Conservation: retaining and sharing skills
Accreditation where it’s due
31 January 2018
Ensuring conservation skills are retained and shared is just as important as protecting historic buildings, maintains Bryan Dickson
We are so fortunate to work in conservation – not only do we get to spend each day in buildings that radiate history and drama, continuing to fascinate, but we share our passion with many others in the sector, in common cause regardless of financial imperatives.
The challenges of looking after historic buildings are endless, however: diagnosing complex problems, removing previous, failing remedies and addressing the effects of changing weather patterns, all under an ever-increasing and complex legislative framework. The skills of an accredited professional, or certified professional to use RICS terminology, have never been in such demand, and the best individuals are those who can see beyond the here and now to fulfil the full potential of traditional building works.
Although it has been said in this journal before, it’s worth repeating that there is little point in looking after our heritage if we don’t also look after the skills required to protect it. So I encourage all specifiers, project managers and other professionals involved in making decisions about built heritage to find ways to support the future of these skills.
For instance, the National Trust for Scotland undertook a recent project in the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey in Fife, with a limited budget and a straightforward brief to waterproof wall heads. However, by creative thinking at the concept stage, the project was also able to train 20-plus volunteers and local enthusiasts in traditional skills and materials, while local schools were invited to take part so they could learn about conservation careers options, and the community was enthused about the attention that a well-loved local asset received, expressing willingness to help in future.
Granted, this is not done so easily on every project; but of all the built environment sectors, we should celebrate conservation professionals’ ability to collaborate around our common causes.
One of the major stumbling blocks in construction-related professions is matching supply and demand. We all play a part in enabling this, and equally we all experience the frustrations when a timescale for a project’s completion does not marry up with the availability of relevant skills. Therefore, studies that investigate skills availability, growth and associated pressure points should be more widely used.
At the National Trust for Scotland, we have long wanted to develop a skills action plan – matching our own demand with the availability of skills on the local contractor market, thereby encouraging the supply chain to invest in training and apprenticeships. Ambitious programmes of conservation are subject to the vagaries of funding, but as we look towards longer planning horizons, the ability to establish secure funding grows.
In particular, there is great potential in building information modelling. As building and estate owners begin to realise the power of good data management, stitching together supply and demand will get easier. A good example of this on a national scale is the status of thatching in Scotland, recently highlighted by Historic Environment Scotland and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in a comprehensive survey of all thatched buildings, which gives a snapshot of condition and latent demand. Through the promotion of planned preventative maintenance and a collaborative approach between owners, funders and the labour market at local and national level, some joined-up thinking will surely be possible. This could result in a more predictable work programme, enabling materials suppliers to be supported by land management programmes that provide confidence for the specialist contractors to invest in skills development for a new generation.
Over here and overlooked
On a recent trip to the USA, I visited a number of 'preservation societies', as they are commonly known. It is complex to draw parallels between our 2 countries when it comes to architectural heritage; however, I did get a sense that all those involved in rescuing, maintaining and sustaining historic buildings are part of a common cause.
One of the organisations I visited was Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a living-history museum recreating an 18th-century township that attracts more than 1m visitors a year. It interprets this fascinating period of change with authenticity, supported by historic and scientific research. When I was there, a fragment of a plate emblazoned with the crest of John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and a colonial governor of Virginia, had been uncovered, and was being studied by many specialists and researchers to inform the interpretation of the site.
I was struck by the contrast with the earl’s family seat of Dunmore House, just outside Stirling, with its renowned pineapple garden folly. This building lies unused and unloved and the family crest – beautifully carved in medallions on the masonry – gradually decays, even while its distant relation is being restored with much excitement in a lab thousands of miles away.
So do we take much of our built heritage for granted in the UK compared to others? Do we regularly pass buildings that are gradually disappearing before our eyes? Would this be tolerated if they were perceived as an important part of our history and the fabric of our society?
This situation requires professionals and traditional skills practitioners to do more to explain the significance of these places and help tell their stories. It is only once we attach value to them that people begin to realise the importance of traditional skills and are more willing to offer support. It may be that we need to change our language, impart a sense of urgency to what we see happening around us, and encourage our colleagues and peers to do the same.
Our networks and collaborations give us an opportunity to do so, enabling us to speak coherently as a group. RICS’ conservation certification recognises our common interests, but too often it feels that we are preaching to the converted, with many familiar faces attending conferences, seminars and meetings. To become more effective in promoting and protecting our built heritage, we must raise our collective voice, increase the number of accredited professionals and help spread best practice. There are many good surveyors out there who might need persuading of the benefits of certification; but undoubtedly, there are many traditional building projects whose full potential and associated benefits fail to be realised.
As the RICS project awards deadline approaches and we begin thinking about the benefits that this recognition can bring to clients and practitioners alike, let’s enable historic buildings to fulfil their full potential and turn good projects into great ones.
Bryan Dickson is Head of Building Conservation (Policy) at the National Trust for Scotland