Designing a guest experience for a heritage building comes with its own unique set of obstacles.
I recently project managed a guest experience design and installation project for Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, helping them wake up their Whistlestop Cafe. The cafe is a Victorian railway booking hall in the picturesque Derbyshire village of Matlock Bath.
Whether you’re trying to sympathetically clear wildlife from a historic site, or trying to invite it in, here are some considerations to bear in mind when embarking on your restoration project.
THE SPACE IS NEVER WHAT YOU EXPECT IT TO BE
You can picture the site in your mind, you can visit the site, you can even be given elevations, but the site is never what you think. Years and years of use change the shape of a building, floors drop, ceilings bow, walls crumble.
Be prepared to measure EVERYTHING. And even after measuring it might not be right.
Having elevations and drawing plans may not mean you know what a space looks like. The drawings could be from years ago (or maybe the measurements in feet and inches).
Be prepared to design for the space, and design for errors in the install.
TAKE A MODULAR APPROACH
When faced with an uncompromising space design for the space you are given, don’t look for a space to put your design. Old buildings are full of nook and crannies something surprising could be installed.
Heritage buildings are thankful for modular builds for two reasons: the space might change for natural reasons (leaking ceilings, etc.) – old age will do that – if the building managers only have to replace one element of your design, they’ll thank you later.
The second reason, exhibitions are in constant rotation, curators will be thinking of how they can use this space next. With a modular build changing messaging can be simple.
BE SYMPATHETIC TO THE BUILDING
Yes, the listed status may say that you have to respect the building in a certain way, but if you understand the structure you’ll know how to get the best from it.
Drilling holes into stone is not only tricky, but could be protected by the grade of listing. Drilling into the mortar is not only easier but is replaceable.
RESPECT THE HISTORY
If you are operating within England, as we did on the Whistlestop Cafe, Historic England will have marked a building as listed for a reason, don’t think of this as a barrier, think of it as the opportunity. Why is it listed? What’s the history? What’s the story? Can I build the narrative around it?
DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP
Often with old buildings, comes enthusiasts. People that know all the history and knowledge; what it used to be, the changes it has been through. Not only is this a great source of history for building a narrative, but their knowledge can be invaluable when designing and delivering the install.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the help of local craftsmen – old buildings require a specific set of skills. Having a conversation with stonemasons, joiners or even wildlife experts can tell you what you can and can’t do with the space.
BUILD A COMMUNITY
Having local knowledge, artisan tradespeople and those that love the building as part of the wider project team is vital. Ensuring that you are giving the building a new lease of life for all to enjoy is a sure fire way to build that community.
The community that was formed during our transformation of The Whistlestop Cafe helped us on so many levels, from collecting withies from a nearby willow tree to upcycling vintage furniture. We often had a small army on site, helping us put The Whistlestop together.
To discover how we transformed the Whistlestop in Matlock Bath, click here to see the full case study.