A Lesson in History: When Old Buildings Get a New Lease of Life


Seeing the very latest in leading-edge design thinking for interiors is always exciting and can be a real boost to creativity, but there is also something really inspirational about the way that good design can breathe new life into older buildings needing refurbishment.

It can provide them with a whole new audience and also bring unique physical attributes to whichever contemporary business is housed within them.

Recently, Historic England revealed the places that have been added and removed from the 2017 Heritage at Risk register, providing a snapshot of the state of England’s most valued vulnerable historic buildings. What happens to them next is up to us...

Artists impression, 209 Deansgate, 1902.

Artists impression, 209 Deansgate, 1902.

Site highlighted in pink, 1849

Site highlighted in pink, 1849


When we created Manchester-based Spanish restaurant Tapeo and Wine - which sits in a Grade Listed building - we first conducted a heritage study in order to fully understand the site, its limitations, and its history. 

Grade Listed buildings require an additional stage of the design process in which we work to fully understand the site. It is paramount that the heritage of the building itself is understood and preserved, making these kinds of projects complex yet rewarding to undertake.


For two decades, the 209 Deansgate address was home to the famous Mancunian retail establishment, The Model Shop. More recently, the building was given a Grade 2 listing and fell within a newly created conservation area. When our client took the site on, a soft strip-out had to be undertaken to uncover original features which had been completely hidden, including lost rooms which hadn’t been used for over 30 years.

Working closely with the heritage department of the local council for over 2 years, we engaged in a very sensitive design process to bring back the former glory of the building, including retaining and refurbishing original cornices, basement wall tiles, terrazzo, and herringbone parquet timber floors.

We also replaced all the ground floor windows with replica original shaped frames and opened up the stairwell, bringing it back to its 1950s design, except with glass guarding to allow natural light to penetrate into the basement. 

tapeo 2.jpg

The original kitchen for the building was also in the basement, evidenced by old duct work and burns in the terrazzo flooring and on the ceiling. This was the obvious location for the new kitchen, although many of the original duct routes were no longer available due to historical building extensions. The extract and ventilation from the kitchen and the basement proved to be one of the toughest and most costly elements of the fit-out.

Our client was keen to introduce a genuine Spanish Taverna feel to the restaurant, which incorporated hand-made tiles and furniture commissioned and made in Spain, which also added to its unique design. With the restaurant has received high accolades from press and food bloggers, some claiming it is the most genuine Tapas Restaurant in Manchester's Spanish Quarter.



A similar level of consideration was needed for our recent renovation of Bury St Edmunds’ Cupola House, which is now home to Bourgee Restaurants’ third UK site. Cupola House fell victim to a devastating fire a few years previously, so for this project - as well as preserving the building’s features - we needed to ensure the building was compliant with modern-day fire, health and safety regulations.


Cupola House is a Grade 1 listed building, so protection on alterations, additions or demolitions are controlled by Listed Building Consent and required by local planning authorities when development is proposed.

According to English Heritage, “Grade 1 buildings are of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important; only 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade 1.” However, the list description dates to 1952, and between alterations which have occurred in the second half of the 20th century and the damage caused by the fire, the description provided in the listing was no longer an accurate representation of the building - so again we had to go in and evaluate before we could begin proper planning and design work. 


The building had been considerably altered over time, from its origins as a medieval tenement, to the considerable restoration works in 2003 which removed it from the Buildings at Risk register. Given that much of the built fabric was now lost, we needed to refer to archival documents to understand more fully the layout and construction of Cupola House prior to the fire.

The main conservation issues were undertaken by the landlord before our clients signed their lease; Purcell Architects were contracted to undertake this intricate programme of work to carefully restore the building to its former glory while retaining as much character of the original structure as possible.

Some of the iconic features of the building, which underpinned its original listed status, such as the cupola at the pinnacle of the building and the oak staircase running through the centre of the five floors were all reinstated and other features have been recreated where possible - the results of which were finally unveiled in July 2016, ready to house its new tenant, Bourgee.


On the whole, we couldn’t structurally change the interior and so we had to work with the spaces provided. The only exception to this rule was on the 3rd floor, where we took down two walls to create an open space. We did, however, have to indicate where the walls were previously by keeping a small section of them standing. We provided a sensitive scheme in line with both the Bourgee brand standards and befitting of this amazing building.


Aside from the sustainable and financial benefits of using an existing building as opposed to creating a new build, there is no doubt of the aesthetic appeal of old buildings, complete with exposed brickwork and beams, existing architectural features - staircases, window surrounds, and entranceways all adding character.

Talbot Mill, Ellesmere Street, Manchester - One of the largest surviving Manchester cotton mills has been bought for redevelopment and will be converted into 200 new homes.

Talbot Mill, Ellesmere Street, Manchester - One of the largest surviving Manchester cotton mills has been bought for redevelopment and will be converted into 200 new homes.

It’s not just commercial businesses either; structures such as old warehouses and mills are increasingly being used for the development of residential spaces.

Across the developed world, many cities display remnants of their industrial past and the vernacular of these types of older buildings have become exceptionally popular for developers and home buyers - offering unique and authentic original attributes which can’t be easily fabricated.

This trend isn't just confined to more industrial areas of Britain, though; London, New York and in fact most European cities each play host to numerous historic structures that are now being used for different means.


A few of our favourites and more notable examples from our capital city are the Michelin Tyre Building in South Kensington (pictured above), now a restaurant, offices and retail emporium; the Apple store in Covent Garden, which works with an amazing heritage site to merge with the hyper-modern standards of Apple; Battersea power station, one of London's most iconic buildings which is now being resurrected for multiple uses.

In the big apple, many of the buildings in Soho, Tribeca and on Broadway are traditional US vernacular and are quite restrictive in terms of what can be done to refurbish them. One lovely example, though, is the Apple store in the Meatpacking district, which is housed in an old Post Office.


In Europe, historic areas that command respect, such as Turin's Lingotto, once a Fiat Factory, now containing an exhibition hall, an auditorium, two hotels, a large shopping and restaurant gallery, and the engineering faculty of the Turin Polytechnic.

Other sensitive buildings that we personally have worked on include ASICS' Barcelona flagship store, housed in an office building of particular modernist merit that we refurbished; Onitsuka Tiger's flagship store on the Leiderstraat in Amsterdam, a traditional Dutch five-storey warehouse building, based on one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe.


If you're considering the renovation potential of a historical building and want to talk about your ideas for a new commercial interior space, feel free to get in touch.