Definition of Heritage Architecture - Exploring the different types

At the beginning of this year, we appointed our first Heritage Architect – Associate, Matthew Morrish. This stronger focus on heritage and historical structures supports HLM’s objective to meet the RIBA Sustainable Outcomes by 2025, with careful consideration of existing assets a key component of reducing embodied carbon. But what are the different approaches to Heritage Architecture, and how do we decide which to follow for any particular project?

Matthew explains the different approaches and definitions, as well as the history behind this essential, complex area of architecture.

Language, definitions and meanings can be a source of dispute and of agreement within public, academic and professional life, and the field of building conservation is no exception. Though terms still vary between organizations and individuals, some consistency has come about over time, and with that has come clarity and a common method of discussing the relative merits of various conservation approaches.

Language, definitions and meanings can be a source of dispute and of agreement within public, academic and professional life, and the field of building conservation is no exception. Though terms still vary between organizations and individuals, some consistency has come about over time, and with that has come clarity and a common method of discussing the relative merits of various conservation approaches.

In Europe, the debate regarding appropriate methods of conservation dates back to the 19th Century. The Athens Charter, 1931, was the first international agreement to address and to form a consensus upon the need to repair and preserve, rather than inappropriately enhance.

The Venice Charter of 1964 proceeded to establish the importance of Place and Context, and encouraged nations to develop their own framework, accounting for differences between countries and regions regarding values, customs and concepts of cultural heritage and authenticity.

The signatories of the Venice Charter went on to form the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in 1965, which still guides UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and remains a global Non-Governmental Organisation promoting the conservation of buildings, historic cities, cultural landscapes and archaeological sites.

The most commonly used terms within the field of heritage architecture are below, as defined in The Burra Charter, Australia ICOMOS, 1979:

Conservation means all the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance…. based on a respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing as much as necessary but as little as possible.

Preservation means maintaining a place in its existing state and retarding deterioration.

Restoration means returning a place to a known earlier state by removing accretions or by reassembling existing elements without the introduction of new material.

Repair involving restoration — returning dislodged or relocated fabric to its original location e.g. loose roof gutters on a building or displaced rocks in a stone bora ring.

Reconstruction means returning a place to a known earlier state and is distinguished from restoration by the introduction of new material.

Repair involving reconstruction — replacing decayed fabric with new fabric.

Adaptation means changing a place to suit the existing use or a proposed use.’

The definitions and activities described above provide a framework, but decision-making and reasoning in favour of one or another method is still required when considering change that may cause damage or harm, whether proposed or previously carried out.

Therefore, the need to assess ‘significance’ arises. In the UK, this term defines an inclusive approach towards a shared history – asking who finds interest, importance or value in a place or a building. Historic England identify a range of values that may be affected by change:

Communal Value, which captures the intangible aspect of place, collective experience and associated memory;

Historic Value, which is said to illustrate a past way of life;

Aesthetic Value, which describes sensory and intellectual stimulation;

Evidential Value, which describes the archaeological and longer term view of human activity in a place.

Organizations and legislation differ in the exact wording, but most describe a similar range of values that try and capture what a place or building means to us. This common method of discussing ‘significance’ helps us understand whether changes would have a beneficial, harmful, or neutral impact.

If there is no value found as according to the above definitions, then arguably terms like refurbishment or retrofit are more appropriate to the re-use of buildings as material objects that have so far not accrued meaning or significance for us, but whose retention for their embodied carbon is increasingly seen as worthwhile and has a value of its own.

Through our Thoughtful Design ethos, we aim to ensure the most sensitive and appropriate approach is used, evaluating each project on its merits, value and significance within its context.

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