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Heritage special: Preserving the past to secure the future

9 January 2018 | By James Kenny

The Churches Conservation Trust was behind a £2.7m conservation project at St Nicholas’ Chapel in King’s Lynn

CM turns the spotlight on heritage, and the challenges of delivering construction projects on some of Britain’s most famous historic buildings. Here, James Kenny talks to some estates professionals in the heritage sector about the work they are planning and the skills required.

The UK’s heritage sector has an impact that extends far beyond its cultural status. According to the latest government assessment of the sector’s importance to the UK economy, it generated a gross value added of £987m in 2016. Historic England, the public body that looks after the country’s historic environment, says that the industry provides direct and indirect employment for around 278,000 people. So its economic significance is clear. 

But along with that come the challenges of upkeep, restoration and retrofitting of heritage buildings in order that they can remain open and continue to welcome millions of visitors a year. 

Organisations such as the National Trust, English Heritage and the Churches Conservation Trust are leading the way in maintaining some of the UK’s vast number of historic buildings.  Of England’s 60,000 places of worship, around 15,000 are listed, and 45% of England’s Grade I listed buildings are parish churches. 

However, the sector is under increasing pressure. Reduced funding, the push to make existing buildings more energy efficient, profitable and serve new purposes, and a shortage of specialist skills and quality tradespeople can make heritage projects a real challenge.

Rory Cullen, who is chair of the CIOB’s maintenance, adaptation, restoration and conservation special interest group, says that, from a construction point of view, a skills shortage presents the biggest threat to the sector.

“The main barrier we see is ensuring we will have sufficient specialist skills to maintain and repair our historic and traditional buildings in the UK,” he explains.

Cullen points to the Traditional Skills Report by the National Heritage Training Group, which said that, of the companies working in the sector, 89% of contractors were general construction companies and 87% did not hold formal qualifications relating to traditional buildings.

“There is a greater need for expertise in heritage trades and for practical ways to train people in these skills – many college curriculums only cover new-build,” Cullen adds. 

This is starting to be addressed. In June 2017, the CIOB launched a new certificate scheme to train up conservation specialists, while organisations such as the National Trust, with its Fit for the Future retrofitting campaign, are encouraging construction professionals and the wider public to take an interest in the conservation and restoration of the country’s historic buildings.

Morwenna Slade, estates officer, Churches Conservation Trust

Morwenna Slade

What heritage work are you currently undertaking?

The Churches Conservation Trust looks after 352 historic churches in England that have been classified as redundant. In the west region, we cover 118 buildings in 12 counties and the team runs everything from maintenance contracting all the way through to multi-million-pound regeneration projects.

A good example of our work would be St Nicholas’ Chapel in King’s Lynn, which reopened in 2015 after a £2.7m conservation and regeneration project. Currently we’re working on St Mary’s Church, Hartley Wintney in Hampshire, which is undergoing a programme of repairs such as repointing and stone replacement as well as redecoration. 

What are the main problems you face in your work?

Funding is a big issue for redundant places of worship. Our core funding reduces every year even though our estate continues to grow. Many projects are funded by the Heritage Lottery fund, but their resources are getting tighter.

Solar panels were retrofitted at St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn (Nicky Brayshaw)

One of the key challenges for us is vandalism and lead theft. A substantial part of our maintenance budget is consumed by mending windows and doors after attempts to break and enter. We are constantly repairing wall safes and removing graffiti, sometimes from the most delicate and historically valuable areas like medieval wall paintings.

In just the west region we have had four major lead thefts in the last six months and the trust has a repair liability of over £1m for lead thefts alone.

What are the barriers encountered by clients in the heritage sector?

There is a widely acknowledged skills shortage and efforts are being made to increase training in the heritage sector. This is particularly true when it comes to understanding how traditional buildings actually work and the materials, detailing and methods that must be used. 

It is often difficult to find specialist craft trades willing and happy to work in remote areas of the country where are projects are often located.

Mick Figg, head of buildings, Somerset House

Somerset House is retrofitting services to 21st century standards

Mick Figg

What heritage work are you currently undertaking?

Somerset House in central London is an iconic building in itself, but over the last six years we have transformed the estate. There’s about 32,500 sq m of space and we are retrofitting building services throughout in order to bring the buildings up to 21st century standards. 

What are the main challenges you’ve encountered?

I think the skills issue is the biggest problem. Across all construction we have a problem with skills and getting younger people into the industry, but it can be more difficult in specialist areas such as joinery, stonemason and specialist crafts.

I’ve tried to get apprentices through to heritage crafts, but we have to put them through the traditional training route and then they can only take heritage as an option in the third year. We would prefer them to be able to learn conservation from the outset. 

What other delivery problems come up in heritage?

Heritage projects are not cheap. Even maintaining the status quo costs heritage organisations a lot of money. We are lucky as we are a private trust but budgetary and funding issues are a constant worry for many.

What are your thoughts on the use of new technology and BIM?

For anything new-build we do I will look at using BIM. But the cost still needs to come down for it to be widely adopted in heritage – for a roof replacement when time and budget is pressured, BIM would not be a top priority. 

Alan Ross, lead building surveyor, National Trust

Alan Ross

What heritage work are you currently undertaking?

Coming up in 2018, we have stone repairs at Penrhyn Castle in Bangor, Wales, a 19th century neo-Norman castle, while in Northern Ireland we are working on the conservation, restoration and reservicing of Springhill mansion house, a fine example of a plantation house in Mid Ulster. 

Elsewhere, in the West Country, we are repairing the roof and windows at Edwin Lutyens’ Castle Drogo in Devon, as well as carrying out structural repairs to the Wellington monument in Somerset, and repairing the 18th century dams in Prior Park, Bath. 

Our renewable energy programme of works, from hydro schemes to heat pumps, biomass and thermal upgrades, is also ongoing. 

What are the main challenges you’ve encountered in heritage work?

Despite making informed allowances for any “known unknowns”, all too often we uncover hidden snippets of history that none of our team had any idea might be there.

Stone repairs are lined up for the National Trust’s Penrhyn Castle

One recent example is at Tredegar House, a mansion just outside Newport that dates back to the 17th century, where we discovered a timber-framed wall hidden behind modern cement render. Dendrochronology testing of the timber was inconclusive, so no formal dating was possible, but when looking at the evolution of the building it was considered likely to be part of the 1670 phase of construction. 

Our solution was to omit the lime render and change to oak boarding – conserving the timber frame and creating a visual appearance more in keeping with the original structure.

What are the barriers encountered by clients in the heritage sector?

Historic building materials aren’t often found in high street builders’ merchants and sourcing high quality, sustainable materials – such as long straw thatch or local water reed – can be troublesome and expensive. 

Procuring highly skilled traditional tradespeople can also be a challenge. We have a direct labour team of highly skilled craftspeople – from carpenters to stonemasons, plumbers to painters – who work on our most cherished built assets across the country. But often there is a waiting list for specialist trades, such as ornamental plasterers who can repair scagliola. 

When it comes to retrofitting of historic buildings to make them more energy efficient, how are projects usually approached?

Careful analysis of how to improve energy efficiency while not damaging the historic fabric is an essential starting point. Usually, retrofitting new materials isn’t necessary, but it can be a challenge ensuring the building is weatherproof while still adequately ventilated. 

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