The Art of Restoring Heritage Buildings with Glass

Phil Brown, European Regulatory Marketing Manager at Pilkington United Kingdom – part of the NSG Group – discusses the role glazing can play in modernising heritage buildings while maintaining their original character.


The UK is a treasure trove of heritage buildings from throughout the ages, woven through and often defining many of our towns and cities.

Protecting historic buildings is vital to preserving our nation’s heritage, and this is ensured by the practice of listing important buildings. The aim is to ensure that any future changes to a building do not result in the loss of its historical significance.

But our expectations for what buildings can provide their owners and occupants have changed significantly, even in recent decades. With factors like accessibility, flexibility of use, energy performance and availability of natural light all increasing in importance.

Accommodating these needs in historic buildings without compromising the existing architecture can present a challenge for designers. However, this is where glazing can create an elegant solution.

Minimal intervention

Glass is the perfect material for making additions to heritage buildings without burdening the original structure. The crisp aesthetic lines that can be achieved – especially with frameless, structural glazing systems – can create flawless connections that beautifully complement most heritage spaces.

Whether you plan to enclose a previous outdoor space or link a new space to an existing one, frameless glazing allows this to be done with minimal aesthetic impact on the existing architecture.

Linking two existing buildings was exactly the challenge that faced those involved in the redevelopment of the Grade II Listed Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea.

In creating an extension to the existing building, the designers were keen to preserve the impressive symmetry of the original facade, and this meant creating a sense of physical separation externally between the extension and the gallery itself.

The connection

At the same time, to deliver the best experience for visitors, the two elements needed to be well connected internally, with people able to flow freely between the spaces.

The Pilkington Planar structural glazing system was chosen due to its sleek design and frameless construction to enclose the linking section of the extension, set back from the buildings’ facades.

This link means that the two elements are connected on three levels, making the building feel unified to visitors while also allowing the historic facade to be appreciated in isolation from outside.

This effect of being separate but connected is something that can be done particularly well using structural glazing, as the designer can avoid imposing new materials, colours or textures on the original fabric of the building.

Essential character with a modern twist

Another project where the aim was to add a bright, modern space to a much-loved historic building was Gwyn Hall in Wales.

The hall is a Grade II Listed building with a rich cultural history and has provided a stage for many famous figures, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, as well as hosting concerts, plays, musicals and even wrestling matches.

A £4m restoration started in 2007 but was abandoned just months before completion when the building was destroyed by a fire. However, Gwyn Hall has now been restored to its former glory as part of a £7m renovation project that introduces modern design elements to the building’s original Victorian architecture.

Pilkington Planar was used to create an elegant glazed extension that adds the wow factor to the new and improved Gwyn Hall. A 20m-long rooflight was installed to help flood the building with natural light, while ensuring that its existing original architecture had a contemporary, crisp aesthetic edge.

Sustainable solutions

Heritage buildings tend not to be energy efficient and, as a result, have high energy bills. To make these buildings fit for the future, it is important that sustainability is considered – but striking the right balance between benefit and harm is not easy.

Hox Haus is an extended and re-modelled Grade II Listed Victorian gymnasium which is now used as student accommodation at the Royal Holloway University of London. It was important that the building kept an ideal temperature all year round without excessive heating and cooling costs, or compromising on the advantages large areas of glazing bring to a building.

The glass specified for Hox Haus was Pilkington Suncool 66/33, a superior solar control glass. Allowing just 33% of the sun’s energy to pass through, it significantly helps to reduce interior overheating. And, with a light transmission of 66%, it ensures plenty of daylight to maintain excellent brightness and external views.

Further solar control is provided by the shading created by anodised metal fins that project from the glazed wall in key areas, a feature that also adds a distinctive contemporary aesthetic to the design.

Ultimately, making heritage buildings suitable for years to come requires designers to walk a fine line between improving the amenity offered to the building’s users to bring it up to modern standards and preserving the character of the original architecture.

Thanks to its capacity to create spaces with the least possible visual interventions, in many cases glazing can be the perfect solution.

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