How To

Conserving The Nation’s History

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From palaces to places of worship, the UK is filled with a plethora of centuries-old landmarks taught about in schools and visited by millions. Over time, however, these sites begin to wither, particularly those that receive consistent, heavy footfall or where the structures are slowly weakened by the natural elements.

It’s essential these buildings are properly maintained to preserve their presence and history for future generations to enjoy. As such, understanding the nuances of the building fabric and the conservation work required is important as it can make or break a conservation project.

Becoming familiar with the buildings’ social and construction history, and taking into account the needs of the client, is essential. Only when all these points are considered should any conservation work begin.

Reasons for conservation repair

There are various reasons why a historic or heritage building requires repair work. One of the most common, when it comes to famous landmarks such as palaces or government sites, is security.

Extra measures need to be put into place to ensure entrances cannot be easily accessed by unauthorised persons, such as access control equipment needing installation with minimal and sympathetic intervention into the historic building fabric.

Health and safety is also a major concern. Due to fabric decay, elements such as falling masonry can pose a problem, so meticulous surveys and considered conservation work need to be carried out to prevent the structural material from becoming unstable.

Further, fire safety needs to be updated over time to meet changing regulations. However, standard fire safety installations are usually not an option for historic buildings, and more bespoke designs and sensitive installations are required.

For example, ornate hinges may need to be reproduced for fire doors so as not to compromise the buildings’ architecture.

The large amount of rainfall in the UK also has a significant effect on older buildings. Many sites weren’t designed for the levels of precipitation we get today, so it’s essential that clients employ companies with both traditional and modern roofing knowledge in order to discretely increase draining capacity and avoid flash flooding which affects historic fabric.

Know your architecture

When working on a restoration project, it’s important to identify the time period and architectural style of the building and its change throughout history.

Different types of architecture and construction have different requirements, all of which can affect the process and result of the conservation works.

Gothic/Gothic Revival architecture, for instance, is particularly difficult due to its characteristic geometric shapes. One needs an understanding of the basics of geometry, such as the bisection in the construction of angles, as well as the symmetry of pointed arches, to successfully restore a Gothic landmark.

The building material will also vary and therefore special attention needs to be made when repairing the fabric. For example, it may be difficult to obtain a suitable replacement for stonework that is no longer quarried.

Tried and tested technology

Modern technology has proven to be incredibly useful in conservation works. Drones, piloted by qualified stone masons, are an excellent way to reach inaccessible areas, and are ideal for tall buildings and church spire restoration.

New computer applications can also make the restoration process smoother. Cloud-based construction management software can provide data collection on a single platform for entire construction teams so that conservation works can be tracked and recorded as they progress.

Lastly, modern tooling methods may be the answer to updating certain parts of a building without changing the original design. Caution however needs to be exercised to avoid digital repetition over the more pleasing flair of the hand of a craftsperson.

What not to do

While there are plenty of methods, tools and tips to ensure conservation work goes off without a hitch, there are also several things that need to be avoided by all parties involved when embarking on a project of this kind.

Firstly, it’s important clients don’t put costs above quality when restoring a historic building. Procuring the right contractor at the construction phase and undergoing trials are both vital steps in ensuring a successful result.

It’s always better to do less work well if the budget is constrained and to plan a programme of work over a longer period of time. This is particularly pertinent when considering the cost of designed access scaffolding just to access the works.

Secondly, it’s crucial the client hires a specialist familiar with the building’s chronology and construction. The methods used by general construction firms don’t always work for historic buildings, so a company with proven conservation expertise should always be consulted.

Thirdly, a conservation team must have the qualifications and experience related to the specific project for which they have been hired. One false move can be disastrous for the outcome of the project, as well as the company hired to complete the work.

It should also be noted that damage to listed buildings through inappropriate techniques can lead to prosecution by the authorities and even imprisonment.

A continuous learning process

Conservation experts are skilled in the field of historic building construction, but just like their clients and the architects with whom they work, they are continuously learning.

While specialist companies that have been trading for decades will be very familiar with various types of historic building decay and repair techniques, there is always something new that needs to be addressed on a conservation project.

It requires the cooperation of everyone involved in the project in order to tackle the problem, but if the solution is well founded on conservation principles guided by a highly experienced craft team, the outcome will be a positive one.

Ultimately, the most important things to remember are the sturdiness of the building’s structure, retaining the original design as much as possible, and the safety of the individuals who work in, visit and live nearby the site.

When a project is properly assessed and carried out from start to finish, a piece of history is salvaged, and nothing is more rewarding than making sure our past has a future.

Adrian Attwood is executive director of DBR (London) Limited.

Adrian Attwood
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