Conservation Issues in Building Maintenance Management

By Paul Wordsworth MA MIMBM ARICS Liverpool John Moores University

This paper examines the ways in which conservation philosophies and practices may impact on building maintenance management. It looks at the reasons why buildings and monuments are perceived as worthy of being conserved; outlines the debates and differences between the various scholars, organisations, and agencies involved in conservation; and highlights the conflict of interests which may occur between conservation goals and the provision and maintenance of safe, functional buildings.

' is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life.'
John Ruskin: The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849.

It is perhaps appropriate to begin this discussion with a quote from the Victorian writer and architectural critic John Ruskin in this, the centenary year of his death; because he is considered by many to be the father of the modern conservation movement. His passionate belief was that an increasingly technologically powerful and market-oriented society was in danger of obliterating its architectural heritage in the name of progress; and along with it, its collective cultural memory and sense of history. This heritage vandalism was being caused both by the wholesale destruction of worthy old buildings; and, even worse according to Ruskin, by inappropriate, sentimentalised 'restoration' which obscured the truth and historical worth of a building and replaced it with a shallow pretence of historical accuracy: - 'scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin' as Ruskin himself puts it.

Such strongly-expressed sentiments led to a vigorous and heated debate at the time between himself and other leading architects such as Scott, Morris, Neale, and Webb, on the merits of our architectural and craft heritage in the face of the reforming forces of mechanisation and modernity, and what exactly we should do to preserve deserving old buildings for ourselves and our descendants. A century and a half later, the debate continues with renewed vigour in the light of the wholesale redevelopment of much our built environment heritage during the 19th and 20th centuries. This culminated in a wave of destruction of historic buildings in the 60's and 70's and their subsequent replacement with what many regard as soulless modern blocks of concrete and glass, which themselves are now more likely to be pulled down than the surviving old buildings they were meant to replace. So in the last twenty years we have seen that the building conservation movement, in the words of the american conservator James Marston Fitch, 'has grown from the activity of a few upper-class antiquarians….to a broad mass movement engaged in battles to preserve Main Street, urban districts, and indeed whole towns.

' Those of us committed to the concept of good building maintenance management practice as an essentially civilising and worthwhile activity which enhances the physical comfort and aesthetic appreciation of our buildings, will probably empathise with the broad goals of conservation whilst sometimes being baffled or dismayed at the ways in which too 'precious' an approach to conservation issues may interfere with the safe and economic running of a building. Not everything that was ever built can or indeed should be preserved, and the requirements of conservation may often impose an unwelcome economic or functional cost on the present use and efficiency of an historic building. We often find ourselves in the position of Shakespeare's cat -'the cat would have fish, but would not wet his feet' - that we would have our historic buildings, but with modern central heating, fire defence, disabled persons access and IT services, please, and preferably not on a prime development site. This ambiguity is at the heart of the relationship between building conservation and building management, and to resolve it we need to be clear about:

The reasons for conserving all or part of a building or monument
(conservation philosophy),
how and in what ways this will then affect its value and utility
(concurrence and conflicts of interest)
how we may evaluate the conflicts and benefits of the conservation process
on the use and management of the building as a whole
(a framework for evaluating conservation), and
by what means we carry out the conservation (sourcing skills and expertise).

I will now outline some key issues in each of these areas.

Conservation Philosophy: Concurrence and Conflicts of Interest

This could rather be entitled: 'Conservation Philosophies', since in practice there remain as many differences of opinion in what conservation is, as in Ruskin's day. At one extreme we have the antiquarian or art historian's view that the artistic and historical worth of a historic building should transcend mere short-term economic or functional considerations, typified by early conservationist William Stukeley's 1751 condemnation of alterations and demolitions to such buildings as being done merely 'for the dirty little profit'. Ruskin and Morris themselves were inclined to this purist view, though it should be noted that much of Morris' own factories' output of stained glass and wallpaper was destined for renovation schemes on many historic buildings. At the other extreme we have those who think conservation should pay its way in the economics of the property market place, and if it cannot, then the building should be sacrificed; for example when the owners of that Art Deco masterpiece the Firestone Building in London had it demolished for redevelopment the day before a spot-listing was due to come into force, about twenty years ago.

In between these poles lies the broad consensus that historic buildings need to be conserved, though with due regard to the economics and functionality issues that this raises. This however brings us to the next point: what exactly do we mean by Conservation and how does this relate to the idea of Restoration; that is, restoring functionality, for example, to the weather envelope to prevent decay; or to remodelling the spaces and functions within an historic building? Clearly, one problem we always have with historic buildings is that their original function and purpose may be long obsolete, and thus some degree of alteration for a new use is inevitable, even if this means no use. For example, no castle or fort now retains its original defensive function; and many churches and cathedrals, whilst still in use for religious purposes, no longer fill the community functions which led to marketplaces in the naves and weddings in the porches in their heyday. Indeed, there is one rather extreme conservation school known as the Decadents who maintain that once the original use is abandoned the building is best left to decay naturally and with no repairs or other interventions to prolong its life artificially, because so doing would destroy its remaining integrity and worth forever. Needless to say, this philosophy of romantically wasting assets holds little currency today.

On the other hand, the Restoration school of conservation seeks to put back the clock and restore the historic building to the state it was when at its historical or functional peak. The problem with this approach is, exactly what point in time do you put the clock back to, given the fact that most historic buildings have themselves evolved over the years by being altered, repaired, and added to, and the evidence of this evolutionary process may itself be part of the building's historical value. For example, many mediaeval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build, and are in fact an accretion of different styles and ages; a process which continues even now, as new stained glass, new stonework, and new heating and electric services are installed in what remain essentially working churches. In fact, early restorers such as the subsequently-vilified James Wyatt, and the Cambridge Camden Society, in the early 19th Century decided that the purest period of english ecclesiastical architecture was the Decorated Gothic period of the early 14th Century, and hence their 'restorations' would consist of stripping away any subsequent alterations and additions, however historically worthy, to be replaced with modern copies of what they presumed the original fabric must have been. We can see echoes of this today, more commonly in domestic architecture, where the 'reinstatement' of timber beams or inglenook fireplaces which were never there in the first place remains a corrupting fiction of conservation, despite the obvious comfort that such 'period' details may bring the occupiers.

A Framework for Evaluation
So where, then, can we turn for guidelines in the ongoing conservation philosophy debate if we need to deal with an historic building? Perhaps, in view of the legislation in force on many of our historic buildings, the first resort should be English Heritage, the government body responsible for advising on listed building legislation and which manages 400 of the country's historic buildings and monuments. In its document 'The Principles of Repair' they give the following guidance:

'The authenticity of an historic building...depends crucially on its design and on the integrity of its fabric. The unneccessary replacement of historic fabric, no matter how carefully the work is carried out, will have an adverse effect..and seriously reduce its value as a source of historical information'

So, as the first principle, we can take it that old fabric should be covered up, not stripped out. Preservation wherever possible, even of damaged or decaying items, is to be preferred. If they no longer meet a critical function such as structural stability or weathertightness, then parallel modern solutions could be introduced to supplement or replace their function. These 'modern' solutions should of course wherever possible be of materials and using skills in sympathy with the original.

This brings us to our second principle: how should we effect necessary repairs and alterations? We can refer to Ruskin's Lamp of Truth: any additions to an historic building should look what they are: modern additions, and should never pretend to be original by being artificially weathered or distressed, nor by being of a material which pretends to be another, for example, plastic as wood: that is a deceit. In practice this will entail sourcing appropriate materials and skills so that the repairs and alterations complement, rather than contrast with the original wherever possible. In this context the 'two metre rule' can be profitably applied: to keep the overall appearance and style of an historic building or feature, repairs and alterations can be seen to blend in with the original, to present an harmonious whole, from a distance of greater than two metres. Within that, there should be a subtle but honest distinction between the original and the new materials. Such sensitive restorations and additions may thus become themselves worthy of conservation in the years to come, or if not, they can be painlessly removed.. The writer Stewart Brand puts this point succinctly in his book 'How Buildings Learn' (1994): 'As much as possible of the original fabric is to be saved. New work should be potentially reversible.'

The third principle of conservation is one well-known to maintenance managers: avoid the need for restoration as far as possible by good maintenance practice throughout the life of the building. As William Morris puts it in the Manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877: 'put protection in place of restoration , stave off decay by daily care, ..and show no pretence of other art.' Ruskin again expresses what has continued to be true: 'The principle of modern to neglect buildings first, and restore them. Take proper care of your monuments and you will not need to restore them.' The repairs thus carried out should be appropriate to the nature of the building, using materials which complement, (not necessarily which match) the original fabric - what Ruskin calls 'an honest repair'.

There remains the significant problem of those alterations deemed necessary to modern health, safety and comfort but which may nevertheless cause damage to the historic structure. Environmental enhancements such as heating may require especial attention, as an unwelcome consequence of heating an historic building could be drying out of plaster, causing cracking, or of timber, causing shrinkage and distortion. It may be necessary therefore to install humidity controls to counter such effects. Fortunately, as technology advances, it becomes more feasible to introduce such intelligent, tailored responses to these environmental problems caused by upgrading to modern standards.

Other similar problem areas include disabled persons access, fire defence requirements, and health and safety issues linked, for example to the presence of lead paint or other potential toxins in the historic fabric. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this paper to offer detailed solutions to this considerable raft of potential problems, a sensitivity to the issue is the essential prerequisite to a successful solution which permits modern useage with minimal damage to the historic fabric. However, we all know that all buildings in use generate some wear and tear, so some unavoidable degree of degradation is perhaps not only inevitable, but, properly managed, may actually be seen to continue the progress of an historic building's evolution rather than to artificially preserve it in aspic, so to speak. It is the honesty and appropriateness of the ongoing preventive and repair regimes in place to manage such wear and tear which matters in such cases.

Having arrived at these broad principles of conservation, we can now look at how we might apply them to a particular building. In most cases the conservation legislation will dictate what is to be conserved according to the Listed Building system:

Grade I listed: 6,000 UK properties of major historic interest. This group includes monuments such as Stonehenge, and many major cathedrals. Any repairs and alterations are very strictly controlled.

Grade II* listed: 23,000 properties of significant historic interest, including many country and town houses.

Grade II listed: 400,000 properties of special interest, that is, with some particular noteable feature, or part of a Conservation Area.

This system is broadly comparable with the conservation 'heirarchy' of buildings:

1. The 'Don't touch at all if possible' class of monuments such as Stonehenge, and significant 'jewels' of buildings, where any alteration or addition would detract from its historic and artistic worth. There may nevertheless still be conflicts with fire safety in particular, and health and safety requirements generally, if the building is to be used, visited or occupied. Very sensitive handling of any repairs and alterations is needed, which should entail consultations with conservation groups such as the Georgian Society as well as with English Heritage and the local authority's Conservation Planning Officer.

2. The 'Handle with Care' buildings, which may acquire a modern use (notably tourism such as the majority of National Trust properties) which requires additions and adaptations. Historic elements should remain undisturbed wherever possible, repairs should be distiguishable from the old but in sympathy with their materials and style, and new installations should be replaceable with minimal damage to the historic fabric.

3. The 'Feature' buildings where it is a particular feature of the building rather than its whole fabric which is important. This group includes those buildings in Conservation Areas where a certain external appearance must be kept (for example, no concrete tiles or PVCu windows permitted); 'blue plaque' buildings where someone famous once lived (running the gamut from Charles Darwin to Jimi Hendrix these days!), or buildings with a particular feature of note: an Adams fireplace, distinctive wood panelling, and so forth.
Specific conservation needs and legal requirements can best be interpreted within this framework.

Sourcing Skills and Expertise
Deciding what needs to be done to repair or alter an historic building is one thing; putting this into practice may be quite another. The first problem will be obtaining the agreement of the local Conservation Officers to the works: this will involve careful preparation and specification of any proposals, and also will require good conservation surveying skills to prepare an accurate and comprehensive record of what is there before any works start. So the first step is investigation, followed by evaluation, then by consultation with the conservation officer, the users, owners, and other interested groups, before work starts. Next, required works need to be specified and sourced. The chief problem the maintenance manager will be faced with in this regard is where to find the materials and skills to carry out non-standard building work. Old skills such as lime plastering, thatching, traditional carpentry, and stonemasonry are still extant but scarce. Thus there is also a cost problem: conservation work will cost more per unit that normal repair or alteration work. Who pays this extra cost? In many cases the owner will pay if they choose to occupy an historic building, whether for love or money or both. However, if the building is listed, there may be grant aid from English Heritage to fund the difference in cost between a 'normal' repair and one using traditional techniques and materials required as a consequence of its statutory listing. European Community cultural grants and in some cases Lottery funds may be available, but usually only for those historic buildings to which the public will have access. Other conservation managers may be able to help with sourcing appropriate builders and craftspersons, though there is an increasing need for a reliable Register of such companies. Perhaps the IMBM may be able to initiate such a Register provided the membership support the idea.

From the above discussion, I would distill the need for the maintenance manager to be aware of conservation issues in general, and as they relate to a specific historic building under his/her care, as the essential ingredient in ensuring the correct approach to repairs and alterations. A light and honest touch, respecting the story the building has to tell whilst ensuring its continued use and hence preservation, is needed to ensure that our stewardship adds value specifically to the building itself, and more generally to our culture and society. To this end, the Institute is looking into setting up both a Conference and an Interest Group in Conservation. Your support is invited.

Learned Papers Links

Noise Pollution Issues in Dwellings
Maintenance of The ‘Mod’ Estate
War Memorials - They should be remembered

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