Quita Hynd: Long live the tenements

Quita Hynd: Long live the tenements

Quita Hynd

Graduate architect Quita Hynd shares her final year project which considered whether to retrofit the recently demolished 219-245 Blackness Road tenements in Dundee.

One module available for final year 5th year Architecture students, entitled Macro Micro, explored ‘deep retrofit’ as a means of addressing Dundee’s housing needs. The objective was to provide “socially, ecologically, and environmentally sustainable housing in Dundee by upgrading or transforming an existing building”.

My thesis topic considered the recently demolished 219-245 Blackness Road tenements. The buildings, although neglected, were not beyond repair but were demolished to make way for modern, more energy-efficient housing leaving a noticeable gap in the busy thoroughfare and stunning the local community. Demolition and rebuild may seem the easier option, even if it is more expensive, but the consequences of demolition runs deeper than economics. The significant environmental impact of demolition and rebuild is entirely at odds with the intended aim of sustainability but there is arguably a more significant factor and one that is easily disregarded by decision-makers - the impact of demolition on the character and identity of the city and the loss of ‘place’.

The central question driving the research was how to modernise Dundee’s tenements and still retain their ‘sense of place’? What might have been achieved if deep retrofit had been implemented over demolition? Saving the building from demolition and refitting with energy-efficient measures would go some way to addressing Dundee’s housing crisis but a radical rethink of the building from the inside-out would yield even greater benefit to the people who inhabit it.

The proposed redesign of 219-245 Blackness Road focussed on encouraging social interaction as well as preserving the look and feel of the original building. The design addressed the necessary improvements in a sensitive but modern way - transforming the accommodation to suit modern spatial requirements, addressing the issue of fuel poverty, improving accessibility, and providing the small-unit accommodation desperately needed in the city. Retail units on the ground floor provide opportunity for social engagement and enliven the general atmosphere of the place.

Apart from the shops and improved doors and windows, the front façade is otherwise unaltered and the street vista remains relatively unchanged. The back is where the greatest change has taken place. Extending the footprint at the back enabled the Victorian back-front arrangement to be reversed providing residents with a larger social space and changing the main aspect of the flat to the landscaped back courts and the open views to the rear.

Quita Hynd: Long live the tenements

In effect, it becomes a building in two parts, the traditional front and the modern back. The compromise between old and new creates a hybrid building which from the front appears to be unaltered but from the back to be completely reconfigured. The new section at the back exhibits an element of impermanence against the traditional stone structure. By simply pinning onto the rear façade, the extension creates minimal disruption to the existing structure. The modular steel construction enable future changes to be made to the layout as required. Further savings are made in avoiding the large-scale demolition, site clearing and rebuild costs.

The adaptations to layout, outlook and materiality improve the residents’ well-being and enhance the sense of community and belonging. Light, space and comfort levels are hugely improved. Flats of different sizes can accommodate singles and families allowing people to age in place and remain connected to the building and the community for longer. Crucially, the building’s presence on Blackness Road is preserved to be enjoyed and adapted for generations to come.

The proposed design focuses on enhancing the building’s ‘sense of place’ while at the same time taking account of the social, cultural and historical context of the building; recognising the interests of the residents, the community and the town planners. Patrick Geddes, known for his work in town planning and sociology in the late 1800s and early 1900s, encouraged the adaptation of buildings by each generation, saying that it is right that they should add their own mark but with the caveat that they should not lose sight of what had gone before. Far better to enhance what we have and maintain the connection between communities of the past, present and future.

We should improve our buildings and take advantage of new technologies and efficiencies not only because it makes environmental and economic sense but because doing so helps retain the historical and cultural context of the place and gives the community its sense of identity. Waves of improvement over the century have seen the worst of the slums and even some perfectly serviceable buildings razed in the name of modernisation.

The tenements that survived have gone on to prove their adaptability and cultural value. The standardised configuration of the tenement, which originally enabled the design to be replicated at pace, could once again be used to advantage to implement widespread change. Rather than being seen as a problem, the tenements should be considered an asset. Why raze and start again when a perfectly good canvas is just waiting for imaginative intervention? Let’s reuse these substantial structures and transform them to enhance our cities and leave a legacy for future generations.

Long Live the Tenements!

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