Working with Our Heritage


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In its 2020 report, “Heritage and the Economy: Heritage Counts”, Historic England estimated that construction activities related to heritage properties in the UK contributed approximately £6.7billion of direct GVA to the UK economy; with over 100,000 construction workers involved in heritage-related activities such as stone-setting and carpentry. 

Historic properties are undoubtedly one of the UK’s most valuable assets, instilling a sense of place making, heritage, and history that can inspire visitors and occupiers. Little wonder then that owners are constantly looking to preserve their historic stock whilst seeking to keep it relevant to the current market. 

Whether these buildings are used for homes, retail, commercial or leisure, they present their own unique challenges, not least in trying to ensure they are energy efficient and sustainable. 

So what are the most important issues to consider when refurbishing a historic building?

Planning

Unsurprisingly, you won’t get very far in your desire to refurbish a historic building without ensuring you have met the relevant planning requirements. For Grade I, II and II* listed buildings any significant construction works, even if they are internal, will require listed building consent from the local planning officer. Carrying out works on a listed property without consent is a criminal offence, which can carry serious penalties including; if a listed building enforcement notice is issued, the possibility of having to restore the building to its original state and even prison sentences. 

Given resourcing difficulties at most local authorities, it is important to start the process of getting approvals as early as possible and budget for the time and costs of the approval. Unless you have significant existing expertise, you should consider engaging a Heritage Consultant under a suitable form of professional appointment. The Heritage Consultant can help you navigate through any planning requirements and, once on-site, provide continuing guidance and monitoring of the works to ensure compliance with local authority requirements and sign-off. 

Protection 

It is important that any retained features of a building are not damaged during the construction process. Specialist contractors with experience in working in sensitive environments should be engaged so as not to damage sometimes irreplaceable elements of the existing building. Del Boy’s chandelier springs to mind, but there are plenty of real life examples of contractor incompetence having historically damaging consequences. One need look no further than the Notre Dame fire in 2019 to appreciate the heightened fire risk at historic buildings; where a discarded cigarette (still a surprisingly common cause of fires) or electrical fault can have truly disastrous irreversible consequences. 

Preservation

Any work in a period building must of course be carried out sympathetically and with materials befitting its original construction. One particular challenge is to try to meet sustainability criteria, including bringing the energy efficiency of the building up to an acceptable level. Whilst technically there is an exemption from the EPC requirements for listed buildings, that is only where "compliance with certain minimum energy performance requirements would unacceptably alter [a building's] character or appearance”. This means that works to improve energy efficiency can be carried out where they can be done in a way that is compatible with the historic nature of the building.   

Historic England, in its report cited above, states that retrofitting historic buildings can result in significant carbon savings and also reduces the social cost of carbon. The report quotes modelled evidence of retrofitting scenarios for the built historic environment that suggests that retrofitting and refurbishing
25% of all historic buildings over a 25-year period would reduce carbon by 15.5 million tonnes of CO2
and result in £2.5 billion savings in offsetting climate change. 

The principal objective of preserving historic buildings is clearly compatible with one golden rule of sustainability: to quote Carl Elefante’s old adage, “The greenest building is the one that already exists” and it is well-known that up to a third of a new building’s carbon is emitted by practical completion stage (including demolition).  Those familiar with working on historic buildings are already one step ahead in their mindset that any building elements that can be saved and repurposed should be preserved.

Whilst all construction projects have their issues, the particular challenges of working in historic buildings require a unique skill set and more forethought than your average fit-out.  As always, there is a balance to be struck between the needs of the modern world and a desire to preserve our shared history for future generations but, with the right team, that course is possible to chart. 

 
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