‘Patchwork model’: the beauty of imperfection
Demolition and newbuild have given way to a new approach. The focus has shifted to transformation, the sustainable improvement of something that already exists. In every transformation project, the tricky part is to find a balance between the existing and the new – a combination of old and new, with the beauty of imperfection.
For Marlies Rohmer Architects & Urbanists, the existing situation is a point of departure and a source of inspiration. We develop from what is present (which is sustainable and cost-efficient) while at the same time giving the building or the area a new identity by amplifying the existing quality and making well-judged new additions. The modifications have an uncontrived character. Marlies Rohmer creates plans which are unique but which harmonize with their context. In some respects the design adapts in a timelessly modest way to the situation, while in others it is clearly a child of its time, a refined made-to measure solution.
The flexible “patchwork model” we have devised gives a specific, appropriate solution for transformation tasks. The model upholds the cradle-to-cradle principle, and is based on the partial retention and refinement of existing structures, layouts, materials and infrastructure. We apply this model both to urban renewal projects and to individual buildings. The generic shell is a sustainable building structure and hence is highly flexible and amenable to transformation and change. The main supporting structure, fire/smoke compartmentalization and escape routing remain in principle unchanged. Spaces with installed plant such as kitchens and wet areas, and other facilities such a server rooms, are reutilized.
An important modification to make an existing office building suitable for contemporary use, in most cases according to the “new workstyle” strategy, is to demolish internal partitions so as to create a continuous open space within the outer walls. This makes the interior lighter and gives better visibility. The diagonal lines of sight allow the penetration of daylight deep into the office floors.
The flexible patchwork is a substrate which is wholly appropriate to accommodating irregularity, randomness and change. The approach starts with the possibilities that are there, and is diametrically opposed to the hermetic, monumental concept.
In urban renewal projects, application of the patchwork model is consistent with an open planning process and flexibility. It makes it possible to continue rearranging the various building and other components until far into the process, without conflicting with the essence of the master plan.
The patchwork strategy has now been applied to the transformation of the Dobbelman Site (2008), to the office of the Dutch Food Safety Authority (2011), to The Government Service for Land and Water Management (DLG) in Utrecht (2011), to the Mitros Housing Corporation (2013) and to the Belgian Embassy (2013).
Patchwork model: flexible urban development
Conducting transformations at the scale of urban planning is rather like repairing a car engine while it is still running. In the master plan for the inner city area development on the Dobbelman Site in Nijmegen, the autonomous position of the site was a primary starting point. The basis for the master plan was established in a very short period (approx. six months) in consultation with the residents. The patchwork model made it possible for the residents to think along with the designers to a significant extent and to rearrange scheduled components without conflicting with the urban design concept. The urban design concept was after all based from the outset on the possibility of rearranging functions. This patchwork model is inherent to the fragmented layout of the original industrial site, so rearrangement actually reinforces this concept. It is thus very important that consultation becomes more than the sum of parts (partial interests). The originally isolated factory site retains its characteristic self-enclosed character (the “Dobbelman block” remains recognizable as a unit) but has also been united with the surrounding district by the introduction of multiple routes. Last-minute changes were possible due to the open planning process. The result is a composition of volumes of varying scale and with a diverse programme, related to the organization (the fragmented character) of the former factory site but with a new function. Working is replaced by living.
The semi-public space, designed like a long factory assembly line, forms a strong backbone which unites all the separate components. This “street”, paved with Stelcon industrial anchor plates, was deliberately left unprogrammed. Here, too, flexibility was uppermost. Residents have annexed this public strip over the course of several years, and in future it will continue to gather new functions according to the wishes of the neighbourhood.
The new urban vitality of the Dobbelman Site provides a boost for new activities and for the development of the adjacent district.
Patchwork model: werkLANDSCHAP
Conversion enriches the character of the new accommodation. It is a challenge to endow the building with a new lease of life, given the rawness of the atmosphere it exudes. The new openness of the transformed office interior admits a huge amount of daylight and stimulates interaction and knowledge sharing between members of staff. The open space meanders over the floors and is organized into separate workstations which can be joined up into changing groups. The former corridors have disappeared and the entire corridor space has become working space, resulting in a very favourable net/gross ratio.
Retention of some of the original rooms yields a mix of open and closed spaces. As a result, a suitable working space is available for every kind of activity – concentrated work, meetings, presentations, video conferencing etc. The whole interior has a warm, lively atmosphere which, unlike the rather desolate emptiness that typifies a clean desk policy, offers a pleasant, non-sterile appearance.
The floor provides continuity but also underlines the flexibility of the interior. The carpeting for the offices of Dienst Landelijk Gebied in Utrecht, for example, consists of multiple colour blocks made up of carpet tiles. This flooring extends over the entire office floor area independently of the working layout, so it can easily allow for future changes.
The central “plazas” are usable for multiple purposes (lunch, meetings, brainstorming sessions) thanks to simple, flexible measures, such as a transparent curtain in the case of Dienst Landelijk Gebied. The plant containers are an inseparable part of the interior and are integrally designed under the patchwork model.
Specific accents make each office unique. The identity of the client is reflected in the interior and is different for each project. Sustainable, simple materials like wood, glass and fabric, and natural tints were chosen for the offices of the new Voedsel- en Waren Autoriteit, for example. Brightly coloured panels with enlarged map images were designed for the headquarters of Dienst Landelijk Gebied. The furniture is also adapted to the character of the client.
Conversion of a premises to a new function requires an integrated approach in which the quality of the existing building services and building physics problems must be considered.