Opinion

Heritage special: Make the past your future

31 January 2018 | By Rebecca Thompson

Rebecca Thompson managed the £20m restoration of York Minster

Heritage specialists work on some of the most demanding projects – and now they’re getting due recognition. Rebecca Thompson, founder of her own heritage consultancy and president of the CIOB, explains.

Rebecca Thompson

The heritage sector not only offers a fascinating construction career, it also provides many examples of outstanding practice in workmanship and project team relationships – which can serve as exemplars for the wider industry.

From my own experience managing projects such as the £20m restoration of York Minster cathedral, construction professionals on heritage projects appreciate the significance of their work. For many it feels like a privilege to contribute to schemes where public recognition is high, and where they are literally following in the footsteps of names such as Christopher Wren or Charles Barry.

Recognising the history of the buildings is also central to a healthy working relationship with heritage clients.

The expectation is that the work will be right first time and to a high quality – a pertinent issue given the CIOB’s current investigation into build quality. There is considerable scrutiny of the workmanship, by stakeholders including historians, archaeologists and curators.

But specialist heritage trades take personal satisfaction from achieving the required high standards and understanding the unique challenges.

A quarter of UK properties date from before 1919, which usually means they are of solid wall construction, and respond to the environment differently from modern buildings – and therefore need to be managed and restored differently.

Heritage training organisations, courses and accreditations

  • CIOB Offers a building conservation certification scheme at three competency levels – registered, proficient and certified – which is linked to the CIOB Academy course Understanding Building Conservation
  • English Cathedrals Apprenticeships for craft and traditional skills including stonemasonry, joinery, painting and decorating can be arranged through many cathedrals.
  • Historic England and National Trust Have partnered with CITB on a bursary scheme that provides training in traditional building skills, as well as offering apprenticeships and
    work-based training.
  • The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation Also offer courses and advice on conservation practices.

Common mistakes from trades who are not heritage specialists include installation of chemical damp proof courses or uPVC windows which seal the building, preventing it from “breathing” and causing damp problems. Modern construction has a focus on airtightness, but historic buildings were built to allow natural ventilation.

The CIOB is one of several organisations offering bespoke training that reflects the complexity of the skills required [see box], and the institute has just launched a conservation accreditation to recognise professionals and firms who specialise in the sector.

Heritage projects require a high level of collaboration. There is no “top table” as on some projects. The architect, engineer, construction project manager and specialist trades such as stonemasons and joiners all work together to resolve a problem as equals.

Each craft or trade integrates its programme with other work packages, showing respect for each other and for the building. The sector is also diverse and inclusive, compared to the rest of construction, with a high proportion of women who are experts in craft skills. Some 40% of the craft trades at York Minster were female. 

It is not usually a career choice motivated by commercial gain, because budgets are tight – but this encourages creative and innovative ideas.

At Thompson Heritage Consultancy, our philosophy is to enable the client to understand the constraints and opportunities of the building, so they can make the right decisions about the level of restoration.

This encompasses major schemes such as developing a masterplan for the York Minster precinct, and smaller projects such as a conservation management plan for a beautiful Wesleyan Chapel that has been converted into a private residence. 

Maintenance regimes should always be factored into any restoration project, and an understanding of the fascinating field of building pathology is useful. Sustainability and energy performance are also important, as running costs are often high. The Palace of Westminster is planning to spend billions on its renovation, and it must be hoped the estate managers have a sensible maintenance plan for when the work is complete.

The sector constantly provides new challenges for professionals – both in the UK and abroad. The CIOB has just been on a trade mission to promote our conservation expertise in China. The country has 52 Unesco heritage sites, and there is a growing awareness of the need to preserve its cultural heritage for future generations. 

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