Designing within Historic Sites

The ability to assess a site and understand its historic significance is key in developing a sensitive design approach. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is a professional association that works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places around the world. ICOMOS have set out a series of guidelines to evaluate the impact of proposed development based on the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ properties. The conversion and extension of an existing Grade II listed former hospital building to a 101-room hotel at 384-398 Commercial Road, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, E1 was a project where these principles were applied to create a successful design solution.

Photo of the East End Maternity Hospital at 384-398 Commercial Road in 1930


The former Steel Lanes NHS Healthcare Centre is an ensemble of listed buildings built for residential and institutional uses which have been converted to health use over a century and a half of change. They have formerly been townhouses, a maternity hospital, a Victorian college and later converted into the Steels Lane Health Centre, thus creating complex layers of heritage. The challenge lied in understanding this historical hierarchy and developing a design that responded to this while also accommodating its proposed use. The change of use and subsequent proposed alterations were carefully assessed relative to the original buildings with a detailed heritage appraisal.


Interestingly, some buildings within the site are ‘curtilage listed’, as they are situated within the site boundary of the listed buildings, therefore, they were provided with the same protection. The Historic England listing identifies the former East End Maternity Hospital and one of the former townhouses no. 398 Commercial Road as listed. The neighbouring former SPCK college for lay preachers at 396 and 394, adjacent former chapel and extension to Steel’s Lane were however curtilage listed which had a great impact on the design.  The site also sits within the Albert Garden Conservation Area and its building considered one of the most significant institutional buildings in the area.

The use of the Chapel courtyard in 1954.


Site visits, documentary research from historical archives, a measured site survey, and a heritage appraisal, prepared by Cogent Heritage, were carried out to gain an in depth understanding of the building fabric. In response to the heritage appraisal the proposals sought to preserve the existing fabric as much as possible, thus retaining and conserving its original form and features. The principal facades of the buildings would be retained intact where original and restored. The researched enabled the design team to assess the importance of the existing NHS Steel’s Lane Health Centre relative to its context as well as document the existing buildings and have a better understanding of the ‘hierarchy’ of importance and heritage significance of different existing elements within the building. The survey included a detailed analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic forms of decay to the building including historical alterations to the building, extensions, and window replacements to help understand the evolving character and condition of the existing buildings. This information then informed the preparation of feasibility and detailed planning reports.

Poster for Church training college for lay workers


Balanced judgements based on shared ethical principles and accept responsibility for the long-term welfare of cultural heritage were demonstrated through the careful consideration of future uses for the building and preservation of the original building fabric and improvements to the historic building ensemble. We worked closely with the council, design team, consultants, and client to ensure their respective proposals were also sensitive to the existing fabric to create an overall cohesive strategy. The final design solution successfully balanced the needs to restore and preserve the historic building with the need to activate the buildings as a hotel. The combination of these two facets seeks to ensure the longevity of the building whilst retaining the cultural, social and historic importance of the heritage assets.

This was imperative to the success of the scheme which received conditional planning and listed building consents in 2022.