Zoe Hooton, director of Harrison Pitt Architects, based on Castle Hill in Lancaster, considers the sensitive issue of modernising heritage community buildings.

When children are asked; “what do architects do?” their answer, and I suspect that of many adults, is wonderfully straightforward: “draw buildings”.

Further appealing images spring to mind: the visionary at an imposing sloping desk or the pristine, hard-hatted maestro masterfully directing contractors.

I’m fortunate that my career contains elements of these, although admittedly disproportionate to my own childhood visions. As with much of life, the reality is marvellously more muddied and complex.

Only rarely do architects get commissioned to design a completely new project. Even then, restrictions abound regarding budget, timescale, materials, usage, location and planning regulations.

Projects in the Lake District, for example, involve conditions and constraints rightly designed to protect the national park conservation area.

Far more often we are commissioned to restore, extend or reinvent existing buildings, with the fundamental early decision: conserve, renovate or replace, or all three!

As my conservation training instilled in me, this is just as pertinent whether I’m working on a bridge at Brougham or a hotel in Grasmere, or a simple non designated heritage asset which I often think can be as just as special. A range of approaches and skills should be taken so that the building is of its place.

It can also become emotionally weighted when the building is at the heart of a local community, such as a church or village hall.

Practical, aesthetic and design considerations must be balanced with the requirements, needs and memories of the community who love and use it. For that, you have to simply get out and talk to people.

St John’s Church at Yealand Conyers, on the Cumbria/Lancashire border had been in use virtually unchanged since Victorian times. The parish council appreciated, however, that the space no longer fitted the requirements of their evolving community. Welcoming the input and requirements of the village enabled the creation of extra rooms and flexibility while respecting the church’s heritage and sanctity.

The changes were ambitious, yet could be achieved with little alteration to the outside of the building, other than discreetly ‘hidden’ solar panels to generate green energy.

Other developments require more radical, yet still sensitive, solutions. One such clerical project which has been occupying me recently is the church hall at Slyne-with-Hest near Carnforth. On a picturesque, elevated location looking across the bay to the fells, the much-loved 1939 hall was so dilapidated that most community groups had reluctantly relocated due to safety and access issues.

The community reached the courageous decision that only complete demolition and building afresh would provide the hall that they deserved. The new design had to provide all the practical requirements of the brief in collaboration and agreement with the community, never imposed. It also had to be sympathetic to the adjacent Paley & Austin St Luke’s Church.

Rather than simply replace like for like or replicate the church, we devised a ‘modern arts and crafts’ scheme. This will give the new, inviting and environmentally friendly hall its own modern identity, while empathetically retaining its relationship with the Grade II listed church.

With construction work just begun, this is one of the most exciting parts of any project: when designs lift off the paper and become flesh.

So while I spend less time over a pristine drawing desk and more in a muddy trench than my childhood self imagined, it’s where I am happiest.

Working with local communities to conserve and reimagine heritage buildings into the future involves vision, debate and cooperation that should never be limited to the drawing board.