It is a fact of economic life that a building usually outlives its original use – maybe also its subsequent use too, and the one after that as well. So a building can take on a number of identities over the years, as a new function replaces the previous one.
An example is the building on High Street in Harborne, now containing restaurants and cafes, and named The School Yard.
Before its recent conversion, it was an adult education centre known as The Clock Tower. Before that, up to about 1960, it was Harborne High Street Junior School, built in the early 1880s, designed for the Harborne School Board by the architects Martin and Chamberlain.
On its prominent site on the corner of York Road, the building, with its tall ventilation tower, is a notable and popular local landmark. Over 130 years, its external appearance has not fundamentally changed, but the meaning of the architecture has.
Its red brick Gothic Revival forms used to convey “Here is an educational resource for the edification of the public”.
Now it says “Meet your friends at Prezzo and Urban Coffee Company, in a stylish conversion of a listed building”.
The planning of the conversion, done by architects K4, is an interesting inversion of a street building. Because the building is Grade II listed, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to create commercial street frontages for the occupying businesses without compromising the Victorian architecture.
Instead, the building is turned inside out.
One enters from High Street, goes up a few steps, and emerge into what was the playground, now paved in stone flags and surrounded on three sides by the restaurant frontages.
This courtyard is the new focus of the building. There is commercial signage on the streets, but it is intelligently and discretely freestanding, not attached to the building.
The intention of the developer, Neil Edginton of EDG Property, and the architects K4, is to contribute this courtyard to Harborne as a new place.
It’s not a public place of course, being privately owned and managed, but it is accessible to the public.
Edginton hopes that the courtyard will become a new part of people’s mental map of Harborne. It is intended to be a social space, with customers eating and drinking outdoors as well as inside.
This turning of a building inside out can be problematic. High streets thrive when they are lined by what we call “active frontages”. That is to say, shops, restaurants, pubs and bars which have their front doors on the street, and which animate the street, and help to keep it safe, by generating movement by people coming and going.
The removal of frontages from the public street to courtyards invisible from the street is usually something to be avoided.
But I think that The School Yard will avoid this risk. By creating an attractive and distinctive ambience for customers, it should generate activity on High Street.
There will be three entrances to the courtyard from the two streets, and although the businesses are not entered directly from the street, their interiors are visible from the street.
The fourth side of the courtyard is due to be filled by Phase 2 of the School Yard project, which is the subject of a current planning application.
It is a residential development designed by architects Bryant Priest Newman, which will contain one town house, 12 apartments, and basement car parking. It will be a striking, metal-clad building which should add considerably to the character of the courtyard.
The addition of residential use close to the restaurant uses already in The School Yard creates a potential problem which has already caused trouble in several places in Birmingham.
This is the problem of complaints by new residents about noise from established nearby licensed premises, which have led to legal threats to close the premises down. Recent unhappy examples in Digbeth are The Spotted Dog and The Rainbow. But due to intelligent architectural design and lease-writing, this conflict should be avoided at The School Yard, although Phase 2’s neighbours will be not only The School Yard’s restaurants, but the existing White Horse pub in York Road.
Windows to the apartments are positioned away from noise sources, and an acoustic consultant, Jonathan Richard Associates, has advised on the design of sound-deadening walls between the apartments and the pub. Also, the restaurants’ leases prevent them from making excessive noise in the courtyard.
Converting a listed building to commercial uses can be very difficult, and expensive, and many developers will avoid it.
Neil Edginton and K4 are to be congratulated on taking on what was, in 2011, a problematic building, and transforming it sympathetically. It is a commercial success, but also important to Edginton is the pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from taking a redundant historic building, restoring its fabric, and introducing new uses to bring it back to life. This is not the stereotypical image of a commercial developer, but one wishes it were more typical.
Certainly in Birmingham it is difficult to find many appropriate conversions of listed buildings like The School Yard, done either by a commercial developer or by the city council.
There are some – the Grand Hotel is a major current example. It represents good business, it extends and promotes the historic identity of the city, and it is good sustainability practice. It is also generally popular with local communities, who value their historic buildings.
The Harborne Society is very supportive of Edginton’s project, and Jim Priddey’s drawing of the building appears at the top of its website. Having local people on your side is good business too.
* Joe Holyoak is a Birmingham-based architect and urban designer