The Principles of Building Conservation - PAYE
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The Principles of Building Conservation

The Principles of Building Conservation

The enormity of this subject is not something I underestimate, nor something that can be distilled into a short paper. However, it is a consideration which we, as professionals in this field, need to consider daily and so warrants inclusion and reflection even if it simply skims the subject.

William Morris (1834 – 1896)

The basic principles of building conservation philosophy should always be considered prior to making decisions relating to any intervention. Many of these principles were established over a century ago by William Morris and his associates within the manifesto published for The Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877. Whilst produced almost 150 years ago, these principles are still considered by many to be relevant today.

Of course, as with any philosophical judgement, it can be somewhat subjective. Every conservator will have to develop their own set of parameters and these, in truth, I believe take years to develop fully. It would be very easy, maybe slightly naïve, to believe you can adopt a hard, unwavering stance on a philosophical approach to repair and then not reconsider it throughout your career, or even on a project by project basis.

Whilst personally subjective, several documents have of course been developed and championed since 1877 to help and guide our developed understanding. These include the publishing in Athens in 1931 of a responsible philosophical approach to the repair and conservation of major architectural monuments (including The Acropolis) which is widely known as ‘The Athens Charter’.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Logo

Some 30 or so years later, an international meeting was held in 1964 in Venice spawning what is generally referred to as the ‘Venice Charter’. In 1979 (but later amended in 1988), the Australian ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance, which is simply known as the ‘Burra Charter’ sought to find a way of adapting the Venice Charter to suit local conditions which might be very different from those found in Europe.

The International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has, perhaps wrongly, limited impact on the general approach to works in the UK. Worldwide however, many countries have committed to it, meaning the Venice Charter has had a long and lasting influence (although it is perhaps a little too European centric). In 1994 The Nara Document on Authenticity was conceived in the spirit of the Charter of Venice, both building on it and extending it in response to the expanding scope of cultural heritage concerns and interests in the modern world. It paid respect to the idea that different cultures would have different values and maybe even different notions of authenticity.

The most recent addition to the above is the development of a British Standard (BS 7913). British Standards are well known within most working practices but have in the past perhaps been regarded as being an irrelevance to the heritage sector. In fact, their very presence has often been theoretically imposing, enforcing modern thinking in a potentially damaging way. On 31 December 2013, BS 7913: ‘A Guide to the Conservation of Historic Buildings’, was published. Created by lead author Professor John Edwards and a support cast from many areas of the wider academic community. The Standard is intended to serve as an accessible standard of good practice designed for those who own, use, occupy and manage historic buildings. It should also be a reference guide to the professional team’s contractors and others employed to work on their behalf, also aiding decision makers and funders.

Whilst the above all offer variations on outline guidance to how works should be considered, there are numerous other factors which should perhaps influence and guide the approach to working on historic buildings. These should include, but are not in any way limited to, assessment of; age, condition, cultural significance, use (or proposed reuse) and lifespan. Cost should not be considered a factor, but… so often sadly is, and we have to be mindful of this. This inevitably means trying to identify cost effective solutions which can be seen to offer good value for money, something that is not always easily quantifiable.

We know that the occupation and regular maintenance of buildings gives them the best chance of long term survival. If this means that the use of these properties needs to adapt and change, then this, in my mind at least, helps to safeguard the fabric of the building. That of course, does not mean I condone the removal of wholesale historic fabric, but some loss as a result of adaption maybe a necessary evil to achieve the ultimate end goal.

Of course, professional rules and guidelines are there for a reason and must hold some credence. Unscrupulous developers may not give historic fabric the consideration it deserves to achieve their goals and without controls this would no doubt result in widescale loss. This is where a professional design team is so important, bringing a differing perspective to a project with a variety of approaches and solutions. We should not individually see ourselves as the sole arbiters of what can or cannot be undertaken, but on the proviso that the design team are professionally educated, which they invariably are, then collectively they can rationalise and exert influence based the principles outlined above.

Personally speaking, I believe that blanket rules, whilst useful, cannot be seen to offer complete solutions to every project and we need to have an element of flexibility. Context can change dramatically how we approach our work and what is given precedence in one situation may play a secondary role in another. Where a rigid purist mindset might be appropriate on one project, equally a more adaptive approach might be more suitable to the next. We should not see this as a failure on our part, but a strength in having the ability to be adaptive and accommodating. The long-term survival of buildings and their contents is after all our collective objective.

Further Reading

ICOMOS (1964 and later editions) The Venice Charter ICOMOS, Paris

Australia ICOMOS (1999) The Burra Charter Australia ICOMOS

Fielden, B (1994) Conservation of Historic Buildings. Butterworth-Heinemann, London

Clark, K (2001) Informed Conservation. English Heritage, London

BSI Standards Publication BS 70913:2013 Guide to the conservation of historic buildings, London