In some quarters, the UK’s historic built environment has been seen as exempt from sustainability considerations. In fact, many heritage buildings are inherently sustainable, not least because they have an important part to play in protecting our national heritage and conserving the individuality of our communities.
There are many conflicts and challenges inherent in any discussion about sustainability and the historic built environment. However, the preservation and sympathetic adaptation of heritage buildings can also present major opportunities for ongoing sustainable outcomes.
New areas of work, beyond the field of individual buildings, are opening up. There is growing awareness of the need to upgrade the UK’s historic building stock within a context that acknowledges the significance of places and of sensitive urban design. Master planning and estate management (especially in relation to sustainability and energy consumption) increasingly take account of a range of heritage assets, and not just listed buildings.
Building less is an obvious way to preserve precious resources. Replacing an existing building with a new one involves a considerable cost of embodied energy in materials, transport and construction. Appropriate ways of upgrading existing buildings, rather than constructing new ones, are always worth exploring.
There are many challenges in improving the environmental performance of Grade I and II* listed buildings. However, sustainability is about more than energy consumption, so keeping these buildings in use is also a contribution. Cautious adaptation can often be carried out to ensure their continued preservation. Sympathetic environmental improvement may be possible.
Listed buildings are only a small proportion of the UK’s overall building stock, however, and we have a huge stock of unlisted 19th and 20th-century buildings. Many of these are less architecturally significant, but they offer more scope for sensitive reuse and environmental upgrading.
Planning legislation now supports a more flexible approach to heritage development. The Department for Communities and Local Government has recently amended heritage legislation as part of wider streamlining of planning legislation introduced in June 2013.
The rigid and often inappropriate content of Design and Access Statements (D&AS), which must accompany listed building applications, has been relaxed. Amendments to legislation have removed the requirement for D&AS to explain the principles and concepts applied to scale, layout and appearance and explain how the features which ensure access to the building will be maintained. Applicants and their agents still need to explain and justify their development proposals with reference to the planning policy framework, but in a manner proportionate to the project. This new approach allows more potential for sustainability exploration.
Faithful+Gould has worked closely with the HLF on the implementation of their green heritage guidance, and in the development of best practice case studies.
Heritage funding bodies are another significant player, increasingly requiring applicants to demonstrate their approach to sustainability. The Heritage Lottery
Fund (HLF), for example, is committed to ensuring that the projects it supports are environmentally sustainable. Faithful+Gould has worked closely with the HLF on the implementation of their green heritage guidance , and in the development of best practice case studies.
We were recently commissioned to assess awareness of this guidance amongst HLF funded organisations. We investigated the extent to which it is followed, examined relevant measures employed, and provided recommendations for further opportunities and improvements. Our findings showed that most HLF grantees are considering at least some sustainability initiatives, particularly in areas such as renewable energy technologies, water efficiency and environmental impacts of materials. Many aim to be exemplars. The drivers of conservation and sustainability are becoming more closely aligned and the interdisciplinary thinking more mainstream. This is reflected in the industry’s academic framework, with University College London, for instance, offering an MSc in sustainable heritage.
Faithful+Gould’s sustainability and carbon management team, together with our heritage building and conservation consultants, are finding increasing opportunities to work together in developing sympathetic solutions for unique heritage buildings.
 Reducing Environmental Impacts – Good Practice Guidance, HLF, 2012.