Changing Climates

John Edwards

Understanding Building Conservation course
The author with trainees on the CIOB two-day Understanding Building Conservation course

Since the creation of the first conservation accredited scheme by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 1992, several more schemes have been developed by other bodies. However, all these were primarily for consultants, from architects and archaeologists to surveyors and engineers. It was not until recently that the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) developed one for specifically for the contractors.

There are several reasons why such schemes were established, not least of which was the disproportionate focus on modern construction in sector training. Although a huge proportion of buildings in the UK are traditionally constructed, the education provided to both the crafts and the professions overlooks the special requirements of these buildings. This results in unlisted traditional buildings being treated as if they were modern structures, which leads to their deterioration and poor performance.

We normally classify traditional buildings as being built before 1919, which would equate to around one quarter of UK building stock. Other definitions would suggest that the number of traditional buildings is far greater than this. For example, the one used by the British Standards Institution (BSI) in their retrofit standards defines a traditional building as one with solid vapour-permeable walls or a timber frame building built before 1919.

When considering that definition it is more likely that a third of UK building stock is of traditional construction. It is now well known that treating a traditional building as if it is modern is fraught with risks, so it seems nonsensical to exclude traditional and historic buildings from mainstream construction and property education.

The result is that clients will not know if individuals have appropriate expertise at the right level, unless they contact members of a building conservation competency scheme (normally known as accreditation, but also certification). Accreditation or certification under a competency scheme enables individuals to demonstrate that they have been independently assessed and that they are competent within their role in building conservation.

Over time, an increasing number of clients and heritage organisations have started to require certification or accreditation of at least some individuals for historic building projects. This makes sense, not least because it minimises their risks. The establishment of the CIOB scheme has broadened out the range of roles eligible for accreditation to include construction managers, works supervisors and others normally found in building contracting organisations.

While demand for membership of the CIOB scheme is still low within construction organisations, membership does allow individuals to demonstrate their own competence. Conservation contractors also go through a more rigorous process than other specialists to be placed on select lists of those allowed to tender for work.

Having staff and managers who can demonstrate their competence in building conservation should help them in any tender assessment that involves a quality/price mechanism. The criteria for all building conservation competency schemes are broadly the same and set out in the education and training requirements of the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

In addition to these, the CIOB has responded to the climate emergency by including the need to ensure that individuals are also knowledgeable and competent regarding energy performance and sustainability of buildings. Like all building conservation accreditation systems, the assessment for membership of the CIOB scheme requires an individual to demonstrate and evidence their competence through work examples.

To doubly ensure that individuals are truly competent, if applicants don’t already hold a qualification in building conservation, they are required to undertake the CIOB two-day Understanding Building Conservation course. This covers the broad range of issues involved in building conservation, but with a heavy emphasis on how to deal with significance, as poor understanding of this aspect is perceived to be a common weakness.

The course also touches on energy efficiency and sustainability in a holistic sense which provides applicants with a good idea of what the scheme assessors will be looking for in this area.

Improvement in the energy performance of buildings is paramount when it comes to tackling climate change. This is driving a huge expansion of the retrofit sector and the establishment of standards and guidance by BSI. PAS 2035 for example, which is the standard specification for retrofitting domestic buildings of all kinds and ages, details levels of competencies and qualifications that different roles require.

PAS 2038 is the equivalent for non-domestic buildings and in a general sense is similar to PAS 2035. Where traditional buildings without special protection have been treated as if they are modern, this has primarily involved the application of incompatible materials and components. In particular, vapour-impermeable materials are often inserted into traditional buildings which have vapour-permeable materials, trapping moisture and causing damp.

This is also the case in retrofits due to the widespread use of closed-cell insulation materials and poor detailing. The cheapest and most popular insulation materials are often vapour impermeable. On traditional buildings these have the most serious unintended consequence, including the rotting of timber embedded in masonry walls, condensation, mould and damp, particularly for insulating solid walls from the inside.

All such issues lead to building deterioration and poor and unhealthy conditions for occupants, and because damp walls are cold, it also means failure to achieve the expected energy efficiency improvements and consequently the expected savings in energy bills.

To succeed in ensuring that appropriate materials are used in the retrofit of traditional and historic buildings, we need contractors who are sufficiently competent and knowledgeable. Once again the problem is that base education does not cover traditional and historic buildings.

A further complication is that products and system installations used on government funded retrofit require a certificate from the British Board of Agrément (BBA). Such certificates can describe the materials, components and how they should be applied to the building.

However, at least some BBA certificates present inappropriate construction details and fail to state that their product may be unsuitable for a traditional building. In such circumstances, if the individuals making the decisions on how to retrofit a traditional building do not have sufficient expertise and competence, they will simply follow guidance in the BBA certificate because of its perceived credibility and reliability.

This should all point towards the need for better education in the retrofit sector and the means by which those working on traditional buildings can demonstrate that they are competent. Both PAS 2035 and PAS 2038 require membership of building conservation accreditation or certification schemes if the building being worked on has special protection.

This means any building in a conservation area, a listed building or a scheduled monument, but only in respect of retrofit designers. The CIOB scheme has opened its door to those working in the retrofit sector, the aims and objectives being to provide access to such membership and to encourage higher levels of competence amongst those working in retrofit.

Unfortunately, not all roles within the retrofit sector are required to join a conservation accreditation or certification scheme. However, the BSI guidance requires that, if the traditional building has special protection, the retrofit assessor must obtain an additional qualification in the energy efficiency and retrofit of traditional buildings, known as a ‘Level 3 Award’.

This is achieved through a two-day course with a significant amount of pre-coursework. The qualification and course were developed with the Construction Industry Training Boards (CITB) National Construction College (NCC) and the course is taught through the Environment Study Centre.

While this is a low-level qualification, it provides those that undertake it with additional holistic knowledge of energy efficiency improvements for traditional and historic buildings. The issues covered range from dealing with heritage values to building pathology, the choice of materials and the essentials of successful installations.

Those undertaking the Retrofit Evaluator role under PAS 2035 are also required to obtain this qualification and within PAS 2038 many other roles are also required to do so as well. When it comes to the retrofit of domestic buildings covered in PAS 2035, the competency levels could be described as low.

While this may be a justified criticism, PAS 2035 has nevertheless significantly improved the competency levels of those working in that sector. In particular, the retrofit assessor is required to undertake a condition survey and, if the building is of traditional construction, a significance analysis.

Typically, a retrofit assessor will be a domestic energy assessor with a couple of days additional training. In conclusion, the obvious question is, will the current situation sufficiently improve the way we deal with traditional buildings? The simple answer is no.

This is because there are too few organisations and clients requiring conservation certification or accreditation membership, and far too few individuals with such memberships. The gravest danger is within the retrofit sector, where millions of traditional buildings will be retrofitted over coming years.

Where buildings are listed, all alterations require consent, so the consent process should hopefully negate some of the risks. However, there is very little protection for unlisted buildings in conservation areas and over 90 per cent of traditional buildings have no special protection. These are the buildings that we should be most worried about.

To negate all risks, education generally needs to be improved and the BSI documents referred to above need to be a lot more robust when it comes to qualifications and competence.


Buildings Conservation Directory, 2022


John Edwards is a Director of Edwards Hart Consultants and Professor of Practice at the University of Wales Trinity St David.

He developed the CIOB building conservation certification scheme, and the first and only course with a qualification in the retrofitting of traditional buildings, with CITB’s National Construction College.

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