Retrofit Reimagined Knowle West 2023

Working to redefine our relationship with the built environment, and its foundational systems of land, materials and people.

what if we put the power and tools to create a fairer, greener future into community hands?

6 October 2023: Working to redefine our relationship with the built environment, and its foundational systems of land, materials and people at Retrofit Reimagined Festival 2023.

Knowle West, and the many other neighbourhoods like it, already has the resources and knowhow to tackle the climate crisis. Retrofit Reimagined Festival is a celebration of community action, and an invitation to come together to imagine how our streets, neighbourhoods and cities might be “retrofitted” and adapted to meet the growing challenges we face.  

Our neighbourhood of Knowle West is a living demonstration showing how change can happen from the bottom up, and on this sunny October day, we were joined by nearly 200 people to explore what happens when you put the power and tools to “do” retrofit in community hands. 

Hosted in collaboration with Civic Square, this year’s festival sought to redefine our relationship with the built environment, and its foundational systems of land, materials and people with practical, immersive learning and big-picture ideas. Knowle West was the third host of the national multi-site Retrofit Reimagined Festival, which took place throughout the Autumn months. You can watch livestream recordings of all the Retrofit Reimagined events in Birmingham, London, Bristol, Machynlleth and Glasgow here

Our day began at The Factory – Knowle West’s very own community makerspace – with an introduction from Melissa Mean (WeCanMake) and Immy Kaur (Civic Square), setting the scene and the focus of the day to explore retrofit as an action extending beyond the individual home, and what happens when ‘…we put the power and tools to create a fairer, greener future into community hands?’ 

In our messy making space, potters Dan Broadbent and Raphaela Seck led a hands-on workshop using with clay dug from the local allotment, sharing the processes of working with the earth below our feet and the idea of a commons kiln in every community. Upstairs in the Factory, participants stitched together stories of what a circular economy could look like, creating a flag for our string of community bunting using recycled materials. 

Acknowledging the extractive nature of the UK housing sector, which relies on imported carbon-intensive construction materials, our first talk of the day kicked off with speakers including Tim Crabtree (Raise the Roof), Jonathan Green (BlokBuild), Tom Barnes (Vastern Timber) and Florence Collier (HumbleBee) showcasing alternative ways to build using sustainable biomaterials like timber, clay and hemp found in the UK. 

As talks and workshops took place inside, the concrete space in front of our Factory was slowly transforming before our eyes, as folks assembled and painted a ‘Front Garden Retrofit Kit’. This flatpack furniture kit-of-parts was co-designed with local people, with an aim to support the growth of tangible infrastructure to make space for share community life. The kits (bench, seat, table, planter, hedgehog house and sharing library) are open source and designed to be easily manufactured by any community with access to a CNC machine.

One such community is in Birmingham, where Civic Square have been supporting neighbours to lead the climate, ecological and social transition. With a few benches assembled, we heard from Daniel Blyden (Civic Square) and Dilwara (Birmingham resident) about how hosting Sharing Libraries in the communities, has opened up space to start conversations with their neighbours. 

Our front gardens are spaces where we have some agency… the retrofit kit is just one way we can do some informed things that move us towards where we need to get to collectively… moving beyond a council just consulting people, we can actually give people the tools and spaces to build the confidence we all kind of need

Daniel Blyden, Civic Square

I have become a bridge between relationships, connecting people. I’m not the guardian of the galaxy – I’m the Guardian of the Sharing Library!

Dilwara, Birmingham resident

After a delicious vegan lunch, and minds full of food for thought, participants were guided to our sister site Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) by tagging along on cultural history tour of Knowle West led by local historian and tree expert Jim Smith. Also touring the streets of the neighbourhood, artists Steph Tudor and Charlie Taylor led a workshop to discover what it means to make with an “absolute zero” material palette and a finite resource of energy and land, gathering artefacts found on the streets – from debris to greenery – to create an artwork to be showcased at the end of the day. 

Over at KWMC, local and Bristol-wide organisations gathered in the Main Studio to showcase their retrofit action, encourage participation, and collectively identify where the gaps and opportunities are. Upstairs in the Western Room, with a view over the rooftops and out to the fields, Hester Roberts (CloudForest) took participants on a virtual journey along the timber supply chain, to design, build and test what a successful woodland economy might look like in England. 

Embracing the sunny autumnal weather, folks pulled up newly assembled front garden retrofit benches outside, and listened to inspiring stories from John Christophers about his Zero Carbon House – the UK’s first zero carbon retrofit, from the National Retrofit Hub’s Rachael Owens, and from community gardener extraordinaire and long-time Knowle West resident Don Jones. 

With retrofit all too often coming as a top-down technical fix, stories like those heard from Dilwara, John and Don about how individual actions can create ripple effects out from the scale of the individual home, to the street, to the whole neighbourhood, were a reminder about the power of small and that even the tiniest intervention can act as inspiration and a system demonstrator for future action and coming together.

With all now gathered in the main studio, Melissa opened our final panel discussion by telling the story of how the KWMC came to be. When the idea of a new building was conceived 15 years ago as a community commission, young people were involved in a collaborative process to choose architects, co-design and create a vision for this community space at the heart of their neighbourhood. Told that conventional building methods would be enough for them, the young people pushed back. They recognised that their community deserved something special: a strawbale building that would act as a beacon for Knowle West, and a glimmer of a better future for all. The story is a lesson in the power of small – the community, the building acts as a system demonstrator that another way is possible. If we come together to collaborate, we can be greater than the sum of our parts. 

After a screening of the Power Station – a must see film which documents the story of a street in London as it becomes its very own power station – our closing panellists shared provocations on retrofit at different scales – from our front yards, to our homes and streets, to our forests and material landscapes. Watch the full discussion here. We heard from: 

  • Mellis Haward (Archio) about the obvious (but often missed!) importance of beginning a retrofit journey by talking to residents and asking “tell us about your home and how you live”, and building up an understanding about retrofit;
  • Joe Giddings (Built by Nature), who shared provocations at the scale of the landscape, reading a beautiful extract from Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall; 
  • Sara Edmonds (National Retrofit Hub) who spoke of the need to shift away from the idea of the site of the home as baring the retrofit responsibility, but to put this in the hands of the commons;
  • And from Justin McGuirk (Design Museum), who presented the idea not as retrofit in culture, but retrofit as culture, and shared ancient examples of retrofit in architectural history.

Thank you to everyone who came to Knowle West, watched from afar, and supported Retrofit Reimagined Festival. If you were unable to attend the event, you can watch recordings of Retrofit Reimagined events in Birmingham, London, Bristol, Machynlleth and Glasgow here