Architects – The custodians of our built heritage?


    Kester Harvey, Commercial Director of The Rooflight Company details the pressures and responsibilities architects face when it comes to the specification of products and materials for heritage projects…

    It is well known that planning, building control and conservation officers do not always see eye to eye with project architects when it comes to the preservation and renewal of historic buildings. Indeed, there is often frustration with architects accusing those in planning and conservation of prescriptive approaches. This article highlights the pressures and responsibilities architects face by drawing from a new report that highlights how each party can gain from a better understanding of each other’s aims.

    The challenges encompassed by an architect’s role are multi-faceted: there is the need to strike a delicate balance between authentic aesthetics with ever-demanding sustainability targets, against frequently restricted budgets. Those responsible for local authority planning, building control and conservation often experience a confrontational relationship with architects, which can detract from the ultimate goal: working towards the optimum care, maintenance and preservation of our built environment. There is certainly the need for a better understanding of each party’s objectives, combined with a respect for their procedures that might ease the path.

    According to a recent survey 52% of architects believe achieving an authentic appearance should be the priority when it comes to specifying products and materials for heritage projects1. Budgetary constraints also emerge as the biggest threat to the preservation of historic buildings but above all, this report, the first of its kind, demonstrates the architectural community’s self-appointed role as the guardian of the UK’s built heritage. Less than a quarter, just 24% cited the conservation officer as the responsible party. Perhaps this is where the dichotomy with conservation, planning and building control is founded, and in fact a review of these attitudes could be valuable in bringing these parties together for a more cohesive way of working.

    The report also highlights the importance of ‘Specified’ products and materials, to ensure design aspirations are followed through and buildings are preserved with the most authentic materials for the job. Worryingly, of all the respondents, half believed that their specifications were only held ‘sometimes’ and 12% admitted to not knowing whether their specification had been retained at all. With 38% feeling that their specification was held ‘every time’ clearly selecting products for specification is far from a waste of time. However, it throws up an important question: if architects are the custodians of our built heritage, what happens when their expertise is overridden?

    The contractor receives the majority of the blame for specifications not being held (60%), while others considered the property owner to play a part here (29%). Interestingly the report highlights that a key influence behind these decisions could be the wishes of the conservation officer. To emphasise this, gaining planning approval emerges as the number one priority for property owners, closely followed by the cost of materials and achieving an authentic appearance – all key motivators in the specification switching that compromises an architect’s original design intentions.

    On the other hand, only 21% of architects stated planning approval as their main priority. Overwhelmingly 40% of the architects questioned felt that authentic materials were ‘essential’ to retaining building integrity, with the cost of products coming third in the list after the importance of planning approval.

    However, 30% of respondents agreed that products can be ‘replaced with non-authentic materials in certain circumstances’, with 55% agreeing that planners are more open to using modern alternatives too. 40% of respondents disagreed with this statement though. Frequent comments include: ‘Over-regulation’, ‘red tape’ and ‘lack of imagination’. Certainly an element of frustration is apparent, with some architects who feel that, without some compromise on the part of conservation officers, existing buildings cannot continue to be used practically for modern purposes, thereby falling into disuse more quickly with the resulting loss of our architectural heritage.

    This demonstrates a real split in opinion and experience when it comes to working with planners and conservation officers to achieve a cost-effective, modern alternative to traditional products or materials. Perhaps in turn it points to a real difference of opinion among individual planners. It is certainly an area for both architects and planning and conservation officers to explore in order to ensure older buildings are renovated using materials that not only achieve the desired look, but which also enhance the overall performance of the building, improving its longevity and contribution to the sustainability agenda.

    With property owners, contractors, architects and planning and conservation officers often experiencing building renovation as a fraught process, helping each party understand the drivers and pressures of the others may deliver a more integrated, collaborative approach. ■

    1 The Rooflight Company Conservation Report 2015

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    Kester Harvey

    Commercial Director

    The Rooflight Company

    Tel: 01993 833 155


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