“The greenest building is the one that already exists,” goes the famous quote by the American architect Carl Elefante.

With that in mind, one of Wales’ leading experts on historic structures says it’s time to redefine what the nation’s architectural heritage really means, for the sake of our history and the environment.

Sue Fielding is the senior historic buildings investigator for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW). She says protecting the nation’s buildings, especially the more modern-day ones, will not only help us better understand our past, but will also help to combat climate change.

Earlier this year, the RCAHMW published a list of 20th century buildings across Wales which had either been lost forever or are currently at risk of being demolished.

Ms Fielding argues modern-day buildings tell us just as much about our history, politics and society as structures which are far older: “Generally speaking, the public’s appreciation of historic architecture is based on whether they like the look of it. I think we have been sold what our heritage is, which is pretty timber-frame houses and lovely mediaeval churches. And those things are all aesthetically pleasing, of course.

“But what’s really interesting is that when Victorian buildings were going up during that era, actually, people complained about them in much the same way as we do about ours nowadays.

“We all look back at the 1960s with horror at how they were demolishing Victorian buildings and saying, ‘well they’re not very old, they’re not very nice and they’re not very aesthetically pleasing, so let’s get rid of them all and replace them with something new’.

“Now, 60 or 70 years on from that, we’re doing exactly the same thing with the structures that those people built. I imagine that 60 years into the future they’ll look back in horror at what we’re doing right now too.

“It’s a cyclical thing with human nature. We never seem to like what is modern or recent. And so that is why we need to think about the timescale from when a building goes from being modern and therefore disliked, to being historic and therefore worthy of protection.”

The concrete architecture that dominated the post-war landscape across Wales and further afield continues to divide public opinion. However, architectural historians are keen to point out that the designers of the 1960s and 1970s were making genuine attempts to solve a multitude of societal problems with their work.

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According to Ms Fielding, the best way to get people to appreciate post-war buildings is to help them understand the history behind the design and construction: “The fact that post-war buildings are often big, concrete, Brutalist structures does make them harder to be admired visually. I think the trick is to get people to appreciate them for what they represent, and to do that you have to look beyond just the face value of their looks.

“What’s also different about post-war buildings is the amount of embodied carbon within them. Concrete was used as a building material on a huge scale back then, which means that the amount of embodied carbon within those structures makes it a game changer.

“So for several reasons we need to get people to appreciate these buildings for their historic value because even if they’re not very old, they’re still a part of the progression of our collective national history.

“As a parallel to that, we need to think about what we’re doing in terms of environmental sustainability. You can take down a brick building and reuse the bricks one by one, but of course, many modern-day builders won’t do that because of the time, effort and money it would involve.

“You can’t do that with concrete structures at all though, because once they’re demolished, they’re gone for good and the embodied carbon gets released from the broken down concrete. The waste material has to go somewhere too… to landfill for example.”

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Globally, the construction industry consumes almost all of the cement on the planet, 50 per cent of steel production, 26 per cent of aluminium and 25 per cent of all plastics, according to a report by The Architect’s Journal.

The industry’s overall carbon emissions are also colossal because of the way it devours energy and resources. Architectural research undertaken in the USA in 2016 demonstrated that “it takes between 10 and 80 years for a new building that is 30 per cent more efficient than an average-performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the construction process”.

It also stated “reusing an existing building and upgrading it to be as efficient as possible is almost always the best choice regardless of building type and climate”.

One building which requires a fresh approach according to the RCAHMW is the former Pembrokeshire County Library, which is situated on Dew Street in Haverfordwest. Opened in the late 1960s, the library was designed by county architect Gilbert Ray, while the exterior facade features a sculpture by the late artist David Tinker, former director of visual art at Aberystwyth University. The library shut for good almost a decade ago, is in a state of dilapidation and counts as ‘at risk’.

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“What’s important about the library building in Haverfordwest is what it represents,” says Ms Fielding. “And what it represents within the context of 20th century history is the post-war passion to build a new better nation. Understanding that as a society is vital.

“Similarly, I’m just finishing a very large report on the creation of Cwmbran New Town at the moment. It was about the passion to create new settlements that would bring a better way of life for working-class people, the chance to live in good quality housing, to have good quality jobs for people, open spaces, excellent leisure facilities, fantastic schools, not to mention the Acts of Parliament that were passed to ensure that everybody had access to a library and a decent education. All of these things were publicly funded. We must get people to understand what these buildings represent in those sorts of terms.”

A number of iconic 20th century buildings across Wales, often dubbed ‘eyesores’, have already been lost.

Last November, the building which used to house the North Wales Police headquarters at Bodhyfryd in Wrexham was blown up and streamed across the internet. It was originally designed by architects Stuart Brown and Eric Langford Lewis, and completed in 1975. Using reinforced concrete, the site was dominated by an eight-storey central tower which cantilevered out from a concrete column containing the stairs and lift shafts.

Standing at 142ft in height, it housed the main police offices, the briefing and interview rooms, as well as quarters for Special Branch. The doors to the building were finally closed in January 2019 when North Wales Police relocated to a new headquarters.

Last autumn, Ms Fielding helped to form the C20 Society in Wales. It’s purpose is to educate people about Wales’ 20th century built heritage and ultimately to help protect it: “At some point, we need to start learning from the past and start to think ahead to what is going to be important and appreciated by people in the future.

“One of the things the C20 Society in Wales is looking at is environmental sustainability and climate change. We’re promoting the importance of retrofitting and the re-use of these buildings in new guises.

“And as the Royal Commission, our remit is to make sure these structures are researched and understood so that we can put the buildings as individuals and groups in the context of our national history. We hope that will give people a better understanding of why they were built in the first place.

“Instead of demolishing these structures, we must start thinking more creatively now. You can rethink how the shell of the building can be used to create a new interior that’s properly insulated and more economic for heating, for example.

“Sometimes with external concrete structures, the interior space can be completely reimagined and used in a different way. That’s a lot better than ripping the whole thing down and saying that we need to start from scratch.

“We need to get developers, architects and councils to think more imaginatively about how we can retrofit these buildings. By doing that you can improve the energy efficiency but maintain the integrity and the core of the architecture at the same time.

“In terms of the Welsh Government, they’re very forward thinking when it comes to sustainability.

“That ties in beautifully with the fact that all these buildings could be recycled and reused rather than demolished and redeveloped. That’s what we hope for. And that would mean a slice of Welsh history could be saved for the future too.”

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