Design well on the old: architectural conservation as a solution for 21st Century challenges

buildings

Queensberry House

By Cristina González-Longo

Scotland’s identity is closely linked to its historic buildings, ranking in the Nation Brands Index 12 out of 50 nations for its reputation of being rich in cultural heritage. The historic environment is also very important for Scottish economy and society: according to the 2016 Scotland’s Historic Environment Audit it contributes in excess of £2.3 billion to Scotland’s economy and it is good for our health and well-being.

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 sets the targets to reduce greenhouse emissions by 42% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. The sensitive conservation and continuous use of historic buildings is crucial to meet these targets. The occupation and use of buildings accounts for approximately half of the UK’s CO2 emissions and 80% of the housing stock that will be inhabited in 2050 already exists. The Scottish House Condition Survey (SHCS) has also established that around 500,000 dwellings (one in five in Scotland) are more than 97 years old and traditionally built, with 68% of them presenting disrepair to critical elements.  Scottish Traditional Building Forum has also estimated that 97% of stone buildings in Glasgow require some repair by 2020.

We also know that the demolition of old buildings uses more energy than their conservation. Dublin City Council commissioned a study comparing the cost of retaining and reusing the buildings with the cost of demolition and rebuilding in the same site. It concluded that constructing new buildings is more expensive except in situations where the extent of building repair and refurbishment required is extremely high. English Heritage has also estimated that the costs of maintaining and occupying a Victorian terraced house, when considered over a 100-year period, are 30% cheaper than those of a house built in the 1980’s. The Heritage Lottery Fund has found that commercial businesses based in the historic buildings of major cities are more productive and generate more wealth than business based in new buildings.

All these compelling facts do not have however at the moment direct translation in funding, business, professional knowledge and educational provisions. The repair and maintenance of existing buildings constitutes approximately one-third of all construction work. Historic Environment Scotland awarded grants in the last ten years of more than £140 million that assisted repairs of a value of over £591 million; private investment accounts for three quarters of all funding for the historic environment. Concerning professional knowledge, most of the strategies to reduce energy consumption in buildings are focusing at the moment on the installation of new energy efficient systems. Although some new systems may always be needed, the priory should be on the existing architecture and fabric of the buildings, their analysis and understanding, not on particular systems or technical solutions which may or not be suitable. Above all, we should improve the energy efficiency of heritage assets without compromising their character and value and architects and other professionals specialised in conservation should ultimately design and assess the intervention, minimising the need for additional systems.

Great focus has been put in the replacement of windows to combat heat loss, however in a typical home this occurs mainly through walls (35%) and roofs (25%) rather than windows (10%). To understand the existing configuration of the walls is fundamental and we do not have at the moment efficient methods for this, resulting on inadequate and inaccurate data, standardisation and assumptions incorporated in meaningless models and unreliable results. In order to address this problem, the University of Strathclyde is carrying out collaborative and innovative research on the use of image processing techniques for the conservation of historic buildings between the Department of Architecture and the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering.

The education in architectural conservation is at the moment concentrated at postgraduate level in UK. Most of the Architecture and Engineering schools do not teach architectural conservation at undergraduate level, and there is little room in the curriculum to teach about traditional materials, survey and diagnostics, important for conservation projects. As in many other countries, the criteria for the prescription of architectural qualifications in UK are orientated to new buildings, and do not refer explicitly to the conservation of existing ones.

buildings

Falstone Tea Rooms in Northumberland National Park

Good design on a historic building can effectively deal with the environmental, social and economic challenges of our century, as outlined before. Falstone Tea Rooms in Northumberland National Park was a pioneering project in which the high aspirations of the client allowed a very contemporary and innovative design in a disused Victorian School. The building is self-sufficient in the generation and use of energy and resources thanks to a biomass pellet boiler (publicly viewable), water harvesting and a roof composed of photovoltaic cells on the former stable area. The photovoltaics cells, sandwiched between layers of glass, form the actual roof structure, which perfectly blends with the conserved original slate roof of the adjacent school. Many times people think that you have to copy the original to conserve buildings, but contemporary theory of conservation confirms that this is not the case. Our generation should contribute with good contemporary design to historic buildings, as previous generations did; that approach allowed historic buildings to arrive to us. If we want to bring these building to the future we should continue good practice and use the best design, conservation skills and technology available to us, within an overall approach of understanding the significance of the building and respecting its fabric.

buildingsQueensberry House, a Grade-A listed building forming now part of the new Scottish Parliament complex in Edinburgh was considered the finest townhouse in Scotland at the end of seventeenth century. It arrived in a very poor condition at the end of twentieth century due to a series of inappropriate interventions and spoil, to the point that even the bolection stone mouldings of the fireplaces were removed. But the quality of spaces was there and the walls could be exposed to proclaim their importance. The building was initially at risk to be demolished as the Spencely’s report considered its conservation and conversion to offices for the new Parliament to be “not value for money”. After a painstaking effort it was possible to conserve what was left of its fabric, avoiding any further damage and designing new contemporary interiors rather than reinstating them without material evidence. It is now proudly sitting between all the new buildings of the complex, providing a comfortable working environment and a direct link with Scotland’s historic environment.

Unfortunately, historic buildings are sometimes not seeing as architecture any more, only as untouchable archaeological artefacts or as building fabric only and this is affecting their conservation and reuse. Fixations with romantic views and the issues of authenticity have distorted and limited the discourse, in many cases conducting, ironically, to false reconstructions or recreations. Of course, when dealing with historic buildings, the first thing is to ensure that the values and significance of the buildings will be not damaged by the intervention.  But it is a fact that many of the historic buildings we have today would not have survived if they were not transformed: history demonstrates that architectural design is an active agent for conservation and architectural conservation should be, first of all, an architectural project, not just the repair of the fabric.

Design well on the old: architectural conservation as a solution for the environmental, social and economic challenges of the 21st Century: Dr Cristina González-Longo is a RIBA Specialist Conservation Architect and Director of the MSc in Architectural Design for the Conservation of Built Heritage, Department of Architecture, University of Strathclyde.