Conserving the past

Chris Jude of Building Surveyors Limited discusses the importance of good conservation advice

The importance of old buildings is very rarely in question. Their appeal lies not only in their sense of history but also in their visual character and interest: the rich variety of colour, texture and form, the individuality of natural and handmade components, the abundance of intricate details from fine glazing bars to decorative railings and street furniture, and the softness of mature landscaping.

Extensive redevelopment damaged so many historic centres, particularly in the 60s and 70s. However, almost all of our towns and cities retain pre-20th century historic cores.

Today, major redevelopment in historic centres is rare, but the greatest threat comes from the small, insidious ‘improvements’ often made by well-intentioned but misinformed owners, their contractors and consultants.

Traditionally constructed buildings do not perform in the same way as modern ones and need to be treated differently, at every stage of their conservation and repair.

Relatively few contractors and consultants have the expertise required to deal with the special problems of historic buildings, and even relatively harmless techniques can damage historic materials in the wrong hands.

Within the field of building conservation, the term ‘conservation’ may be defined as the process of protecting a building and its surroundings from any change that might involve a loss of historic fabric, historic importance or character.

A distinction needs to be made between conservation, preservation and restoration, which are often erroneously interchangeable to mean the same thing.

The term ‘preservation’ may be used in this context to distinguish a particular type of conservation work sometimes referred to as ‘conservation as found’, in which the fabric is preserved in the state in which it was at the start of the project. Conservation, on the other hand, may involve an element of alteration; for example, to maintain the functional use of the building, or to prevent its further decay.

‘Restoration’ is another term used erroneously to mean conservation. Here the issues are more complex, since some restoration work may involve stripping away historic alterations to reveal earlier fabric, and in most restoration work new material is introduced to match missing components. In this respect, the aim of restoration is clearly different from that of conservation, and some restoration work may actually damage the historic character of the building.

Nevertheless, most conservation work involves some element of restoration, particularly where essential repairs are carried out to match the original form of a decayed component, where the aim is primarily to conserve fabric.

Although conservation does not mean freezing a building in its present state for perpetuity, it does mean that all alterations must be carefully justified beforehand, taking into account not only the effect of the works in the short term but also their consequences for the building, its character, historic interest and its functionality in the future.

Historic architecture can often be adapted to meet modern requirements without losing any historic fabric or with alterations which are designed to be ‘reversible’.

 

Chris Jude BSc (Hons) FRICS BCAS Dip Law MFPWS MEWI is

RICS Accredited in Building Conservation

0191 235 7545

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