When you buy a listed property, it’s not because it makes financial sense but because you’ve fallen in love with the building, its character, its charm and its context. Historic houses often have generous rooms, higher ceilings and unique windows and a more mature setting than new builds. They also have a story, which an extremely exciting medium to work with.
All old buildings are living spaces, and each owner and period of change leaves its mark. Alongside making these properties suited to 21stCentury needs, enhancing valuable existing features and nurturing the ethereal quality is at the heart of a successfully sensitive renovation project.
“First we shape our buildings, then they shape us” [Winston Churchill, 1943]
Unfortunately, Local authorities can vary greatly in what they deem suitable or not and the process of getting the necessary consents can be convoluted. Buildings may have a special historic or architectural interest which it is important to conserve and they may be located in a wider area that is historically important. As such, there are strict laws governing what you can and can’t do to a listed building, both internally and externally.
There are around 500,000 listed buildings in the UK, categorised into three levels of listing in England and Wales: Grade I, Grade II and Grade II*. A Grade-I listed building will have more restrictions than one that is Grade-II listed.
· Grade I - Buildings of outstanding or national architectural or historic interest.
· Grade II - Buildings of special historic or architectural interest.
· Grade II* - Particularly significant buildings of more than local interest.
Listing was introduced in the Town and County Planning Act in 1947 to protect the UK’s historically significant or architecturally innovative properties in the aftermath of World War II; and the consequent destruction of some of the UK's most important buildings. The main challenge when making an application to modernise a listed property is communicating the added value of the alterations to the historic fabric to decision makers. To achieve this, and the key to negotiating an appropriate compromise, is first understanding and then demonstrating the significance of the elements you seek to adapt. This is traditionally done through a ‘Statement of Significance’ (submitted with the Planning Application) which should be a well-researched, analytical document that assesses historic and contemporary value. What goes on around a heritage asset can both affect its significance and the ability of people – today and in the future – to appreciate its qualities so should also be carefully considered.
“The best statements, are those which put their finger not only on what matters about a place for present and future generations but also how those values are manifested in the asset and its setting.” BuildingConservation.com
The ‘setting’ of a listed building is protected even if it isn’t situated within a conservation area. As a result, even ancillary buildings can be protected and individual trees in its garden are deemed to have tree preservation orders (TPOs) attached to them. Consultation from an early stage in the project with planners, conservation bodies and other stakeholders is vital. This might sound like a time-consuming formality, but unauthorised works are a criminal offence. Not having the correct paperwork in place could make selling more difficult and if you get caught, you might be asked to return the property to its previous state. If you've destroyed original features in the process, this is likely to be very costly.
“New buildings do not have to copy their older neighbours in detail. Some of the most interesting streets include a variety of building styles, materials and forms of construction, of many different periods, but together forming a harmonious group.” PPS 6: Planning, Archaeology and The Built Heritage. Listed Buildings: Policy BH 11
As Architects, we draw on an understanding of the site, the clients’ aspirations and the local context to positively add to the story of the building. This does not necessarily mean mimicking the existing style; but developing a proposal that both enhances and modernises the environment through carefully considered new interventions.
"First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again-ad infinitum" Stewart Brand, 1994
The skill and patience required to sensitively interweave the contemporary and historic can be a barrier to getting permission for significant alterations. At the design stage, the narrative of the proposed changes is also much less tangible than the visible qualities of the existing structure in front of you. This inevitably makes the value of proposed changes harder to visualise and requires a higher level of architectural and contextual understanding to appreciate the scheme fully. Agreeing what is appropriate can seem like an opinion driven debate that requires persuasion and vision from all parties. An important part of our job is to find a way to represent the proposals in a format that can be easily digested and appreciated by all those who are affected. We also work alongside our clients to engage in person through meetings and site visits.
Material choice and detailing are often the most contentious areas when intervening in sensitive structures. Be prepared to spend on unusual building materials and specialist labour as well as design time. Like-for-like materials are usually required for repairs during renovation, for example using local thatch, lime renders and bespoke wood-framed sash or metal windows. It is also often common for conservation officers to prioritise aesthetics above modern sustainable credentials in historic properties. As a general rule of thumb, new building costs are often quoted at £1200-£1500 per square metre. However, with a listed building, you could be looking at anything from 30%-50% higher.
A great resource is the Listed Property Owners’ Club (LPOC), which holds an annual show in London and which was set up to help owners of listed properties understand what works they are and aren’t allowed to do to their properties. Historic England produces the free Listed Property Owners Guide, a guide to what alterations you can and cannot do to listed properties.
However, developing a historic building does not meant that you cannot introduce new materials, even in the most sensitive context. This is the case at the Grade I listed Holburne Museum in Bath, extended in 2011 by Eric Parry Architects.
There are architectural tools which transcend time that can be used to echo the qualities of the existing and make temporal links, without superficial mimicry. These include transparency, mass, light, sound and reflectivity. There are many more ways to show respect for the old than pastiche, and the introduction of new elements should play a vital role in pulling out the stories contained in the site. The identification of an appropriate palette which runs throughout the building to physically blend the line between new and old is the most important.
Equally, don’t be afraid to propose bold changes if they are important to creating a successful space. At the Holburne, the repositioning of an existing staircase installed by Reginald Blomfield between 1913-1916 when he gutted the Georgian original, was at the heart of linking the old and new spaces. Although drastic, architecturally, this move created a vital harmony between the contemporary proposals and the conceptual constants in the buildings’ overall history. Eventually it was because of this link to the building’s past that Parry found support with English Heritage.
This strategic move represented a more significant gain than retaining the stair in its original location. UNESCO commented that “the relationship between the museum building and the gardens is functional, visual, and physical. In terms of function the proposed development it will greatly improve the relationship both of the museum buildings to the gardens, and the route from the city centre along Great Pultney Street to the gardens.” The new design has greatly improved the experience of wandering through the Holburne’s collection as the new and old rooms are encountered alternately.
Identifying significance and understanding historical relevance in your project are therefore critical to successfully adapting it to meet your needs.
When it comes to extending a listed building, guidelines have changed. In the past, the preferred strategy for Architects and planning departments was to imitate the original period building so that old and new were indistinguishable. Today, planning officers are often in favour of maintaining a clear divide between old and new – creating the extension out of a modern material that contrasts the old so that the distinctions are clearly visible. Architects are often divided int their opinions and you should look for a practice that shares your views as the client. We believe that complimenting the existing building is most important; sometimes this involves reproducing elements and careful infill; sometimes highly contemporary interventions that contrast visually. Finding the ‘right’ solution is a more involved process, but the results are more harmonious and experientially enjoyable.
Twisting high above Floral Street in Covent Garden, the Bridge of Aspiration by Wilkinson Eyre Architects is an example of a new ‘contrast’ structure which sensitively binds two existing buildings. The bridge provides the dancers of the Royal Ballet School with a direct link to the Grade I listed Royal Opera House. The award-winning design addresses a series of complex contextual issues, and is legible both as a fully integrated component of the buildings it links and as an independent architectural element. [Image source: Wilkinson Eyre Architects]
Getting the most out of your property is by necessity a collaboration between the owner, professional experts and the local authority. It is a sometimes length but absolutely worthwhile process of negotiation and convincing other stakeholders that the proposals would materially enhance the building and bring it into the 21st century in a sympathetic way. With patience, a vision that at first seemed impossible can be negotiated, and you can find your way through the maze when you work with the right professionals that share your aspirations.
Extracts from the Redcliffe Way Strategic Masterplan analysis of significance focusing on the area around the Grade I listed St Mary Redcliffe Church. The analysis was presented in a comprehensive research document that analysed the site and the wider context, looking at significant assets, visual and physical barriers, legibility, streetscapes, traffic and view lines. The proposals were presented through sketches, visualisations, massing studies, physical models, mood boards and storytelling. [Authors: Christine Skaar, Anna Gillies, Sam Parish, Zaid Ahmed']