” he says, “but it’s really been quite advantageous for us because it’s allowed us to create a different type of space.”

The architect’s concept for three drums of accommodation radiating, pie-shaped, from a central spine inside the gasholders won a 2005 design competition. After the restored towers were relocated late last year, construction of their residential core could begin, arranged as 145 apartments of studios, one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom design. “The new buildings are set at differing heights to suggest the movement of the original gasholders, which would have risen up or down depending on the pressure of the gas within,” says Potter.

Depending on their size, apartments can have one or two slices of pie. One floor can be added to another to create a duplex as well, explains Chris Wilkinson, director of WilkinsonEyre. Within each gasholder is a central atrium where light bounces playfully around the curved walls.

Jonathan Tuckey of Jonathan Tuckey Design, the scheme’s interior designer, describes the interior as a sequence of “incredibly dramatic spaces” that are geometrically very unusual, but also very strong – their rich palette of timber and marble finishes luxuriantly marrying apartment and gasholder. Speaking of their spectacular views, he adds: “Every apartment has some extraordinary bit of London as their window frame.”

In Australia, Hassell principal Matthew Pullinger agrees that incorporating modern apartments into industrial structure such as Sydney’s visually striking grain silos, which sit at the heart of the Flour Mills precinct, presented a particular design challenge. “But the proof of success was in the sales results, with the silo apartments being the fastest-selling portion of the development,” he says.

Almost 90 per cent of the 127 apartments sold off-the-plan at the sales launch in December 2014.

As for Hong Kong, home to more than 1,400 industrial buildings, which under current planning laws cannot be converted to residential, WilkinsonEyre’s Matthew Potter is more circumspect. A big, empty space is in itself not enough to warrant adaptive reuse, he asserts. “With issues of sustainability and the shortage of affordable homes it is something that always needs to be considered but the building itself must be suitable for adaptive reuse. This is both in terms of its own structure or historic value but also, critically, in terms of its location and proximity to the necessary transport links and amenities for it to be appropriate for residential use.”