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Why putting heritage at the back of your list could be criminal for future generations

American Museum at Bath

The pressure to develop puts heritage under threat. Planners have an important part to play in ensuring new development respects the historic fabric of our environments, says Kevin Balch

Heritage assets such as listed buildings and conservation areas should be treated as something to be prized by the whole community, but sadly, they are at risk from a lack of appreciation and expertise as the system is under increasing pressure to facilitate development.

As architects accredited in conservation, we play an essential role in safeguarding our built heritage, helping buildings extend their life and enhancing their value. We understand how these buildings function and how they should be kept or renovated for their future use.

Our specialist heritage team is engaged by organisations like the National Trust in a design management role to deliver complex briefs with large consultant teams - a natural approach for working with listed buildings, townscapes and historic structures.

We aim to understand and define the client’s values first and then assemble the project team to deliver them. Sometimes the project brief extends and changes over a period of time. At the American Museum in Bath, we worked with the team for two decades, with a number of projects phased to suit funding and delivery constraints.

Unfortunately, we see many enquiries reaching us once the project is quite far advanced. Key decisions have already been made and clients are asking for advice retrospectively, which makes getting what you really want a far harder hill to climb.

"Not having a holistic approach to design, heritage and delivery almost always ends in project delays, frustrated clients and cost increases"

The design delivery stages, technical, regulatory and commercial imperatives all put pressure on the successful delivery of a client’s vision. The constraints that come with working in the heritage field are frequently misunderstood or managed poorly.

And this can have a hugely detrimental effect. Not having a holistic approach to design, heritage and delivery almost always ends in project delays, frustrated clients and cost increases. In extreme cases, heavy fines can be imposed following unauthorised work to a listed building, which is a criminal offence. It’s often misunderstood that all parts of a listed structure and its setting have equal protection by the law, irrespective of the listing description or the age of the fabric.

There is more that can and should be done nationally, including investing in developing and promoting the accreditation of architects and others with specialist knowledge. At a local level, councils should have the skills and capacity to properly understand, manage and enhance the value of their historic buildings for their communities.

It’s about bringing creativity, insight and leadership to a process that is all too often a financially-driven view of the world based on common development assumptions, rather than understanding the value that heritage can bring to enriching our environment.

Understanding heritage, and getting this right in the first instance, is key if we are to deliver value to clients and quality in our historic buildings. And with the right care and attention, we can face a brighter future by minimising waste and reusing existing buildings to their full potential.

Kevin Balch is associate, project design director at Nash Partnership


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