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CIOB Saving Our Heritage – Time To Act

Experts united at a conference on Sustainability and Historic Buildings, held last Tuesday and Wednesday at Somerset House, to highlight the need to improve the way we manage our built heritage in the face of climate change. The conference was jointly organised by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the National Trust, English Heritage and Somerset House, and policymakers, owners of historic buildings and educationalists all need to take note of the findings.

As Lord Smith, Chair of the Environment agency, reminded the delegates, the scientific consensus on the likely speed of climate change has recently been revised – and the news isn’t good. A sea level rise of up to two metres is now expected over the next 90 years. This, along with new rainfall patterns which raise the likelihood of flash flooding, presents a danger to many of our most iconic landmarks.

Deborah Lamb, Director of Policy and Communications at English Heritage, warned of hard choices to be made. Some historic buildings cannot realistically be saved, and may have to be surrendered in the wake of annual flooding.

For most owners of historic buildings, however, knowing how to deal with occasional severe weather events is all-important. Perhaps the most important thing for them to be aware of is the dangers posed by well-meaning – but non-specialist – contractors who may be called to assist with the process of drying out a building after flooding. Historic finishes can be scraped off quite unnecessarily – and in complete contravention to the rules if it’s a listed building – whilst liberal use of spray disinfectant could also have a damaging effect on interiors.

“We once prevented the use of disinfectant at the last minute, but because the flood was clean water, not sewage, it just wasn’t necessary,” said Sarah Staniforth, Historic Properties Director for the National Trust.

However, it’s all to easy for the average homeowner to follow the advice of the contractor, however misguided, which is why flood remediation specialists need to understand the specific requirements of historic houses. This underlines a point made by another speaker, Sir John Sorrell, Chairman of CABE.

“Refurbishment needs to become a core part of the curriculum in schools of the Built Environment,” he said. “Caring for our heritage takes skilled and specialist craftspeople. We need to make that glamorous – and inspire our young people to learn to preserve their heritage.”

Until these skills are more widely understood, many opportunities to preserve the past will be lost forever. This is true not only when dealing with the impacts of climate change. The regulations designed to arrest the increase in global warming are also causing a problem for many historic homes, and it’s purely due to a lack of specialist skills.

As English Heritage’s Chris Wood explained, the change in the building regulations governing the conservation of heat and power (Part L) has seen irreplaceable historic windows consigned to the tip because of a mistaken belief that they can’t comply with the new regulations. The wood these windows are made from was called “common deal” in the eighteenth century, but it’s now impossible to obtain anything of such high quality, because the forests the wood came from are all protected. Disposing of such windows, which can last hundreds of years, to replace them with PVC double glazing is anything but environmental. Joint research with Historic Scotland is identifying many interventions – some as simple as a thick pair of curtains – which can make such windows compliant with modern standards.

The importance of research and detailed understanding of the particular needs of a property was also stressed by John Edwards, Chair of the CIOB’s Conservation, Maintenance and Refurbishment Group. Seemingly little things such as peeling paint are often symptoms of a deeper problem, and detailed investigation of a building is vital if the right intervention is to take place.

Hank Dittmar, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, underlined the message that breaking from the past is the last thing we should be doing if we want to become more sustainable.

“The terraces and mansion blocks of our historic urban environment are inherently more sustainable than suburbia,” he said. “The worst houses for sustainable performance are actually post-war.”

However, whilst the gap in our training of future professionals exists, mistakes will continue to be made in the stewardship of our historic environment. As both the climate and the legislative environment change with unprecedented rapidity, we need specialists equipped to look after the built heritage more than ever.

Sir Patrick Cormack, head of the parliamentary All Party Heritage Committee, has invited representatives from the conference to present their findings when parliament reconvenes in the autumn – a clear sign of recognition, at the highest level, of the need to find solutions while there’s still time to act.


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