Counting the Cost of Historic Buildings

Richard Stocking
Heritage is not the core business of the building, however focusing on managing change rather than avoiding change can help with the costs of maintaining historic buildings.

Anyone associated with the conservation or restoration of a historic building is likely to be worried about the budget and the practicalities…especially where heritage is not the core business of the building.

We are fortunate in the UK to have some of the finest architectural heritage in the world. It often gives us the opportunity to integrate historic buildings and areas within urban regeneration schemes, creating significant benefits for local economies and communities. This successful heritage-based development hinges on properly utilising the heritage rather than seeing it as a burden.

A historic building may be an appreciated local landmark, valued by the community, and able to act as a catalyst for economic and social development. The fabric and design can enhance new-build elements of a regeneration or development scheme, and the building may attract tenants/occupiers who are looking for a distinctive historic building. Or it may be that a building is discovered to have an element of historical significance, and this needs examining and incorporating into any redevelopment and refurbishment plans. These are all typical scenarios that my team at Faithful+Gould specialise in.

Where heritage is not the main focus, owners and developers may view the historical context as a burden or a budget/maintenance headache. There's a popular misconception that no changes will be permitted to the fabric of the building, especially if it's listed. However, English Heritage emphasises that this is not the case. The aim is positive 'conservation' and managing change rather than 'preservation'. This allows even a listed building to change and adapt to new uses and circumstances in a way that keeps its heritage value intact.

So today's focus is on managing change rather than avoiding change. Nonetheless, the budget is usually a worry and certainly the required materials, crafts, workmanship and standards for a historic building are likely to attract higher costs. Meeting with unexpected costs will typically undermine viability, so removing as many unknown factors as possible is a priority. It's fair to say that unexpected issues will inevitably arise on heritage projects, so identifying and anticipating these right at the start will give the best chance of managing the costs.

Working with heritage assets brings a unique set of issues to the development process, such as understanding the special conservation, planning, funding and construction matters associated with them. My team begins by defining the significance of the building or asset. What makes it important? What is the inherent special interest? If heritage is not the core business area, a clear understanding of significance will provide a robust basis for decision-making and allocation of resources. This information needs to be incorporated into the design, planning and asset management processes from the outset, thus avoiding problems post-contract.

A historic building may be an appreciated local landmark, valued by the community, and able to act as a catalyst for economic and social development. 

Not every historic building is statutorily listed. Those that are listed typically have only brief descriptions on the register, with their significance often not well-defined. Misconceptions are common – for instance, people sometimes think that only the façade is listed, whereas in fact the whole building is affected. We help our clients to understand these issues.

It may be worth considering how the building is used and whether that should change. For example, when advising on the usage and conservation of the Redoubt Fortress and Military Museum (scheduled monument) in Eastbourne, we suggested moving the museum out of the fortress building. This would relieve the problem of creating museum conditions in the historic building.

Allocation of conservation budgets is usually challenging, with competition from operational budgets. Capital works usually form part of multiple stakeholder projects with competing interests and specialisms. Maintenance is often reactive instead of proactive, and there may be a focus on patching up the building instead of funding more extensive repairs. Early input from skilled professionals is vital, to highlight the problems, predict the necessary works and foresee the conflicts. Cost option appraisals can then be produced, providing realistic costs based on an accurate understanding of the building. This asset management approach invariably saves money and produces better results.

Working with heritage assets brings a unique set of issues to the development process, such as understanding the special conservation, planning, funding and construction matters associated with them.

Skilled cost control is part of the effective management of the project. It should encompass risk mitigation, which includes the avoidance of harm and reputational risk, due to decay of historic fabric or inappropriate repairs. The emphasis is on cost management and asset management strategies that balance utility and cost-effectiveness, while protecting the integrity of the building and its heritage.

Faithful+Gould provides cost and project management, building surveying and conservation consultancy services to the heritage sector. We lead projects where heritage is the main focus, as well as projects where it's not the key driver but must be considered. Our strength lies in our ability to give sound commercial advice, drawing on our team of qualified and experienced conservation specialists. Our portfolio includes: The Congress Theatre, Eastbourne (Grade II*), Wakehurst Place, Haywards Heath (Grade I), William Morris Gallery (Grade II*), Redoubt Fortress, Eastbourne (Scheduled Monument), Philips Building, School of Oriental and African Studies (Grade II*) and Tintagel Castle (Scheduled Ancient Monument).

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