Fitting the Old to the New

Designing new ironwork for heritage settings

Bethan Griffiths

  ely cathedral iron reredos
  Detail of a contemporary iron reredos at Ely Cathedral (All photos: Bethan Griffiths)

A common misconception is that you cannot alter a listed building and that any work in a modern style is prohibited. However, despite the extra care and attention given to conserving historic fabric, the truth is that it is perfectly acceptable to enhance a heritage setting with new work, be it traditional or contemporary in design. The heritage protection system is designed to manage change, not prevent it, so that historic buildings continue to benefit owners and those who live and work in them.

This is not to say that designing new work within this context is always straightforward. There are additional aspects to take into consideration, including national legislation and policy frameworks. Despite significant variations between each of the four home nations, there are broad similarities. Each operates control through its own primary legislation (such as the Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act 1990) which requires consent 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’.

Applications for listed building consent are made through the local authority much like applications for planning permission. When considering whether or not to grant consent, the local authority is required to consider ‘the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest’. It will also take into consideration national planning policies and supplementary guidance issued by the appropriate government body, and in the case of buildings listed at the highest categories or grades, the local authority will also seek the views of the national statutory authority – Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, Cadw in Wales, or the Historic Environment Division of the Department for Communities Northern Ireland, as appropriate.

Heritage protection covers the whole of the listed building and all but the more recent structures within its curtilage, including the perimeter railings for example. When applying for consent, knowledge and appreciation of conservation principles is a fundamental requirement to reaching a successful outcome. This may seem strange, given that the aim is the creation of new work rather than repairing old, but what applies to the heritage itself also applies to its surroundings.

Understanding the ‘significance’ of the existing heritage and ensuring that its significance is protected is vital, as within a heritage setting it is necessary to demonstrate how the proposed project recognises and adds to this significance. Where new work is to be attached to a listed building, understanding significance of the building and the component it is attached to is particularly important. It is not appropriate to sacrifice old work simply to accommodate the new.

The new must always be fitted to the old and not vice versa. Therefore, the ability to recognise, understand and value the significance of the heritage in question is a fundamental requirement before any design work commences. This approach requires a well-developed and holistic vision of how the new and old parts will perform together long into the future. Naturally this limits the possibilities of what will be permissible, identifying a boundary within which to work, but this should be considered as a positive as it focuses attention on what fits.

With this in mind, achieving designs which are appropriate to their heritage setting need not be complicated or difficult. The following is the briefest of introductions to five key points to consider. Keeping these in mind is crucial to getting any design process started in the right direction.

Character: an assessment of the character of a heritage setting is critical in establishing a good design brief and is the aesthetic basis for new work. The architectural context or landscape is the client and all proposals must be responsive to it. Good design picks up on the architectural conversation while bad design, or a lack of design, ignores it and as a result becomes argumentative.

Significance and value: the ability to recognise, understand and value the significance of the heritage in question is a fundamental requirement. Significance may lie in relation to a specific object or a streetscape or even in association with a person or event. It is the sum of technological, historical, aesthetic, or social values for past, present or future generations. Understanding significance and its components allows informed decisions to be made. You can’t design sympathetically without understanding it, yet it does not in itself dictate the design direction.

Respond to a setting: good design reinforces the significance of its setting rather than detracts from it. Think of it like story-telling: the designer needs to consider from the outset both the physical appearance of the object and how it will be interpreted. Proposals can often be justified by the story behind their design and what they represent.

Sympathetic design: this is the most commonly referenced, yet also the most misinterpreted and misunderstood concept. A sympathetic design does not necessarily mean it has to be traditional, as a contemporary approach also has the potential to be sympathetic. In conservation, best practice requires new work to be distinguishable from historic work. The distinction can be obvious or subtle, ranging from a discrete date stamp on a reinstated traditional design, to the use of distinctly modern aesthetics and style. There is no generic right or wrong: replicating a particular style may be absolutely the right choice in one context and yet not in another. Importantly, each project needs to be assessed on an individual basis and it is the quality of the design, and specifically how it responds to its setting that determines whether it is sympathetic.

Impact and enhancement: when working on an ironwork project it is all too easy to see it as an isolated object and forget how it relates aesthetically and practically to its overall setting. Evaluation of the impact of the design and the enhancement it offers is essential to gaining permission for its installation. With these five key points in mind from the outset, a designer can establish the design brief and aesthetic direction, including whether the style should be traditional or contemporary. As each project is unique, there is a no generic solution, and the best approach will vary depending on the project and context given. The flow chart below shows some of the options. Projects may not always neatly fit into a specific category. Nonetheless, the intention of this framework is to give a starting point so that the process of analysis and assessment can get under way.

Restore Original Design

Restoration is the reinstatement of missing work with the objective of authentically re-creating the former appearance of an interior, building, street or landscape. As a design direction this option is about establishing a better impression of how a particular space appeared at a particular time, or how a work of art or architecture was originally intended to be perceived. It is not a re-imagining or tweaking of what the designer would have preferred it to be. It is important to be clear that the concept of authenticity, as the transmitter of the values and significance of cultural settings, is the key component in the process of any restoration.

This approach is especially relevant where most of the original historic features are present with only specific elements missing. For example, if all the railings to a front entrance are complete but the gates are missing. However, restoring an original design relies on high quality evidence of what was once there, such as physical remains or archival images. Furthermore, for any ‘restoration’ to be carried out successfully it is essential that those working on the project have a thorough knowledge of historic styles and period detailing combined with experience of traditional techniques and materials, as only this breadth and depth of understanding can provide a reliably authentic result. Where design authenticity is in any doubt, general good practice is to simplify the new restoration rather than add conjectural decoration and detail.

Period Style Replication

Where there is insufficient information to enable replication of the original details, one option is to replace the missing component with a new feature in the style of the period. Like the ‘restore original design’ option, this approach is relevant where the majority of the original historic features are present – the railings on either side of the gate, for example – but for the missing component itself there is nothing authentic to copy.

Without an original design to copy it is important to distinguish the replication of a period style from the restoration of a historical design, so that all decision makers understand they are commissioning a ‘modern interpretation of a period style’ as opposed to an authentic historic design. The drawback of both this approach and restore original design generally is that, if well done, it may be difficult to tell which components are original and which are replicas.

Arguably this is not so serious where the new work is an accurate restoration of the original design, but both approaches can confuse historic interpretation, and in the worst case may lead to observers doubting the authenticity of everything. Some conservationists are therefore opposed to all forms of replication except for small items as a practical expedient, and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in particular advocates a philosophy of ‘repair not restoration’.

Modern Design

The focus of conservation is on managing change. This is based on the principle that some alterations and additions are necessary to ensure the life and sustainability of old buildings, creating environments that are practical and desirable for today’s society. This approach is inclusive of the values of owners and local communities. It allows for maintenance of the material heritage balanced with contemporary needs and tastes.

From this perspective the addition of new original designs can be considered to positively contribute to the value and character of a place by telling its own story, becoming just the latest phase in the timeline of a property’s development. New design is particularly appropriate where there is no clear historical evidence or reference for the new work and where the desired objective of a historic setting is to not only maintain the existing character, but to allow for its evolution through the introduction of well-designed additions. Generally, new design may be considered as being either inspired by heritage or contemporary in approach.

Heritage inspired is about using the style, ethos, and historical references of a specific period as inspiration and adapting features in a more modern way to give them a refreshing new life. It is an opportunity for a unique piece which, while being influenced by historical emblematic references, is a mark of its own time. If done correctly this option has the potential to achieve a design which is timeless.

Contemporary design, on the other hand, creates new original work that utilises our modern day approach to design. Not bound by any specific historic style references, the designer is free to find their own response to a setting. If done well it has the potential to create a dialogue between ancient and modern that lifts the value and meaning of both.

Although contemporary design is often associated with modern process and techniques of manufacture, ensuring a high quality of craftsmanship in the construction is important and will help the piece become valued for generations to come. Whichever approach you take, there is 'no one size fits all' in the historic environment. New work in heritage spaces will always stimulate debate, and whether the design is discreetly traditional or boldly contemporary, there will always be vehement advocates for and against the outcome. Trends and fashions change but get your design right and you may just have created your own piece of heritage for the future. Only time will tell.

Recommended Reading

Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance, Historic England 2008

NHIG Conservation Principles, Nation Heritage Ironwork Group,

New Design in Historic Settings, Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh 2010

Roger Hunt and Ian Boyd, New Design for Old Buildings, RIBA Publishing in association with SPAB, London, 2017


The Building Conservation Directory, 2021


Bethan Griffiths is an independent designer and consultant who collaborates with custodians, building conservation professionals and workshops to preserve and enhance historic settings. She is the director of The Ironwork Studio and also a founding member and trustee of the National Heritage Ironwork Group.

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