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Design-led approaches to heritage can support sustainability

Pressure is mounting to tackle built environment emissions, and some of Britain’s most treasured and historic structures are anything but net zero ready. Honing in on HM Prison Northallerton’s redevelopment, we learn how to regenerate a landmark with climate as a priority.  

The 2023 RIBA Built For the Environment report shows approximately 38% of global energy related greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to buildings and construction. With net zero high on the global agenda, the property industry has been exploring greener methods of construction by using renewable materials, energy efficient designs, and reducing waste onsite.

But with 379,176 listed buildings across England alone, the UK is a nation steeped in history which needs to be preserved. This presents a challenge for architects and property developers who are tasked with regeneration projects, as they must meet modern sustainability standards whilst preserving valuable heritage assets. A fine balancing act which is achievable by taking an innovative and creative approach to design solutions.

The Harris Partnership (THP) is a leading UK architectural practice with a focus on sustainable design solutions. THP’s approach to the Treadmills regeneration project in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, is a prime example of how sustainable benefits for the local community and environment can be delivered whilst ensuring a site’s rich history and heritage is preserved and respected.

The project

Treadmills is a once in a multi-generational project which set out to achieve the transformation of disused HM Prison Northallerton’s Grade II-listed buildings into a thriving mixed-use destination. THP started work on the project in 2017, master-planning the site for the Central Northallerton Development Company, working on each phase of the development until it completed in 2023.

The development sought to repurpose the existing Grade II listed prison buildings and support the wider regeneration of Northallerton. A key component of the design was the transformation of the listed buildings in tandem with delivering sympathetically designed new buildings to incorporate retail, office, education, restaurants, and a boutique cinema.

A collaborative approach

When undertaking regeneration projects, many developers can be met with push-back from local communities looking to preserve the heritage of the area. However, one way to overcome any possible grievances is by embracing collaboration.

Northallerton is a historic market town dating back to the 12th century with distinctive regional characteristics. In order to ensure the most positive outcome for the people of Northallerton, and that the finished project would be in keeping with the town’s built environment, THP took a collaborative design approach.

Working closely with a diverse range of stakeholders with intimate understandings of Northallerton, including the local authority and Historic England, this approach meant THP was able to create a functional and unique working environment. Designs not only maintained the integrity of the original development, they ensured sustainability and a positive environmental impact were integral to Treadmills from the onset.

HMP Northallerton in 2017, pre-redevelopment

Combining conservation and sustainability

One of the most common barriers in regeneration projects is managing to preserve historic elements while bringing it up to modern, sustainable building standards. There are often unexpected challenges which arise, and the best way to overcome them is by taking a flexible and adaptive design approach.

Progress on Treadmills was far from straightforward, with the site struggling to meet contemporary building requirements due to its historic nature. THP went back to the drawing board and adapted the designs to overcome these barriers. The new designs incorporated architectural features such as new staircases and hidden smoke suppression into the heritage asset, updating it without impacting the fabric of the building.

One prime example of this approach was lighting. Due to the site’s former life as a prison, there was a lack of natural light in what had been the cells. In order to brighten up the space THP designed a new glazed roof which also supports a passive natural ventilation strategy. The design included carefully detailed modern opening windows coupled with actuated openings in the roof to create a natural stack effect to ventilate and cool the space. This ensured the maximum amount of light would be brought into the workspaces whilst increasing the building’s energy efficiency.

Beyond bricks and mortar

When approaching a regeneration project, the considerations toward sustainability and conservation need to go beyond the boundaries of the site. A successful regeneration project needs to capture the essence of its local community, ultimately bringing a new lease of life to the area.

Through its collaborative approach THP’s designs sought to reflect not just the prison’s history but the town’s unique architectural characteristics. New build retail and leisure buildings around the Grade II listed assets were designed to feature elements found in the locality, including pitched roofs, considered brick details and suitably proportioned shop fronts.

This attention to detail is clear to see on the new Everyman cinema, which utilises square metal shingle cladding anodised a deep red. The shingle cladding reflects the roofs of the surrounding area whilst visually reducing the scale of the building and delivering architectural interest from every aspect.

The emphasis on preserving the history of the site went beyond bricks and mortar, with the development’s name, The Treadmills, offering a nod to the site’s former life as a prison, which once housed the largest treadmill in the world – a rehabilitation device used in 19th century prisons. The Treadmills redevelopment has not only uplifted and renewed the architectural landscape of Northallerton, but it has also brought new facilities and services to the town, benefitting the community and local economy alike.

In 2021, a new tech hub, C4DI Northallerton opened as part of the project, to connect businesses and students in order to fuel the future prosperity for the town as well as attracting inward investment. In March 2022, Barclays also committed to the site, launching its first Barclays Eagle Lab in North Yorkshire to support start-ups and entrepreneurs in scaling and growing their businesses.

Through collaboration and the ability to adapt, THP was able to transform existing buildings bringing them up to modern sustainability standards whilst embracing the area’s heritage. The success of Treadmills provides a blueprint which shows how an innovative design approach can be a key driver to town centre regeneration, ensuring its long-term economic sustainability.

Carl Braim is Group Director at architecture, masterplanning and interior design studio, The Harris Partnership

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