Conserving heritage through sustainable architecture

23 min read

Joanna Spiteri Staines graduated in 1993 with Honours in Architecture from the University of Malta. She obtained a Masters’ Degree in Restoration in 1998 from the Scuola di Specializzazone di Restauro dei Monumenti, at the Universita’ di Sapenza, Rome.

Joanna joined Architecture Project (AP) in 1993 becoming an associate in 2005. She led a number of major projects including the Malta Stock Exchange Offices, Valletta (completed 2001) conceptual design for the Cruise Liner Terminal on the Grand Harbour, Valletta which won several national and international awards together with other projects mainly centred around the conservation of historic buildings and sites.

Joanna co-founder of Openworkstudio and NIDUM in 2015. Joanna has served as a council member of Din L-Art Helwa, Malta’s leading national heritage organisation since 2008. She forms part of the Heritage and Environmental Planning Unit which lobbies for the introduction and implementation of policies and national strategies for improving the protection of Maltese heritage and for promoting more sustainable building development.

With us today we have Joanna Spiteri Staines. Joanna graduated in 1993 with Honours in Architecture from the University of Malta. She obtained a Masters’ Degree in Restoration in 1998 from the Scuola di Specializzazone di Restauro dei Monumenti, at the Universita’ di Sapenza, Rome.

Joanna joined Architecture Project (AP) in 1993 becoming an associate in 2005. She led a number of major projects including the Malta Stock Exchange Offices in Valletta, the capital city of Malta (completed 2001) conceptual design for the Cruise Liner Terminal on the Grand Harbour, in the capital, which won several national and international awards together with other projects mainly centered around the conservation of historic buildings and sites.

Joanna co-founder of Openworkstudio and NIDUM in 2015. She has served as a council member of Din L-Art Helwa, Malta’s leading national heritage organisation since 2008. She forms part of the Heritage and Environmental Planning Unit which lobbies for the introduction and implementation of policies and national strategies for improving the protection of Maltese heritage and for promoting more sustainable building development.

In today's call, we'll be looking at informing people on how to conserve heritage through sustainable architecture so that we may extend the lifespan of existing buildings and giving them a new lease of life. Retrofitting, so to speak. Joanna, we've always heard about, you know, conservation areas and urban conservation areas and heritage but really and truly there is a variety of styles of architecture that fall within this category.

In Malta, we all know that there is the architecture of the Knights and prehistoric architecture but is that just the only architecture we should be looking at when we talk about sustainable architecture and sustainable conservation?

Good afternoon, thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here talking about sustainable practices and sustainable mentalities.

We do have in our planning framework the designation of historic areas within a boundary called urban conservation areas.

The 90% of the building typography of an urban conservation area is vernacular buildings. It is simple terraced houses belonging to perhaps the nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth, sometimes sixteenth, sometimes even fifteenth, centuries.

Nothing to decorative all utilizing extensively traditional building techniques such as masonry blockwork, double skin walls, masonry roofing slabs, possibly timber beams. Many are time refined, well-crafted arches, sometimes vaults, some mostly barrel vaults, but sometimes even tripartite vaulting and more interesting stereotomy.

However, the urban conservation area is a piece of our heritage because it exemplifies what has happened in the past 2000 years of our history.

The nucleus of most of these villages will be very old and we know that this dates to the Arab period because of extensive research on the toponyms of the area. The structure, the urban structure in many a village is actually of Arab origin because it's winding, it tries to protect, it tries to keep people out. The alleys are small and winding, so there is a great amount of importance to the actual urban morphology.

Sadly, this is not really valued. I don't think people quite understand and by people, I mean the general public that you know the old crumbling house, which is often referred to as, it's of no value, there's a lot of humidity, everything is crumbling. Let's demolish it.

It's unfortunately given a lot of fuel without quite understanding how old that particular footprint that particular building and that particular corner of the village may be.

It clearly is not just buildings pertaining to the period of the Knights and by the period of the knights we mean the Knights of St John, and that stretches from 1530 to the 1800s.

Many a time is older than that, and usually as one would expect and logically so it is the ground floor or even the wells and the interconnecting systems which will predate the 16th century.

So, the most, the oldest part of a building, if you want to start looking at the age of a structure, is most likely it's well. We have a lot of research which proves that we have an Arab system of interconnecting wells which feeds from underground streams called the ‘qanāt’ system or ‘kanat’ system which is recently the topic of research and we didn't quite understand how important it was.

So, I would say one has to look at the big picture of an urban conservation area, not just the individual building. The urban conservation area is not just the only historic aspect of Malta and Gozo. There are many buildings which are dotted around which sadly unless they scheduled have little protection, and they represent various instances of growth or Hamlets or something which would have happened or perhaps hunting lodge, or perhaps a World War Two shelter, or perhaps a little Chapel and these also merit protection. The Cultural Heritage Act states that anything over 50 years is of historic importance.

That is really interesting, so I I'd like to maybe how can I say take a bit of an in depth look at an old home and then maybe step back later on again to see how that old home would fit in an environment. And many people that we've mentioned are taken aback by the amount of work, and amount of maybe funds that they would need to really restore an old home effectively and to make it fit for modern life and modern commodities.

We should really maintain the historical context. We can't just say I'm going to demolish you know this room, I'm going to demolish this two-storey house and then re-build. How possible is it to retrofit to make better, make upgrades to modern commodities these old homes in a way that we respect the architecture history of it?

Well, it really depends upon the actual house, but there are some important interventions which tend to recur every time one tries to create homes out of older houses, and basically people didn't have the standards of living that they have today. So, we have homes which are much more reliant on infrastructure.

By infrastructure I mean if before there was one bathroom in the house or one toilet in the house, these days we're looking at every bedroom having a bathroom; we're looking at a guest WC on the ground floor, so we're talking about extensive plumbing works.

We're talking about people having a use of water on a daily basis is much more onerous than it used to be, so we're talking about installation of water systems which don't just rely on well, they're clearly there is mains water and water storage.

We're talking about heating of water, which is an essential aspect of our daily lives today. We're talking about heating and cooling of buildings. We now all expect to have air conditioning systems or cooling systems of sorts.

People will tolerate an indoor temperature of up to 28 degrees, but I think beyond 28 degrees people will suffer and not function as they used to, as they are used to. So, we're talking about ensuring there's some form of heating and cooling within the house.

We're also talking about reducing the humidity levels because comfort conditions are attained when you reduce humidity, both in terms of heating and in terms of cooling.

So, the humidity which came through the walls because, there was no damp-proof course and no insulation on the ground floor or underneath the tiles is now something that we tend to try to treat.

Whereas before people would lime wash their ground floor just before the feast, the village feast, these days everybody wants to avoid that, and I have many requests which basically are on the lines of how do I stop my paint from flaking and how do I make sure that my plaster doesn't detach? Can I avoid having to sweep an old room three times a week?

So, these are things which perhaps before were not considered important, and today they are. I would say another aspect of this which we have worked upon together as well, is that the loading which was utilized 50 years ago with the sizes of timber beams is not the capacity loading and live loading that we design for today. So, most ceilings and most timber beams tend to be undersized for the code that we work to today in terms of live load, people walking over a floor. So, that's also an important aspect of retrofitting a building.

Yes, in fact you mentioned our experience with some old buildings that we've worked together and one of the things that I have found that unfortunately or fortunately maybe now we will delve into it a little bit deeper when we're talking about the thickness of walls and they had a purpose. The thickness of the walls and where they're placed in the home, and they weren’t necessarily structural walls. They didn't need such thick walls for the limited loads that they had at the time.

To be able to make most out of real estate modern developers are saying, oh, you know I will decrease the thickness of the wall and we'll have fitted wardrobes or some other furniture that requires some depth and therefore they take part of this wall and it is very important to understand how this is done, because you can actually make the wall weaker and one wall on its own without the other bit, right in the old configuration of walls, when they were almost a meter thick, reducing half of it is not going to be adequate.

So, it is very important I think that when we do certain alterations that they're done with a sensitivity of not just what we're trying to achieve from the home, but also how stable things are.

Going back to what we're talking about. You know there is a lot of things going on here. There is the historical value of the property, there is the cost of doing these alterations. How should one take a decision and based on what? Because I'm sure that you can't base it only on what the cheaper solution is.

You have to take a broader view of doing these interventions. What is your take on this, Joanna?

Well, clearly there's always a budget. So, one has to work within the budget. However, one has to also approach a building in terms of the intrinsic value that it has.

The thick walls have an insulation advantage which a 9 inch (230 millimetre thick) block work walls of apartments does not. So, many times, every time we've done an analysis of an air conditioning system, we have found that ground floor rooms with apertures which are not too large, tend to not even need air conditioning systems. They tend to be able to safely accommodate 10 degrees Celsius cooler than the outside because of their intrinsic insulation property - the thickness of the walls.

It's also important to note that these buildings tend to be finished with thick terrazzo tiles, or cement tiles, or marble tiles, so you have a floor finish, which is quite substantial, 20, 30 millimetres or sometimes even 50 millimetres. Again, that's giving you insulation but was also giving you is giving you a better distribution of load.

So, if you say we're going to get rid of all the tiles and, sometimes you will have to because they won't be in a good state, they'll be pitted, or cracked, or lifted. They have a much better distribution of load than a ceramic tile. So, in many cases, for example, I advise my clients to remove the outer two tiles which touch the walls, we pass the services through that and we can keep the tiles.

So, I think one has to be a little bit clever and sensitive towards the aspects of a house, which one can keep and in doing so if they are worth keeping, you can work within a budget because you've got your floor ready. Your walls mean that you may not have to invest in certain rooms which have large apertures or they have a thin roof on top. They don't have sufficient insulation at roof level.

So, I would say one has to really think before one change these things because they were designed well. A window designed a 100 years ago had an external louver, ‘persiana’, which kept the sun out. The sun did not touch glass and therefore you get a much more efficient control of heat intake than you do without an external shading.

Internal shading has 30% efficiency, external shading (blocking the sun before it reaches the glass) has 70% efficiency. There are aspects of these buildings which I really urge people to look at properly and consider that they were designed properly. So, a courtyard would allow for ventilation of the rooms and doesn't have so much sun coming into it because the walls are high. The circular staircase, ‘garigor’, up to the roof would allow you, in summer to open the door to the roof, which is usually louvered as well historically, you allow heat to escape in the night and then in the day you shut it down; in winter you shut it down. There are aspects of these houses which work very well with climate control.

Yeah, this is really interesting because we seem to have in time forgotten these little pearls of wisdom that our ancestors have learned through maybe trial and error, maybe imported from other countries and how to regulate temperatures, humidities and essentially being comfortable in a hot climate such as the one we have in Malta.

You know getting rid of the central courtyard, for example in favour of little shafts where there's only space to run very basic pipework for bathrooms and whatever, is certainly not going to have the same effect as the courtyards that used to be in the old traditional homes I would guess.

Yes exactly. I mean courtyards are of great importance in these houses and even if one is tempted to glaze them over, I would also be very careful to make sure that there is ventilation because they actually work best when they are allowed to ventilate the rest of the house.

So, we've tackled the home. I know that there is a lot more to say about it, but if we were to take a step back now and see how the home fits into its surroundings into the streetscape.

We know for sure that you know we can't restrict development from happening very close to UCA, but the proximity of such modern blocks of flats to the UCA is going to be possibly harmful not only for the streetscape, but also in terms of the way it looks, not just the architecture.

So, my question would be, in your opinion, how close should modern interventions, modern construction be to this traditional type of typology of architecture in Malta?

Well, it's really a question of what the development is. Up till a very short time ago, before 2015, our towns had the designation of Urban Conservation Area and then they had development zone. The development zone was made up out of terraced houses or villa areas or industrial areas. Let’s keep the industrial out of it.

The terraced houses where, in 2006, designated as from two stories becoming three stories, and sometimes those three stories were allowed, a semi-basement because of importance of creating garages at level minus one, and sometimes they were designated with also having a penthouse.

In doing that, and I remember a particular minister at the time who sat across a dinner table from me he said, it was one of the worst mistakes we made by allowing most villages to have three stories. We were basically saying that most villages and back gardens would end up with three stories plus one. That's four stories and perhaps four and a half stories.

So, you have a proximity of an old house with a garden, which perhaps somebody has spent a considerable amount of money upon, and what was before a terraced house could suddenly be demolished and become three floors plus one. This already created way back in 2006, a whole series of unsightly blank party walls.

It also meant that you had therefore, with four floors, you attracted a certain amount of speculation, and if a house was going to be demolished and would sell at 450,000 (Euros), you could sell four flats at 200,000 (Euros) each and basically be doubling your income or close to doubling your income.

So, you're talking about fuelling speculative developments. In 2006, already saw the harm that we’re doing to the neighbouring urban conservation areas, but sadly, the development lobby group always has the ear of the politician and the politicians did not instruct any changes other than attempting to be careful.

In 2015, it just got much worse because with the back page of a new policy or an update, an upgraded policy called Development Control Design Policy Guidance and Standards 2015, you have an infamous table called Annex Two. Now this Annex Two takes each and every area within the development zone and designates a total height.

So, three floors plus penthouse could suddenly become five or six floors, which means that if before we were looking at party walls of two floors above the traditional, two-storey houses, now we are looking at party walls of three or four floors above traditional houses. So, we're talking about a vista from the back of six floors, and sometimes even from the front of six floors.

This has created havoc upon the skyline and the quality of the urban spaces in Malta and Gozo. It is crazy that we put into place a policy of this kind which fails to examine its effects. What are its effects? It's fuelled speculation to a degree never seen before.

Every corner of Malta and Gozo has a crane in it. It's fuelled excavation at all costs down two to three floors, to be able to accommodate all the parking spaces you need for so many floors or flats, with the resultant problems that we are now facing, even the fatality that we saw in 2020.

Such excavation was never intended to be the case within these narrow streets, and definitely not within terraced house plots where you have a house on either side. We have actually asked for such prominence by spearheading with a policy without looking at its implications.

What have we done at a national level? We've created a speculative policy across all of Malta and Gozo, which results in demolition of houses. So where is the waste of those houses going? One. Where those houses a better element to have within our development areas? Or do we have an improved townscape now instead of a two-story terraced house with a five to six floor apartment block? I tend to think that it certainly is not for the better.

Thirdly, we have excavation again. What do we do with the waste? Fourthly, we are throwing away literally into quarries the most precious of our building elements, the simple globigerina limestone block and instead we are building single skin apartment blocks which have no environmental quality and even though there is on paper a document which is meant to satisfy European standards for sustainability called Document F, it's not being imposed & people are not checking up on it.

So, it is just a piece of paper to tick the box at European Union level. The quality of these apartments is absolutely shocking. I often go to see them with many people who are interested in buying them, and I rarely see a well-built block. I rarely see a block which has an underground well which retains the water. I rarely see proper double glazing or shading of glazed apertures.

What I usually do see 90% of the time is single skin, a corridor, and rooms on either side, one or two bedroom having possible natural light from the back. A third bedroom, probably having light from a tiny courtyard and a big front room in which a family of three or four has to survive, so the quality of these apartments is abysmal.

In Gozo, probably it is actually even worse, because the apartments that I have been looking at in Gozo tend to have a living room space of three meters width at the maximum. So, I mean the quality is just terrible, nobody really, I don't know. I mean, it's an interesting point but has anybody studied what this Annex Two is doing? Do we need so many apartments on the island?

Do we need to get rid of all our houses or a big part of our housing stock to replace it with apartments? Are all of these apartments going to be lived in? Or are they for passport holders that won't even enter the block? As we read from recent newspaper reports. What are we doing to our townscapes?

It's easy to buy a house and knock it down, you have one owner. You buy it, you knock it down, you put up four or five apartments. Do we not realize that we're going to be faced with these apartment blocks for the rest of our generation and the generations to come because you can't really buy out five, six, seven, eight people easily? This is what Malta and Gozo is going to look like for centuries. Do we not understand the implications of what is going on?

One wonders how sustainable that is, right? Because we can't keep on going on the way we are. So, we have to see how, well how we can do something for our wellbeing, because we've seen even during the pandemic that people are no longer possible to function properly in tiny spaces. The one that you were describing with no balconies, no open space, no outdoor areas. So yes, it's going to be something which we need to do something about.

My final point really, maybe for you Jo would be, so imagine I've, and this was again an item in the newspaper recently of how to treat these, blank walls. We've got them now and we have to deal with them somehow. How can we treat them for them not to be an eyesore, especially within a UCA?

Well, I would say there are two ways of looking at this. I would say that anybody who truly cares about our environment would immediately apply a moratorium on this infamous Annex Two. At least until we've studied its implications at the national level.

The next thing that should happen is that we should study the areas which do have these blank party walls and these pencil-like buildings which are creating such an eyesore in our townscape.

We should design the rest of the streets, making sure that we limit development to the absolute minimum of what we can do to make that street liveable. Development is not just demolishing a building and putting up a block of apartments. I have clients who have invested in historic buildings and have spent much more than the average speculative developer.

So, it's a question of where you put your money. Do you put your money in marble and superior lighting and the latest technology in infrastructure? Or do you put your money in the cheapest concrete and concrete block work and gypsum walls?

So, it really is a different type of development, but it is much more sustainable. It's much better for our environment and the construction industry can still be kept going because I do understand this merger of this country, but we just need to do things in a better way. At a real estate level, I would also question how many apartments we need on the island.

So, if I come back to your question of the blank party walls in development zones and those infringing upon urban conservation areas. I would also look at the need for the amount of apartment blocks there are needed within that locality because if you have one or two streets which are dedicated to apartments, it's absolutely fine.

The next block, the next house can be demolished. It goes up, you have a zone which is earmarked for such apartments. You can even design for the garages to be developed instead of piecemeal fashion and excavation in a piecemeal fashion, it happens at one go and you locate areas which can take Annex 2.

You have also other areas where the people perhaps want to keep the value of the house. They don't want to see it devalued because there's a block of apartments behind them or next to them where we should start saying okay, Annex 2 should not be applied here.

I would definitely think that that's the case with the immediate area and the first 200 meters around an urban conservation area, and I would say there are other areas where people should be given the choice of whether they want their street to become blocks of apartment or whether they want their street to retain the terraced house aspect.

These are not necessarily urban conservation areas. They can be terraced houses from the 70s or from the 80s, and there is value in that because many people do want to live in houses. Many people do want to have a back garden, so not just give the citizens of Malta and Gozo one building type.

Let's allow the citizens of Malta and Gozo to be able to choose within whether they live in a street full of apartments or whether they live in our streets full of terraced houses and let us allow people to retain the value of their house, to retain the value of what they've invested in. Let's not devalue their house because the speculator wants to sell his five apartments and therefore ruins the streets because of the pencil building and the blank party wall.

So, I think it has to be looked at in a true planning sense. A proper planner doesn't put blinkers on and just looks at that one site, which is what's happening at the moment. The true planner looks at that locality, looks at that area, looks at it as a whole.

These are some really interesting takeaways, Jo. You've mentioned, the public having a choice and needing to do that choice wisely when they come to invest properties and invest in maybe continue developing their own property because I know that some people would want to provide for their families so they're extending their building upwards basically, to provide for them.

They need to be aware of the decisions that they're taking, and how these decisions can lead to better sustainable development. You've also touched on authority. How it should be done, how planning should be done, not in a piecemeal fashion and including more of the city, including more of the town within which the development is being proposed, and possibly yes, seeing how blocks can be developed rather than just tiny buildings.

One last nugget if I may ask. What is the role of designers you think in all of this? How can we lead the way or at least be a beacon of light for sustainable development?

Well, I really think there is a very important role for the designers. This week we saw the very unfortunate, sad situation of a modernist house in Old Railway Road, Balzan being given approval for its entire demolition.

I think with a proper design cap on, that house or elements of that house, without wishing to go into the merits of facadism because I think that's another topic, another podcast in itself, could have been kept.

I think if one is creative, one can create a three-storey house which is divided into three apartments or is divided into a house with an apartment on top, which can also have some form of underground parking. Although once you limit the apartments, you don't even need so much underground parking because it's a chicken and an egg thing. Put in six apartments and you need twelve car spaces and therefore you need to demolish everything because you need to put in a basement.

I think there's a lot of value in the retention of a house. There is value in an architect and a designer looking at that house and saying okay, how can I give the owner of this house the extension that they want, but retaining elements of that house which make it an intrinsic part of the streetscape and of the urban fabric that it is located in.

I mean, I don't wish to just limit it to house. There's also the garden. I mean the garden is what makes the house, a house without a garden is a bit sad. We also have to realize that people do want trees. They don't just want plants in pots. So, of course there is a very important aspect of design with architects need to be creative. Had they need to be creative by not just looking at one solution, we demolish it & put a block of flats.

They need to be creative by telling the client listen so we can do this, we can do that. We can give you three floors; we can give you four floors. This is your revenue on three floors, this is revenue on retaining the house; this is your revenue on four floors. I think we also have to ask ourselves as architects and persons operating in Malta and Gozo, if we care about our heritage, I think we have to also put our ethics into the pot and say, are we happy with what we are producing? Is this the best that we can produce? Are we respecting our heritage?

Yes, some very valuable food for thought there. Lots to think about now, Jo. Thank you so much for joining us today Joanna. This was a very interesting chat with you.

Thank you, Jeanette. Thank you, Luis.

This was Joanna Spiteri and you are listening to the human agenda.

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