Conservation Policy and Legislation
Shades of Grey
Dan walked across the room and sat down.
They exchanged pleasantries but soon got
down to business. He bit his lip nervously
and loosened his tie as Miss Jones sighed and
touched her face thoughtfully. ‘Is this what
she expected’, he wondered, ‘or will she be
disappointed?’ As she looked up their eyes met
and she smiled and said: ‘The cornice is a little
deep for an upper room but I’m happy with
the general principle.’ (Seriously, what did you
expect? This is a professional publication.)
Many of us have been in this
scenario, on one side of the table
or the other – an architect and a
conservation officer trying to agree how
alterations and restoration might be achieved.
A meeting of minds perhaps, but how often do
they really meet? As a practising conservation
architect for over 25 years I have often been
there, although these days I don’t think I bite
my lip so much. The whole system appears to
be built upon various ‘shades of grey’, but it
often goes deeper than that.
The design process can be very difficult –
an architect might spend many weeks trying
to develop a scheme under the burden of
legislation and policy while also negotiating
the very challenging philosophies that
underpin conservation thinking. Add to that
the expectations of a client who’s unfamiliar
with the principles and complexities of
heritage protection, and a less than purist
solution sometimes emerges.
While shades of grey in legislation and
policy are not welcomed by people looking for
consistency and certainty in decision making,
they do allow for manoeuvre and negotiation
to achieve a pragmatic solution, one that
has a bit of give and take, or compromise.
In my experience, conservation has always
been about compromise and negotiating an
agreeable solution between the architect (or
surveyor/engineer), the local authority and
specialist bodies such as English Heritage in
the interests of the historic building. This is
best achieved when all parties have a high
degree of expertise and experience.
It is also true that conservation thinking
has moved on in the last 20 years. During
this time there has been a greater acceptance
of change in the historic environment,
allowing buildings to evolve and adapt to
the ever-changing demands being placed
upon them. Patterns of building use have
changed leaving many historical buildings
redundant, from churches and chapels no
longer needed for worship, to the workshops
and warehouses of abandoned industries.
Now high street commercial properties
are also under threat.
This transition has
generally been embraced under the umbrella
of ‘the management of change’, change
that is delicate and requires a particular
skill, and which ultimately provides the
sustainable adaptation of our historic assets.
WHAT CONSTITUTES CHANGE?
||Left, the front facade before restoration with oak cross mullioned windows on the upper floor, and modern sash
windows on the ground floor. Right, the restored facade with matching cross-mullioned windows on both floors,
arguably enhancing the overall historic character of house.
Section 7 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and
Conservation Areas) Act 1990 says that listed
building consent (LBC) is required for ‘any
works for the demolition of a listed building or
for its alteration or extension in any manner
which would affect its character as a building
of special architectural or historic interest.’
Paul Drury’s 2003 report, Streamlining
Listed Building Consent, examined the
definition of the terms used in section 7
of the Act. The report suggested that what
constitutes an ‘effect’ on the character of a
listed building is at the heart of the issue of
what needs consent. Consent is required for
works that would affect the character of the
building as one of ‘special architectural or
historic interest’. Thus what is being protected
is that which makes the building of special
interest, and which justifies its inclusion on the
list, not any and every aspect of its interest or
significance to anyone.
This suggests that a great deal more
restoration and alteration work could be done
without the need for consent. However, it
would be a brave applicant – and conservation
officer – who would adopt/allow this approach
because it is fraught with difficulties.
simple repointing for example. Allowing a building owner to repoint a wall without being
sure that the correct mortar was being used
would be a risk. If it was later found that the
wall had been repointed with cement and not
lime, for example, enforcement could result, an
action which all parties would wish to avoid.
Or perhaps the original lime mortar did not
really need to be removed and repointing was
suggested by an unqualified builder, resulting
in a loss of original fabric. These are issues
that might only be recognised by a skilled
conservation professional or accredited builder/
A case in point is a listed gate pier which
had recently fallen down. The owner wanted
to rebuild the stone pier as quickly as possible
using the existing materials, but the local
authority insisted on an LBC application.
As the owner’s architect, I pointed out that
this was not necessary as we were rebuilding
the existing pier and there was no alteration
involved. Unfortunately, while debating this
point our client, against our advice, decided
to go ahead and rebuild the pier using cement
mortar. The local authority was diligent
enough to recognise that cement had been
used and started threatening enforcement.
An LBC application has now been submitted
and the client has agreed to rebuild the pier,
once consent is granted.
In this instance the
local authority was vindicated in its actions for
going beyond the legislation and requesting
an application. Other officers, however, have
been known to be much more lenient with their
interpretations and may have allowed more
significant works to take place without much
scrutiny and little or no formality.
WHICH PHILOSOPHY TO ADOPT?
‘Repair as found’ is a well-worn philosophy
and has been the mantra of the Society for
the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)
for many years. But should we simply accept
such an approach when alterations have been
a big part of our history and indeed add great
interest to our rich architectural heritage?
Being able to identify the various periods of
development is one of the great attractions of
studying buildings. So why do some still feel
we should preserve everything as we find it,
believing that ‘it’s all part of the story of the
history and development of the building?’
Does this hold true when some parts are fairly
mundane and of no real intrinsic value? It is as
though we are admitting we lack the ability or
confidence to decide what is significant so we’ll
retain everything, just in case. This philosophy
suggests that you cannot enhance significance,
or that each and every element of a building is
automatically significant because the building
is listed. There appears to be a conflict between
the world’s oldest conservation body and
current statutory guidance and the principles of
conservation as expounded by English Heritage
Conservation Principles sets out the
framework within which English Heritage
manages its own estate as well as the thinking
that guides its advice to others, and shows
how buildings can accommodate change
successfully. Cadw published its version of
Conservation Principles in 2011.
|Restored window from the inside: this is more about removing an offending item than restoring a room for restoration's sake, which would not always be the right approach.
Armed with these forward-thinking
documents our practice made an LBC
application for repairs, alterations and an
extension to a small country house in West
Wales. The application had a long and bumpy
ride through the LBC process but through
a series of compromises the application was
eventually approved. We fought very hard over
one particular issue, and while our client was
not overly concerned about the outcome, I was
particularly committed to achieving the result
I felt would benefit the historic integrity of
this particular building. The Grade II* house
in question was built in 1692 and had been
altered in various ways over the centuries. The
front facade of the house was symmetrical
with the original oak cross-mullioned
windows surviving on the first floor, and four
sliding sash windows on the ground floor.
The sash windows appeared to be quite late,
and an investigation revealed they had had
very few coats of paint from new, suggesting
that they were probably 20th century. The
facade also had panels of pargetting that
were unusual for this part of the country.
I felt that the facade had been designed as
a symmetrical and balanced composition,
and the common sash windows detracted
from this composition (see illustrations).
Furthermore, the finest room in the house
was the front ground floor living room,
which has a heavy beamed and plastered
ceiling and ornate plastered overmantel.
From within, the sash windows looked very
weak and were detrimental to the strong
masculine aesthetic of the principal room.
The conservation officer was adamant
that the sash windows were part of the
building’s history and should remain, and his
view was supported by the SPAB. In order
to move the project forward we conceded.
However, while on site we made a second
application for changing the sash windows.
This time we cited Cadw’s newly published Conservation Principles and particularly its
guidance on understanding heritage values
which takes account of aesthetic value: in
the case of our country house I felt that
aesthetics were a significant consideration.
Cadw also gives guidance on restoration and
states that ‘The restoration of the historic
asset will normally only be acceptable if:
The enhanced heritage value of the elements
that would be restored [the oak windows]
decisively outweighs the value of those
that would be lost [the sash windows].’
The completed facade now has all eight
oak windows either repaired or restored.
The approach taken clearly contravenes
the principle of ‘repair as found’ but it does
recognise the overall contribution made by
the aesthetics of the facade to the building’s
heritage value while ensuring that only the
least significant fabric has been lost.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
When planning works to our built heritage it
is clear that each case needs to be judged on an
individual basis. How far are we prepared to
go to save our historic buildings, particularly
those at severe risk? If you haven’t experienced
‘enabling development’, in whatever form
it takes, you will have heard or read about
it. It clearly has its merits, particularly in a
depressed market where the conservation
deficit destroys any prospect of viability. But
there have been opportunists who have given
this creative form of rescue a bad name and
clearly made many people deeply suspicious
and inclined to question its merits.
||A greenhouse built to house an indoor cricket pitch which is now under threat: enabling development might be
the only way to secure its future
A very large greenhouse adjacent to a
modest country house was built as an indoor
cricket pitch during the 19th century but is in
a very poor and partially collapsed condition
(right). The owner, who inherited
the building, has proposed a creative means
of rescue as the cost of restoration alone is
enormous. However, the local authority will not
entertain conversion of adjacent farm buildings
to fund the restoration. It is difficult to see
how this building can provide a viable and
sustainable restoration plan on its own. Clearly
a covered cricket pitch attached to a small
private dwelling is unlikely to be sustainable,
especially with a £500,000 capital cost. This
project desperately needs the support of the
local authority conservation officer in finding
an imaginative solution if this unusual building
is not to be lost forever, and again a healthy
dose of compromise is required.
It is clear that very little legislation is
black and white and almost always requires
interpretation, but I am sure most would
agree that conservation practice is also not
exact or prescriptive and has many grey
areas. In my experience those who stick
rigidly to the wording of the legislation and
try to interpret guidance literally often lack
confidence in their own understanding.
Greater knowledge and understanding is
the way to better interpretation. It takes
many years of experience to acquire the
tools needed to tackle the challenges
of conservation and compromise.
THE ART OF COMPROMISE
The recession has seen the number of
experienced conservation officers reduced
by a third since 2006, many of whom have
been replaced by planning officers with little
experience of conservation issues. Many
local authorities and public bodies appear
to be struggling in this area, lacking some of
the basic levels of knowledge and expertise.
The private sector is increasingly expected
to provide evidence of expertise through
the accreditation system as a demonstration
that it can provide a ‘safe pair of hands’.
However, the same cannot be said for the
public sector. As the economy improves it
is likely that the construction sector, which
has been restrained for the longest period
in living memory, will bounce back quickly
and I suspect that the public sector will be ill
prepared for such an event.
Recognising significance is one of the
first principles of conservation, but having the
confidence to make big decisions is equally
important, otherwise we will be remembered
as the generation that ‘froze’. It’s perhaps
impossible to take the grey areas out of
conservation, after all, that’s where the fun is;
but there certainly needs to be a tightening
up of understanding and interpretation of
guidance. Most conservation officers work in
isolation in their local authority department,
and that in itself can lead to doubt about some
difficult and grey decision-making. Of course,
each person is different, and the system will
never be perfect, but protecting our heritage
is a high priority which very few contest and
more support for those at the coalface would
be very welcome.
And what of Dan? Well, he still sees Miss Jones
regularly and they have their little disagreements
about points of detail, but over the years they
have both learned the art of compromise, and
the historic environment (at least on Miss Jones’
patch) is much the richer for it.
The Building Conservation Directory, 2014
MICHAEL DAVIESBSc(Hons) BArch
DipCons(AA) IHBC AABC RIBA is a chartered
architect and director of Davies Sutton
Architects. His practice specialises in
conservation, rescuing buildings from ruin,
and designing modern buildings for the
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