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Issues in Historic Building Conservation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 2113 words Published: 13th Jun 2018

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Construction Technology and Rehabilitation

Referring to specific case studies this paper aims to investigate attitudes towards the preservation and restoration of historic buildings and the influences and constraints which might affect the development of such buildings.

Why preserve?

Many buildings are either deserted by their owners when the cost of restoration becomes too great, or demolished when the lesser expense of a new development and its saleability are of greater appeal. The future of historic buildings relies not only on the people or governing bodies that own them, but also on organizations such as English Heritage that list and protect buildings from development and raise public awareness through schemes such as the ‘Blue Plaque’ scheme (www.english-heritage.org). The relatively recent enthusiasm for television programmes about restoration have also helped heighten awareness. As Philip Wilkinson phrases it:

‘Old buildings form strong links with the past (…) to historians and archaeologists they are precious documents, unlocking information about the life, art, aspirations, and technology of the people who built them and used them.’ (Wilkinson: 2005, p.13)

Long-term preservation can dramatically increase the economy of an area. For example, Bath and North East Somerset which is famous for its Georgian and stone buildings generates a huge revenue through tourism because of the efforts taken to conserve its rich heritage. The expense often proves a deterrent – but in the case of either private land owners or council owned properties English Heritage and other such organisations such as the Funds for Historic Buildings (www.ffhb.org.uk) can provide financial aid in the form of grants, tax relief, and subsidised loans.

Safety, Security and Assessment

‘The George Inn’ – a mediaeval Inn, five miles south of Bath, owned by the Wadworth family, was restored in 1998 by Stansell Conservation, West Country Tiling, under the direction of Acanthus members, Ferguson Mann Architects. (http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/george/george.htm). A major part of the building was unoccupied and unusable, and the task was to conserve and repair, then turn the pub into a small hotel with 12 bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms.

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Being of large timber framed structure with intricate stonework and huge stone slate roofs, the procedures had to be selected carefully. Other considerations were taken into account; such as its archaeological investigation, and adhering to the fire-safety requirements of creating hotel accommodation. The original plan depended on the creation of accommodation on the top floor of the main building: however, the provision of an alternative means of escape would have involved major interventions to the building so this plan was altered:

Fire safety presented problems as the stair tower had to be protected from smoke and flames in the event of a fire. The standard solution, wired glass doors on either side of the stairs, would have had a disastrous impact on the character of the interior. The solution was to hide the fire doors in the walls so that they could not be seen when open, and to fit them with electro magnetic catches so that they would close automatically when a fire is detected. (http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/george/george.htm).

Factors to consider in the conservation of structures not only concern the building itself but also the area surrounding it. The situation of the George Inn, on the pavement of a busy main street, caused potential danger from falling stone slates and maintenance access was severely restricted. The scaffolding to the front had to be cantilevered out in a ‘complex, engineer-designed structure.’ It was therefore decided to opt for a high specification and every element of the roof covering was considered carefully. Temporary works are often needed during projects either because there is a risk that a structure might otherwise collapse or because it is necessary to remove some vital supporting member for renewal or alteration. In situations like this it is vital that the expertise of experienced architects and surveyors is sought so as to avoid unnecessary damage or alteration to the building as such mistakes can be irreparable.

It is valuable to have a detailed specification for any particular project, bearing in mind that an historic building’s greatest value is the materials out of which it is made. Risk assessment and security surveys will be needed. Historic buildings can often harbour valuable treasures and can be at risk during building procedures; hence systems such as security lighting, CCTV and alarms might need installing on the site.


Rehabilitation projects involve working closely with others – progress depending on the reliability of contractors who could potentially go into receivership or resign. When legal matters are involved sites can often lie dormant until they are resolved.

In some situations it is likely that legislative procedures will clash. For example, a fire escape on the top floor of the Inn might have impinged upon viable planning procedures for that age and type of building. More seriously, the listing of a property does not guarantee its safety. The English Heritage stipulates that the purpose of listing is to give a building ‘statutory protection against unauthorised demolition, alteration or extension.’ (www.english-heritage.org). Demolition or extensive alteration may be approved on a property if it becomes ‘de-listed’ – however this usually only occurs if new evidence about the architectural or historic interest is uncovered or if extensive fire damage occurs. Decisions on the nature of works carried out on historic buildings normally depend on Listed Building Control which allows for the modification of proposals to alter or demolish the building. Sometimes planning permission can be granted and listed building consent refused: and unless both are approved then development cannot continue. As Michael Ross says in his publication on Planning and the Heritage:

The emphasis is on conservation rather than preservation. In many cases, the two will be synonymous, but in others, the emphasis will not be on keeping the building as it is at all costs, but in ensuring that its life is guaranteed and lengthened in a way that will not destroy its special interest. That means in many cases that there will be a balance to be struck between the value of the old and the needs of the new. In others, no balance will be possible and consent will have to be refused. (Ross: 1996, p.92)

If a building is not protected by law and modifications have the potential to appear unsightly or too radical in their design, then the Local Planning Authority use their discretion as to whether or not the application should be approved. In the case of Manor Farm, Over Haddon, (www.peakdistrict.org/ctte/planning/reports/2005) demolition and development of outbuildings – themselves not listed – but adjacent to a listed farmhouse, into office buildings and a car park was refused as the proposal was seen to seriously harm the setting and character of the listed building and the character of the Haddon conservation area.

Time, Methods, and Materials

Many historic buildings require consistent attention over time. For example, the Mediaeval Tithe Barn in Bradford-on-Avon was in a bad state of repair in 1914 and given to the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. Because of the war only £400 could be spent on necessary repairs which failed to eliminate the cause of decay. (Ministry of Works, 1953). In July 1939 the Archaeological Society handed it to the Ministry of Works, and by 1975 all decaying timber in the roof trusses had been replaced, with the dangerously leaning north wall rebuilt. (Department of the Environment Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, 1975). Restoring a building can be a monumental task and requires sufficient research and investment in order to complete the project. Furthermore, damage limitation must be considered: if a building is undergoing structural repairs then parts – such as delicate roof timbers – should not be exposed to the elements any longer than absolutely necessary, otherwise further problems might occur.

Suitable materials need to be used, for example, lime mortar was most commonly used in old buildings as it allowed flexibility within the structure. The modern cement mortar could be disastrous as not only is it visibly different, but it’s harder consistency would restrict the movement of a building.

The cleaning and repairs of the ‘Circus’ buildings in Bath during 1987 (Tindall: 1989) recorded painstaking care over the ancient stonework and close examination of the damage caused by acid rain. Problems occurred during cold weather where repairs had to be protected with dry cotton wool which gave sufficient insulation to prevent damage. Conservation and cleaning of stonework is a delicate process, and requires the patience and expertise of skilled workers. Compared to the number of people who practise modern building methods there is a shortage of knowledgeable masons, thus, as Hunter phrases it, there is’ a gap between the trained mason and the trained conservator.’ (Hunter:1980). Furthermore, this sort of conflict – between traditional and modern methods – arises in the function of the historic building itself. Many traditional farm buildings are abandoned, allowed to fall into ruin or demolished because they can no longer fulfil the purpose for which they were built. (Brunskill:1999, p.147). Such buildings can often be redeemed by converting them to domestic use, although this poses other problems such as the requirements of roof lights, windows, bathrooms and gardens which can all impinge upon the original character of the building.

Conservation and repair work requires forethought and attention to detail; qualities which are not always promoted in today‘s society. Maintaining positive attitudes towards conservation is almost as essential as the work itself, and with continued education and investment the futures of historic buildings are becoming increasingly more secure.


Brunskill, R.W., 1999, 3rd Ed., Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain and their Conservation. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Department of the Environment Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings, 1975, The Medieval Tithe Barn, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. Edinburgh: HMSO Press.

Hunter, D., 1990 , Bath Stone in Building: It’s use, repair and conservation. Bath City Council.

Ross, M., 1996, Planning and the Heritage: Policy and Procedures. London: Spon Press

Ministry of Works, 1953, The Mediaeval Tithe Barn. West Bromich: Joseph Wones Ltd.

Tindall, L., 1989, Conservation in Bath, Four Studies (offprint from ASCHB). Vol.14. Bath City Council.

Wilkinson, P., 2005, Restoration, the story continues….. Bath: English Heritage.





Further Reading

Orbaşlı, A., 2000, Tourists in Historic Towns: Urban Conservation and Heritage Management. London: E & FN Spon.

Stuchbury, H.E., 1973, Conservation and Development of the Historic Buildings of Bath. Journal of Planning and Environment Law, Jun 1973.


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