Historic England has recently published a guide to assessing historical heritage areas. It usefulness as a document is to inform heritage practitioners not only in the UK (where it was written) but also in NSW, Australia as to how to go about determining and comprehensively reporting on conservation areas – both existing and new.
Some of the guidelines for fieldwork include an understanding of the evolution of the area and its character in more rounded ways than maps satellite imagery or desk-based analysis permit. It helps to understand how the lie of the land influenced the process of development and enables the sequence of changes to be plotted in more detail than can be done from periodic map editions. Fieldwork is an analytical activity that will be most effective when fully informed by;
- Establishing or confirming the dates of key buildings and other features. Where map evidence or other information is lacking, buildings can be dated approximately on the basis of their architectural style, plan-form and other design features. For older buildings, great care is required particularly in towns which have been extensively altered in subsequent decades
- Identifying the function and use, historical and current, of buildings and of green or open spaces. For many buildings – particularly those of the 19th and 20th centuries – the original function may be self-evident from external observation. For industrial, institutional or military complexes no longer in original use it may be difficult to establish functions without additional research. Earlier buildings, and those that have undergone considerable change, may prove harder to interpret although functions can often be inferred from certain external features or attributes. For example, variations in decorative detail, window forms and positions of chimneys etc. will often suggest the uses of different parts of the building. The study of open spaces and landscapes will similarly reveal patterns of changing use over time.
- Identifying ‘units of development’ or ‘built units’. Units of development are the parcels of land that are developed under the guidance or control of a single owner or developer. They can often be inferred from maps by the conformity of roads or boundaries to an orientation or grid, by street names or because they are respected by later features. In the field, they can be observed by, for example, a uniform style of building or landscaping or a recurrent motif. Units of development are often composed of smaller ‘built units’ (i.e. the product of a single building campaign). These may be distinguished by structural breaks, by changes in architectural form, or by more subtle variations in detailing. They can give a picture of the mechanics of development that is impossible to obtain from maps but shapes the character of an area. For designed landscapes, it will be similarly important to distinguish what was laid out, planted and built in each stage of development.
- Identifying evolutionary patterns in the building stock or other landscape elements. Can trends be identified, such as notable shifts in change of use or piecemeal modifications to buildings? For example, the heightening of early houses to provide an additional storey, the front extension of houses for shops, the replacement of building materials, the personalisation of repetitive housing units or alterations in housing density.
- Exploring the social character of the area. Where different areas or kinds of site favoured for different types of development or classes of house – has this changed over time?
- Exploring the relationship between landscape elements and area character – has one had a significant impact on the other and, if so, how?
- Consideration of the potential archaeological interest of the area below ground and particularly in open areas in the form of surface evidence. What is its relationship to features and patterns in the wider landscape?
- Defining and confirming the character area boundaries
- Assessing the condition and integrity of the historic area
- Noting factors that influence the capacity of the historic area to absorb change
Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 19 April 2017
Reference: Historic England, Understanding Place – Historic Area Assessments, April 2017