Considerations of retrofit and its place in the conservation process

22 Sep 21

More importantly perhaps, there are cases where historic buildings are beyond practical repair and no longer function well within the historic setting.


As our colleague Lucy Williams looked at last week, the retain and retrofit agenda is well and truly in play now in the world of development management. It’s important to remember, when considering this, that a significant proportion of Britain, and particularly Scotland’s, historic buildings were constructed before 1919 using traditional materials and methods. This raises two key issues: the importance of ensuring that these buildings continue to be occupiable and functional in the face of changing climactic conditions; and ensuring that they perform, environmentally, in such a way that they can contribute to reductions in inefficiency.

It is self-evident that these buildings form a significant part of the architecture and townscape of our cities, and its also self-evident that their retention, wherever possible, ensures the retention of embodied carbon. It feels sustainable, because it is. That cannot, however, be the end of the story. Firstly, retention of existing buildings, and their repair using traditional materials and construction techniques will, by definition, only ever take us so far.

More importantly perhaps, there are cases where historic buildings are beyond practical repair and no longer function well within the historic setting. For example, the complete repair of traditional buildings using only traditional methods can be counterproductive in the context of sustainability, papering over the cracks of buildings that underdeliver in terms of efficient site usage, and environmental performance.

They very often still have value in heritage terms, of course, and we’re not advocating an immediately radical overhaul of the country’s historic building stock in order to improve its performance, but it’s about being bolder in our thinking, and having the necessary confidence in our own technological and design skills to seek to deliver alternative responses.

We welcome the increasingly innovative approach that has been taken here in Scotland, and left England in its wake; from glazing solutions developed specifically for the Edinburgh World Heritage Site to Historic Environment Scotland’s excellent guidance on retrofit, there’s evidence of bodies moving in the right direction.
Finally, and because heritage is, like sustainability, about legacy, there’s no question that we need to have confidence in the architectural qualities of our age, as well as its technological ones. A historic building may have merit, and may have the potential to be retrofitted, but it may very well also be the case that something of even greater merit may come forward, deliver against our aspirations for the quality of our places and their environmental performance.

These are fascinating challenges for us, and we are delighted to be part of the new Iceni Built Heritage and Townscape Team in Scotland and look forward to working on projects that put into practice new and developing conservation and design principles.

Laurie Handcock Director,Built Heritage and Townscape