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CONSERVATION  - Two personal views.

Having spent much of my working life trying to reconcile the eternal triangle of innovation, traditional craftsmanship and conservation (and trying to make a living within the conflicting constraints) it's been clear to me that there are some fundamental stresses and strains in the issue of 'Conservation'. 

Take this statement from my friend, a highly respected independent specialist surveyor pleading the case for the Conservation Officer:

"They are there to police the essence of the ancient configuration which, if repaired and/or reconstructed, should resemble the original in as much detail as possible."

A common view, and certainly there's merit in the argument. But, surely, it also smacks of fakery. The most interesting buildings I know of are much altered from the original. Let's think of a few:

"Blackberry Hall", somewhere in Warks. (Name changed to protect the innocent.) Moated timber-framed manor house with characterful brick extensions. Grade 2* listed.  Origins in the 12thC. Much altered and added to over the Centuries. The delightful Jacobean staircase is not original, but you would never know it was inserted in the 1990s, 'cos it was commissioned by a caring owner prepared to engage a sympathetic specialist designer, and hand-built by a craftsman using traditional hand tools (even though the hard preparatory mill-work was done by powerful machinery). Innocently intended to fool strangers into believing it to be very old, like the rest of the house. No Conservation Officer was hurt in the improvement of the property. Was that a bad thing?  I would challenge any specialist to date it now without using advanced carbon14 dating.
Fakery? Not in my view. Just a proper continuation of the artisan tradition. (I did generally leave, not a mouse, but a small sunk carving of my company logo in the vain hope that, if it should survive, some future house detective might find it and attribute it).

Lindisfarne Castle. Origins in the depths of time. Much improved by Lutyens. (Carefully tended by The National Trust, which presumably thinks that improvement was a virtue.)

Packwood House, nr Earlswood. 15thC manor house with an authentic timber-framed mediaeval banqueting hall built in 1922. Fooled me. (I know about timber frame building).  Should we pull it down, or paint it in white emulsion to 'prove' its not 'real'?

My friend's 14th Century close-studded timber framed house, originally built as a hunting lodge for a prince, massive timbers, jetties and dragon-posts proclaiming its authenticity despite having been re-erected on an up-market housing estate in 1930 by a builder who really knew his stuff. I hate to think of the outcry now if it were to be dismantled and re-erected to incorporate the technology of the 21st Century, but that's what should happen, combining the best of the old with the best of the new.  I suspect that the owners will leave that problem for their children. (They've since told me that the Conservation Officer isn't interested. Aren't they lucky.)

The vast majority of Simon Jenkins 1000 Best Houses, all altered and made-over in some way since their original completion date. Replacing old Tudor windows with new-fangled rising sashes, and burying Tudor or mediaeval buildings under Georgian facades just for the hell of it, and not a Conservation Officer in sight.

and last, but not least,

Almost every parish church in the country, rebuilt at least once in the last 800 years.

How will we ever create, in the 21st Century, the old charm of our ancient villages if we harbour fixed ideas about how things should look, or persist in faking unnecessary Olde-Worlde charm, for any other reason that it pleases us to do so? It pleased my client at Blackberry Hall to 'fake' a staircase to chime with the surroundings.  His neighbours down the road at Baddesley Clinton installed central heating sometime around 1900 because it made life bearable, although it almost certainly shrank the woodwork to give the decrepit Olde-Worlde appearance we all take for granted in old houses.

Don't let's paint all Conservation Officers as Little Hitlers. I am certain there are many out there who do a great job in balancing the various conflicting interests, although my own limited experience is mixed: One historic barn I was involved in as Nominated Sub-Contractor for the timber frame was so decrepit that during one interminable meeting the English Heritage specialist turned and murmured in my ear "Best to pull it down and burn it".  However, the Local Authority was determined to salvage it one way or another whatever it cost the owners. Fortunately for my farmer neighbour, there was an enthusiastic buyer who had deep pockets.  However, while the Conservation Officer was adamant that "it MUST be a living structural entity" unsupported by any modern structure, the architect and I were unable to wave a magic wand, and it ended up effectively propped up under a steel RSJ, protected from the elements by a modern tiled roof.  In the end it looked marvelous, blending perfectly into its rural village surroundings and, twenty-years on, looks as if it grew there.  As far as I know, the Conservation Officer still believes it is a "living structural entity", so everyone is happy.  The fact is, without the intervention of the CO, the farmer WOULD have pushed it over and burned it.

There appears to be an assumption that craftsmanship died sometime in the recent past. So some timber-frame buildings in the custody of conservators are ugly patchworks of old and new, as if they had never been repaired before 'Conservation' came along. It seems to me that a piece of oak patched in by a craftsman today is no different to one patched in in, say 1880. Timber-frame buildings were repeatedly repaired, dismantled and re-erected, so why not blend repairs and stain the new timber (traditional materials, of course) as any craftsman would do? The craftsmanship is still very much alive if you look for it, and should be celebrated. Personally, with my craftsman's hat on, I would be offended if I were required to leave such unsightly blotches behind for future generations to scoff at.

It's just the same with windows. I have spent a working lifetime developing technically efficient and architecturally sympathetic glazing to bring old housing stock into the twenty-first Century while preserving the visual aspect, and find the assumption by many Conservation Officers that the inhabitants of our green and pleasant land are expected to live in expensive and uncomfortable museums quite offensive.

Certainly there is a place for true "conservation". In the 1960s I witnessed the destruction of the old timber-framed and jettied 14thC Silhill Hall, pulled over and burned by an idiot contractor who could have dismantled it and sold it for re-erection on a new site if he'd had any brains, to make room for three detached modern boxes. On the other hand, once the fire-officer had won the battle over fire-doors in a private Cotswold hotel I was working on, why was the CO insisting on choosing the style of interior doors? There was nothing left to conserve, and I was astonished the owner didn't tell her to get lost.  Likewise, many will have seen the Grand Designs episode where the owner did just that, and thatched his cottage with Norfolk reed against the wishes of the CO who was insisting on local - inferior - corn straw, as if the rest of us have no good taste and historical perspective of our own.

No one would suggest that a beautiful crown-glazed window in the Crescents of Bath or Tunbridge Wells should be torn out and thrown away, but there are millions of windows in less sensitive areas where substituting modern, technically superior versions - virtually indistinguishable from the originals - shouldn't be used to upgrade what is sub-standard accommodation by the standards of today.

I would like to think that in 100 years time, others will look at my work and approve. Who knows, some of it might even get listed.

Advice?  Heavens! The only advice I can offer is talk to your CO, discuss these issues, bear in mind it's your money, and argue your point when Common Sense is on your side. And Good Luck.






Updated Feb 2017
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