Historic buildings: quinquennial inspections

Five-year itch

15 May 2018

Conducting quinquennial inspections of historic buildings requires particular skill and experience, as Jonathan Taylor details

The requirement for fabric inspections to be carried out every five years – quinquennially – is commonly associated with church buildings, but applies to all types of historic building.

Programmed inspections’ importance is set out in BS 7913:2013, Guide to the Conservation of Historic Buildings, with section 6.2 of this stating that 'It is best practice to undertake planned inspections and surveys at intervals of four or five years... Programmed surveys and inspections provide a basis on which to monitor condition, help to determine priorities and programme work which is an essential part of properly managing historic buildings.'

The reliance on quinquennial inspections varies according to the scale, complexity, use and age of the building. One that is small and easily accessible may be inspected seasonally as part of the regular routine of maintenance and repair, with specialists brought in to inspect only when problems arise.

However, for many buildings it is essential to plan inspections according to a routine, with an established procedure for assessing the whole fabric, in particular the envelope, to identify and record problems that have developed since the previous inspection, and to establish priorities for repair. A four- to five-year cycle is generally considered to be the minimum needed to spot problems before significant damage occurs.

From the pulpit

The Church of England introduced quinquennial inspections as a statutory requirement in 1955 through the Inspection of Churches Measure, revised in 1991 and currently being further refined to ensure that the process is better understood and more consistently followed. Most other denominations, and indeed many secular organisations, now adopt a similar approach to inspections.

Such inspections aim to document:

  • the general condition of all parts of the building, in comparison to its condition at the previous inspection
  • the progress made on repairs carried out since that previous inspection
  • any further repairs or investigations needed and their priorities, which may be:

a. immediate: usually for safety reasons
b. urgent: work that should be carried out within a specified period, of up to 18 months
c. necessary: work that should be carried out before the next inspection
d. desirable: work that is not strictly necessary but would enhance the building, or which is likely to become necessary after the next inspection.

The importance of ensuring that quinquennial inspections are carried out by architects and surveyors who specialise in the conservation and repair of historic buildings cannot be overemphasised. Historic and traditional structures deteriorate in a manner that is very different from modern buildings, and only a professional who specialises in such buildings can be certain of correctly distinguishing defects that require attention from those that are historical and no longer a concern or are the cosmetic result of the ageing process. Incorrect diagnosis of a problem can result in the symptoms being treated while missing the cause. Poor understanding and incorrect specification often exacerbates decay.

BS 7913:2013 states that historic building surveys and inspections should be 'performed by competent persons with knowledge of traditional materials, construction techniques and decay processes'. Historic England’s Repair Grants for Heritage at Risk: Guidance for Applicants goes further: 'We will give a grant only if you employ a competent professional with relevant specialist conservation knowledge, ability and experience... For most projects, the main professional advisor must... be an architect, a chartered building surveyor or a chartered architectural technologist, who has conservation accreditation from a recognised body'.

Church image

Figure 1: Quinquennial inspections are generally visual, but all parts of a building should be accessed wherever practical and safe to do so

Where historic buildings are concerned, successfully identifying the cause of a problem depends on a thorough understanding of the way traditional materials and structures work, and in particular on identifying the weak points of the building in question. It is therefore vital that specialists remain up to date; conservation research is continually breaking new ground, and some assumptions made not so long ago are now being shown to be false. For example, recent research by Historic England has demonstrated that some hydraulic lime mortars can continue to strengthen for months and even years, and in some cases are almost as hard as the Portland cements they replaced.


Where historic buildings are concerned, the most reliable indicator of an architect’s or surveyor’s suitability is their accreditation in conservation by a relevant professional body. RICS for instance has an established accreditation system for conservation specialists, which ensures that they have appropriate training, are experienced in the field and keep up to date.

Stones in a wall

Figure 2: A badly pointed stone church wall in Bromsrove with mortar too hard for the masonry, causing deterioration

For architects, the situation is a little more complicated. The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) established an accreditation system in 1995 along similar lines to RICS’, but offering two levels of accreditation: standard, for those architects 'competent in working in the historic built environment', and advanced, for 'recognised conservation specialists'. However, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) was initially hostile to the idea, adhering to the belief that all architects were capable of deciding whether or not they had the skills required to work with historic buildings.

Architects in England and Wales therefore set up their own independent system of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation, the AABC Register, in 1999. This now operates in parallel with the RIBA’s register, introduced more recently once it had belatedly recognised the need for such a system. Both registers adopted the RIAS approach of two-level accreditation. For grant-aided work Historic England recognises architects accredited at the highest level, whether category A on the AABC Register or Specialist Conservation Architects on the RIBA’s, as well as all surveyors accredited in conservation by RICS.

Picture, trees and damp

Figure 3: Damp caused by a defective gutter in a stately home. Like the Church of England, the National Trust operates a quinquennial survey programme

The skill set required depends to a large degree on the type of building, its complexity and the significance of the fabric. The Church Buildings Council (CBC) of the Church of England provides the following criteria for assessing the suitability of an architect or surveyor for the role of inspector.

  • Major churches and greater churches, as defined by the CBC, entail proven experience of working with such large or highly significant and complex church buildings, at least at a junior level under a more experienced professional, and experience of working on grade I or II* listed church buildings when working in a sole capacity. Relevant accreditation would normally be required as well.
  • Grade I or II* listed churches require proven experience of work in a sole capacity with listed buildings, and work with these more highly designated church buildings at least at a junior level under a more experienced professional, though experience in sole capacity is preferred. Relevant accreditation would normally be required.
  • Grade II churches require proven experience of work in a sole capacity with listed buildings, and experience with listed church buildings at least at a junior level under a more experienced professional is preferred. Relevant accreditation would normally be recommended.
  • Unlisted churches require no specific prior experience, but evidence of supervision from a professional with experience of church buildings is recommended. For certain buildings, evidence of having worked with traditional materials may be required.

Since the Inspection of Churches Measure 1955 was amended by the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1991, chartered surveyors and registered architects have been eligible for appointment by the Church of England to carry out quinquennial inspections. Inspectors are approved and appointed as individuals rather than as firms. Although appointments are made by the local parochial church councils, the approval of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches is required, as outlined in the Church of England’s ChurchCare guidance note The Quinquennial Report.

In some other denominations, the diocesan authority appoints an individual or firm to carry out quinquennial inspections for all churches or places of worship in its jurisdiction. However, in dioceses that are large and spread out, this can be impractical. Approaches can also vary between dioceses within a denomination. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, each diocese is autonomous under the authority of the bishop, and the Catholic national Church Arts, Architecture and Heritage Committee operates in an advisory capacity only.

Other criteria

Accreditation by one of the relevant bodies – AABC, RIAS, RIBA or RICS – provides some assurance that a professional has the experience and knowledge required to assess historic building fabric and investigate defects. However, there is no such thing as a standard historic building: a medieval timber-framed hall, a largely subterranean Georgian ice house and a Victorian train station each require a different understanding of the way the materials involved work together and the way they are likely to have aged. So to find the right specialist to carry out quinquennial inspections, it may help to consider a broad range of related criteria.

  • Relevant experience: most relevant will be that gained by a professional carrying out quinquennial inspections for other buildings of a similar period, size and complexity. However, it is widely recognised that there is a need to bring new, less experienced people on board to carry out inspections so they can gain practical skills and insights, and some degree of flexibility is therefore important.
  • People skills: conservation requires professionals to work with conservators and other specialists as part of a team, so the ability to collaborate with others rather than simply instruct them is crucial. Success depends on trust, good communication and seamless cooperation at every level.
  • Membership: in addition to membership of the architects’ and surveyors’ professional bodies and their accreditation systems, affiliation with other professional bodies will be relevant. Structural engineers may be accredited to work on historic buildings through the Conservation Accredited Register of Engineers (CARE), and a broad range of heritage professionals are also accredited by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC). However, as full members of the IHBC are accredited as heritage professionals rather than as conservation surveyors or architects, this alone does not indicate that the person holds the required skill set for undertaking quinquennial inspections. For church appointments, membership of either the Cathedral Architects Association or the Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association is also particularly relevant.
  • Training: a master’s degree in building conservation or a related topic is the most commonly recognised route to accreditation, but the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings’ Lethaby scholarship is also held in the highest regard. A wide variety of CPD courses are run by the professional and statutory heritage bodies, and a full list of short, undergraduate and postgraduate courses can be found at www.buildingconservation.com.

Perhaps the most important skill of any architect or surveyor, whatever their level of accreditation, is to know their limitations and when to seek the advice of other specialists. In particular, the skill sets of structural engineers, conservators and craftspeople are often necessary for specialist investigations or to understand the implications of an apparent defect.

All members of the investigatory team will need historic building experience. The two main accreditation systems in these fields are CARE and the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers. In addition, the Chartered Institute of Building launched a certification scheme for its members last year, and a growing number of craftspeople now carry Construction Industry Training Board Heritage Skills cards.

While accreditation is an excellent guide to expertise in specific areas, it is important that it is not seen to entitle the holder to work on all types of historic structure and fabric without question. All specialists have their limitations, and the success of larger and more complex projects inevitably depends on teamwork, with all team members contributing and sharing knowledge.

Jonathan Taylor is Editor of The Building Conservation Directory and other conservation publications, and a founding director of Cathedral Communications Limited

Further information