There is arguably one thing worse than a condemned building – one that has been ignored. The condemned at least has its five minutes of fame, revelling in the attention of planners and developers before the pomp and circumstance of razing it to the ground; the ignored simply sits quietly in the corner praying for someone to realise its potential.
This former railway siding boasted the structural merits of Johnny Vegas and the architectural merits of an outdoor privy; fashioned from asbestos and left to house nothing more important than a collection of oily tools and discarded engine parts belonging to the adjacent Steam Valley Railway in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. All the glamour was on the platform as the clouds of smoke brought enthusiasts to sample the Victorian splendour. No-one saw the mass of concrete and corrugated iron behind the scenes.
Vic Johnson had other ideas. After making his mark in London during the 1980s he moved to Shropshire in the late 1990s to encourage Middle England to dip its toe in the waters of high design. A notoriously difficult audience, Vic won them over with a series of sympathetic yet striking builds. But it was his ground-breaking work on energy reduction and his ability to create buildings with the faintest of carbon footprints that gained recognition.
He hatched his rescue plan for the railway siding in a bid to prove that every building, whether condemned or ignored, had a future. Over the period of six months he transformed it into a state-of-the-art office for him and his bright young team at Johnson Design Partnership.
“Of course we want to stand out from the crowd,” Vic explains. “But we didn’t just pick a down-and-out building for the sake of it. It’s about lifting the area, encouraging other people to be brave, and seeing the potential in everything.
“Some people laughed when they heard what we were planning to do. They didn’t share our vision because they didn’t have any vision of their own. When I looked at the unit I didn’t see a row of neglected buildings, I saw an opportunity to maximise what was there and change people’s perceptions.”
The resulting office is a triumph for Vic and his creative team of architects and designers who have shown that jaw-dropping architecture can spring out of the most unlikely environments.
As eco-architects, they also practice what they preach: high spec insulation, natural ventilation, a green sedum roof and an office close enough for many staff to walk to work.
“This office certainly came from a humble beginning but we feel we have shown what can be done, regardless of what you start with,” Vic muses.
“Going ‘green’ isn’t just about sticking solar panels on the roof or attaching a windmill to the chimney stack, it needs to be about the very fabric of the building.
“We made the most of the high thermal mass ground floor and put a lightweight floor on top to ensure we could retain the heat and lower our energy usage. The boiler is only on for a few minutes in the morning and that’s all we need. Our bills are laughable – peanuts compared to what we used to pay.
“A lot of clients assume that being environmentally friendly is all about expensive add-ons. This simply is not the case if you understand that building very simple measures into the construction process can do the hard work for you.”
Vic’s message is spreading far and wide. Defence Estates, the arm of the Ministry of Defence that looks after everything, from Britain’s Army barracks to its RAF bases, has asked Vic to consult on a huge campaign to slash carbon emissions across all its sites while also improving accommodation. Oh, and throw a CPRE award into the mix for Vic’s Northamptonshire school, the first to achieve an excellent BREEAM rating.
“Working with Defence Estates is a huge project and an exciting one too,” says Vic. “Our armed forces have been living in shocking accommodation for too long; not only are they unfit for returning war heroes, they are also appallingly inefficient.
“This is a huge opportunity for Defence Estates to remodel the hundreds of sites they own across the country and make a monumental impact on carbon emissions.”
Although the credit crunch continues to rain blows on the construction sector, Vic is optimistic about the future as his team work on projects as far afield as Uganda and the Far East.
“It’s been an exceptionally busy time for us and we have taken on two more members of staff,” he points out.
“Obviously it’s going to get tough for everyone in the next year or so and there is no point pretending we are immune to this, yet a lot of our business is about saving clients money in the long run. In this climate that’s an easy decision to make.”