Introducing Building Conservation

Jonathan Taylor

Great Britain is fortunate to have a really stunning legacy of historic architecture. Our countryside is liberally peppered with the most amazing medieval gems, including churches in particular. Fine country houses and castles that are open to the public lie within easy reach of all our main population centres. Many of our towns and cities retain spectacular centres. And almost a fifth of our population lives in buildings constructed before the First World War.

This rich legacy is vital not only to our economy, but also to our enjoyment of our surroundings - the places we live, work or visit. That enjoyment is not confined to a particular class, or culture, or region, or even ethnicity. Independent research shows that appreciation transcends all socio-economic groupings.

Visiting historic buildings is our nation's favourite leisure activity (unless you count shopping as one), attracting millions of visitors from home as well as overseas. Architecture is the most immediate of all the arts, and at the risk of stating the obvious, old architecture is irreplaceable.

The need for conservation

From the moment it is first constructed, a building starts to deteriorate: the forces of nature and general wear and tear erode its fabric, and alterations and repairs carried out over the years gradually replace original components, altering the building's character and, if not carried out well, weakening its structure and reducing its integrity. Changes in needs, economic fortunes and fashion also result in alterations, yet if the building is unable to adapt, the result can be redundancy and abandonment.

Where the building in question is also of historic interest, or is simply old and beautiful, its deterioration can be tragic for everyone who loves the building, and its loss may impair the beauty of its surroundings.

Some change is an inevitable consequence of changes in function and use. Conservation is simply a process for managing change in the most sympathetic way.

Managing change

As a term, 'conservation' has an extremely broad meaning which encompasses almost any action that helps to ensure the survival of something of value. Where historic buildings and artefacts are concerned, it includes simple maintenance and repair work such as cleaning leaves out of gutters in the autumn and mending leaks in a roof, but the term also includes alterations and other proactive measures which are required to ensure the survival of a component. For example, it may be necessary to add a lead flashing to protect a projecting cornice from the rain, or to improve some other weakness in the original design. However, for any alteration to be considered to be ‘conservation’, it must be limited to the minimum necessary to ensure the future of the object, be it a building or the tiniest component of the building.

What distinguishes conservation work from other processes of alteration and repair is thus a philosophy, and at its core is an understanding of the significance of the building and its component parts. All interventions must be carefully considered in terms of their effects on significance, including their long term effects. Wherever possible alterations must be designed in a way that is 'reversible' – that is to say that the building or component is not permanently affected by the alteration in any way, so that later it could, if necessary, be returned to its original condition unharmed. Every intervention should also be well documented and monitored.

Apart from weathering and general wear and tear, perhaps the most serious problem facing historic buildings today is the number of building contractors and professional consultants (including architects, engineers and surveyors) who are not familiar with the specialist techniques required to conserve them. Serious damage can be caused by simple things like pointing a stone or brick wall with a modern mortar, or coating the exterior surface of a solid wall with a waterproof material. Character can be destroyed by remarkably small differences in detail. The thickness of a glazing bar for example, can make a replacement window look modern.

In the UK many historic buildings are protected to varying degrees, either as listed buildings or by their inclusion in designated conservation areas. Historic buildings that are not officially designated in any way are also protected to some degree through the need for planning permission. When dealing with any historic building it is important to make sure that you know what you are doing, and what your legal obligations are, not only for the good of the building. Indeed, in the most serious cases, failure to get the appropriate consent for alterations can result in a criminal conviction.

The system is not intended to prevent the alteration and use of historic buildings, but to ensure that the alterations are done in the best way possible. Historic buildings require specialist expertise.

How this website can help

This website,, provides a comprehensive source of essential information, including practical guidance on techniques, legislation and common issues, with details of links to hundreds of other relevant sites. In particular, see:

  • Products and Services Directory for contact details of organisations and companies offering specialist advice, services and products in all aspects of building conservation, mostly in the UK

  • Articles for advice and guidance on key issues such as the use of lime mortars and the design of timber widows

  • Building Conservation Bookshop to purchase specialist books online

  • Events for up to date listings of seminars, exhibitions and other building conservation events – again mainly in the UK.

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