In reality, who makes decisions about heritage buildings and places regarding change? At the local level, is it councils, owners, developers, private planners, architects or their clients? There are many parties involved in heritage projects including builders, tradespeople, finance companies, engineers, conservators, economists, real estate agents, members of the community, Court commissioners, panellists, researchers, government authorities and legal practitioners. The web of involvement is wide ranging and diverse. Yet, how many of these individuals, groups and authorities is sufficiently experienced or qualified to make decisions on behalf of heritage buildings that have stood the test of time? The practice of cultural built heritage is ultimately a social engagement with heritage fabric, yet the lines of communication are blurred. Does ownership confer a greater authority than local government or state authorities? Do developers bend the rules? Do owners attempt to cut corners? Do architects fudge the information? Do assessors turn a blind eye or de-emphasise that which ought to be given greater prominence? What is the impact upon cultural built heritage practice?
This blog alludes to the need for accreditation in cultural built heritage. If nothing else, to build a level of consensus in society as to what is acceptable heritage practice and what isn’t. We need to tread very carefully because if we make errors, they can seldom be reversed. Inappropriate decisions regarding fragile heritage fabric can be catastrophic. A demolished heritage building can never be rebuilt. If it is, it will always be a fake because it uses contemporary building methods and materials to achieve a look – a veneer of heritage only.
In the UK, there are two strong guidelines in place that guide councils (local government) as to the types of approach required of a presiding heritage officer in relation to proposed new development to a heritage building or in the vicinity of a heritage building. One of those documents is the British Standard BS 7913:2013 published by BSI Standards Limited under licence from The British Standards Institution and it came into effect on 31December 2013. It was prepared by Technical Committee B/560 Conservation of tangible cultural heritage.
It states in its introduction that: the immediate objective of building conservation is to secure the protection of built heritage in the long-term interest of society. Issues relating to building conservation are often complex and interwoven. The conservation of historic buildings requires judgement based on an understanding of principles informed by experience and knowledge to be exercised when decisions are made. British Standards that are applicable to newer buildings might be inappropriate. The decision to conserve historic buildings can be justified on social, cultural, economic and/or environmental grounds, and usually a combination of these. Conflicting pressures often need to be balanced to assist good decision making. Good conservation depends on a sound research evidence base and the use of competent advisors and contractors.
Historic buildings should be maintained for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. The historic building’s significance should be the basis of the management and planning of its continued well-being. Its specific value and attributes, its setting, and inter-relationships should be taken into account in management planning.
Where management planning involves change to the fabric or use of a historic building or its setting, the potential impact of that change on its significance should be identified and quantified. Impacts from change can be direct (i.e. affecting the fabric, attributes or character of the historic building), or indirect, (i.e. altering spatial qualities or relationships within its setting). Change that protects or reveals the historic building’s significance should be encouraged.
Change that could cause harm to the significance of the historic building should be avoided wherever possible. The impact of any proposed changed should be justified. The approach taken to that justification should be proportionate to the nature and significance of the historic building and the scale and impact of the proposed works. For example, relatively minor alterations to a modest house might only need a simple statement to provide sufficient justification, while large scale interventions affecting a complex site might need a detailed conservation management plan.
The information provided should be sufficient to ensure that the likely impact to the historic building can be assessed. Work proposals should be based on an appropriate level of research into the historic building in order to understand its significance, structure, fabric, design, layout, services and other parameters. Where works are proposed to respond to or rectify problems with historic built fabric, the cause of the problems should be determined and the available range of possible solutions should be identified. Solutions should be designed and executed such that they cause minimal harm to the significance of the historic building and avoid unnecessary loss of historic fabric. Generally, this entails the use of materials for repairs that match existing building closely, taking into account relevant issues of performance, durability and longevity.
However occasionally alternative approaches might be justified. The principle of minimum intervention (i.e. retention of as much fabric as possible of a building when repair or other intervention is required) is important. All interventions should be recorded to facilitate future understanding. Information gathered about the historic building during the planning and implementation of change should be recorded and made available for use by others. Conservation, repair and maintenance of historic buildings should be managed and carried out by competent persons. Typically this involves the application of traditional skills and materials rather than modern techniques.
The inventory of do’s and don’ts is long and complex. Unless the presiding officer is trained in dealing with historic fabric within a planning context and has experience, they should not be involved. Cultural built heritage (CBH) fabric is too precious and rare to have charlatans’ involved and worse still, making important and potentially inaccurate decisions about fabric.
Paul Rappoport of Heritage 21 strongly believes that there should be accreditation of people working in heritage. There should be university courses or even TAFE courses that take people through the rank and file of the heritage industry from report writing to assessments and advice giving within a planning context. There should be a set syllabus for such courses to ensure that students are taken through the entire gamut of heritage situations especially where diverse parties and interests are involved.
As described above in the British Standard, providing advice about heritage fabric deserves in depth research and understanding and much experience. The university and TAFE courses should be supported by institutes in the same way as there an institute of architects, there should be an institute of CBH. Such institutes should issue standards and practice notes to its members and council should not engage personnel on heritage buildings unless they are qualified and accredited. The same should apply in private practice. There is every reason why an institute of CBH should exist.
Already, we regret the decisions of the past in which unqualified people or those on the take have had far too much influence over heritage matters. It is quite obvious that we ought to be taking a precautionary approach to this. Notwithstanding the reasonably high standard of the information coming out of the NSW Heritage Office and support for CBH by Minister Mr. Speakman, accreditation is the only way to raise the standard from its currently ad hoc and unregulated confusion to one of solemn and un-prejudicial demeanour.
Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 9 October 2015
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