Birr Community School – a case study in retrofitting and conserving modern architecture

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McLaughlin, John
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University College Cork
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More than half of the buildings in the world were built in the last hundred years, and the approach to construction of many of them assumed limitless fossil fuels. These buildings represent considerable embodied energy and, in some cases significant cultural and social value. As the limitations on planetary resources became more apparent in the last fifty years insulation began to be introduced into construction, and older buildings started to get basic retrofits. Much of the retrofit work done however damaged the cultural and aesthetic value of the architecture, and there is a need to balance the energy conservation imperative with the cultural value of older buildings. The President of the European Commission, Ursula van der Leyen, recognised this in her recent announcement of a “New European Bauhaus for a Green Transition” to address the need for a “renovation wave” that recognises the importance of sustainability in buildings and the cultural project of making “a bridge between the world of science and technology and the world of art and culture.” This paper will present a case study in the architectural conservation of a nineteen seventies school building in Ireland that received funding under the Getty Foundation’s Keeping it Modern programme in 2018. The design of the school itself was a response to the changing society in Ireland of the nineteen seventies and represents a pivotal moment of transition in secondary education. The design was selected through a national architecture competition run by the Department of Education and the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI). The building was recognised by the award of a triennial God Medal from the RIAI and featured in the Pavilion of Ireland at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, co-curated by the author. The school stands at the heart of the community in Birr town and many of the students are children of former students. The research into the architectural conservation and renovation was developed in a subsequent project involving academics from UCC, UCD and QUB. The research methodology developed drew on Stewart Brand’s theory of “shearing layers” articulated in his book How Buildings Learn (1994). This research formed the basis of a conservation management plan that identified the social significance of the school and used social ethnographic methods to document this through drawings, photography, film, and interviews. An exhibition of this research was held at the Irish Architecture Archive in winter 2019-20. The Conservation Management Plan was finalised and submitted to the Getty Foundation in February 2021.
Architectural conservation , Birr Community School , Conservation management plan , Architecture design , Architecture students , Architecture education
McLaughlin, J. (2021) ‘Birr Community School – a case study in retrofitting and conserving modern architecture’, EESD2021: Proceedings of the 10th Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference, 'Building Flourishing Communities', University College Cork, Ireland, 14-16 June.