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James Harrison

UK & Europe

James Harrison is an associate architect. James is responsible for a team of architects, interior designers and architectural illustrators in our Exeter office. An award winning designer who specialises in libraries and archives, he is passionate about concept design and relishes difficult design problems that require original thoughts and ideas.

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Older buildings are often like a well-loved uncle, they are appreciated but could do with a new suit of clothes, and a new haircut to look more contemporary. The skill of the designer is in shaping this ‘new set of clothes’ to fit the building (like a Saville Road suit, at half the price).

We recently did just that for City College Plymouth, where we created a new facade for an existing 70s eight storey tower block with creative use of mesh cladding, rendered insulated walls and new double glazing. The new look designed out the overheating issues from direct South West and East elevations, massively added to the thermal capability of the building, and ensured safe cleaning of windows. It also won the college a design award for sustainability.

There are, of course, many things to consider when moving towards a refurbishment option. Sometimes the building is too far gone and no matter how much electrical voltage you apply to the defibrillator paddles, it’s just never going to make it. In our experience it is rare that it cannot be reused but in some cases, you have to be realistic.

So how do you land a great big refurb shaped punch on a low budget? Here are some suggestions, based on our experiences within the college sector.

Choose your architect and design team with great care. If they are not as excited about the project and the opportunity it presents, then you can only expect mediocre results. Passion and real creative talent within limited budgets counts for a huge amount when it comes to refurbishments.

Use interior designers. They are at the heart of the building’s final touch. They’ll make a big impact on the look and feel of the final result, but make sure they have worked with the architects to ensure aesthetic compatibility.

Spend the budget in a non-linear way. The cost consultant may blanket the budget over the building area, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend it that way. Through vision workshops and stakeholder engagement, find out what is important to spend money on. Focus on pockets of excellence that have a real ‘wow’ factor along an otherwise boring corridor; otherwise you can end up with a bland magnolia, lukewarm, boredom inducing nothingness refit. At City College Plymouth we created the ‘wow factor’ by creating zinging trade zones along a boring corridor which advertised what was happening in the teaching spaces and themed them heavily. This gave ownership of the spaces to the staff and students to show off and engage with the whole college cohort.

Use cheap materials creatively. Paint for example is cheap, effective and covers a multitude of sins if it is used boldly and with real commitment.

Recycling your building is also much more in line with the current world zeitgeist and in harmony with the millennial culture of the students you are trying to attract. Generation Z care about how we use and reuse Earth’s resources, and appreciate innovative and clever ways of doing so, so a refurbishment can be a great opportunity to show you’re in tune with their issues.

If you view a refurbishment as a series of recycled elements brought - through good design - into a rejuvenated and uniquely exciting asset it’s not something you’ll ever view as the ‘second best option’.

UK & Europe,

The millennial generation are tech savvy and own the digital domain, so what makes a library or archive a resource they want to use or indeed need? Smart phones have made many products obsolete - think address books, cameras, wristwatches, torches, alarm clocks, navigation systems, pocket calculators – the list goes on. Whole sectors of physicality are also being threatened, as apps allow us to bank, shop and book holidays with the jab of a thumb. And there is, of course, no reason to think that the library in its traditional form will be immune to these pressures.

Generation Z are multi-taskers who find social media and texting hard to resist, it’s where they share and it is where libraries need to be linked into. The front door to the library or archive might not necessarily be a physical one, but its invitation must be strong enough to ensure a gravitational pull towards the physical building. This new generation is very collaborative and team orientated and want to be able to work in groups to discover and learn. The library, therefore, needs flexible working spaces that respond to group working while forming the interface between the physical media and the user – the exchange point if you like.

Our design for a new History Centre in Plymouth sees the exchange point take the form of a blended environment which contains not only access points to information but retail shopping, café culture, interactive discovery points and ways to tempt the user to further investigate the treasure that is history. Barriers have been reduced to allow a retail experience to turn into an educational exploration pulling users into the new facilities. It is this serendipitous exploration which appeals to the new millennials using their well-honed digital media filtering to find what is useful and what is not, whilst listening to music on headphones, texting their friends and drinking a flat white simultaneously.

And so, while we might point to Google for information, we should point to libraries for knowledge. Knowledge that can be filtered by our own in-built search engines; knowledge that can be consumed and digested with ease.

The victors in the past had the honour of writing the history – today anyone can write history and the library or archive should act as the filter of what is important.

Libraries have the potential to be the portal to human’s accumulated knowledge of the world, and however this is accessed – be it digitally or physically – the library needs to evolve to be the fulcrum around which the student learning experience is wound. 

UK & Europe,