The first step when we are invited to work with anyone on a listed building project is to understand what is ‘significant’ about the place. Whether the building has been relatively untouched for 400 years, features slates that were delved on site or has an exquisite plasterwork ceiling, its ‘significance’ is what makes the building special and important to the nation’s cultural heritage.
When looking to understand what makes your building significant, a useful starting point is Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance, published by Historic England (formerly English Heritage). The guidance starts with six overarching principles that help to provide a framework for what conservation means, placing significance at the heart.
Balancing the Past and the Present
Historic England guidance defines the conservation of listed buildings as “managing change to significant places”. Indeed, when work is required on a listed building it is almost invariably because something is forcing a change, whether it’s the need to bring about cultural change (to install heating, for example, or build an extension so the building conforms more easily to the requirements of the 21st century) or simply because an intervention is needed to stop the building decaying to a point beyond which it cannot be saved.
To help determine the best approach to take to preserve the significance of the building and its site while also balancing the need for change, we look at it in the context of four values laid out by Historic England:
- Evidential value: the potential of a place to yield evidence about past human activity (for example, this might be saw marks on the timber frame of the house).
- Historical value: the ways in which past people, events and aspects of life can be connected through a place to the present – it tends to be illustrative or associative (for example, this might be a rare 12th century dwelling).
- Aesthetic value: the ways in which people draw sensory and intellectual stimulation from a place (for example, a Georgian interior).
- Communal value: the meanings of a place for the people who relate to it, or for whom it figures in their collective experience or memory (for example, John Lennon’s house).
In light of these values we can start to ask the important questions. Can we make the changes required without affecting what makes the building special? How do we bring about the changes while adhering to the principles and values as defined by Historic England? How do we develop a plan that balances all the requirements?
The Techniques We Use When Working On Listed Buildings
The Communion team looks at changes in terms of four broad categories. In ascending order of scale of intervention they are:
- Maintenance – interventions that keep the fabric of a building in good order for the long term and are best done on a continual basis.
- Conservation – interventions that halt or slow wear or decay – our work on this 14th century farmhouse is a good example of maintenance and conservation in practice.
- Restoration – interventions that bring something back to life or reinstate value when conservation isn’t appropriate – this renovation project in Abergavenny is the perfect example of this.
- Transformation – interventions when conservation or restoration techniques would ultimately lead to the demise of the building because it has declining use in modern society – church re-ordering is the perfect example of this because it allows the building to keep its communal importance, keeping or enhancing its place in its community.
Most projects will utilise methods from all four categories. We will work with you to decide on the approach that balances the requirements most effectively in each part of the building.
This strategic approach needs to be documented, tested on paper and developed. The resulting plan will be vital throughout the life of the project, but its first use will be in the process of obtaining the Listed Building Consent that is required for any work involving listed buildings. In some cases planning permission will also be required. To gain this we will work with you to take your project to the local planning authority for wider discussion and to start the process of gaining consent.
What makes a listed building special is not just about the fabric but about people’s relationship with the fabric. It is this relationship that makes them a challenging joy to work on.