The Heritage Dilemma

by Adrian J O Smith

Have you ever wondered why “heritage” attracts such strong feelings?

It’s essential that we conserve the best of our heritage but what does that actually mean in terms of the degree of preservation?

If we leave out for the moment the very clear need to preserve edifices such as Stonehenge and to protect our rich stock of castles and ancient buildings, there is a more modern battlefield. It centres on the argument about how old a historic building has to be before it is subject to heritage conservation measures and techniques. Perhaps more importantly, what aspects of heritage are we trying to protect?

Rows of Georgian townhouses, for example, benefit from a great deal of preservation across the nation. But – apart from their age – what is it that makes them special? Is it their appearance? Is it the building techniques used to sculpt them? Is it the type of stonework and paint? For some, the answer is ‘everything’, but that would mean preserving the primitive outside privies, barring of toilets and baths, prohibiting central heating, and possibly even ripping out electricity and gas supplies.

And then there is the most important question – “why”?

If the answer is something along the lines of “they are attractive and represent part of our history” then that boils down to two issues. Are we attempting to create a living museum (but with significant compromises) or are we simply trying to preserve a “look and feel of the past”? Notwithstanding the importance of safety, does it make a difference whether we use old or modern materials? If a uPVC replacement window looks like wood why should it not replace wood? If new solar tiles look like slate then is there any real harm in replacing slate? If modern mortars and cements work better than the originals and look the same, why should they not be used? And, if doors and fascia boards etc. can be replaced with thermally-efficient uPVC equivalents which cannot be distinguished from the originals at more than three yards’ distance, then is it OK to use them?

It’s certainly important to avoid any work that could cause long term physical damage to structures, such as damp, and, unless trades people know what they’re doing, the ramifications of getting it wrong can take a long while to appear in older buildings, by which point it could be too late. But as local authority planning resources are becoming increasingly squeezed and household budgets tighten, perhaps we should be thinking more openly about some of these questions.

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