By Alan Tierney
The other day I was reading through my previous blogs and articles and some by other building conservation specialists. It struck me that they pretty much all deal with technical or administrative details: thermal performance, embodied energy, breathability, damp, listed building consent, VAT - the list goes on.
While this is all vitally important stuff, it can tend to give the impression that owning a historic building is a chore – an endless progression from one problem to another, with a conservation officer or building conservation consultants always on the premises.
The reality is very different. To live in daily contact with part of our heritage is a rewarding and life enhancing experience. It is a joy and a privilege to touch, feel – even hear and smell, your own small piece of history, close up and personal. This, after all, is why so many of us do it. You even have the not inconsiderable pleasure of passers-by and visitors admiring your home. While you bask in the reflected glory, you realise that you are truly fortunate.
The concept of ownership is very different when your house is several centuries old. You are never far from the feeling that your occupation of the building is only a tiny link in a chain that stretches back through countless other “owners” and, we hope, forward through as many more. Unless you are very fortunate, you can never know anything about more than a handful of these others, but all will have left their mark somewhere. These layers of history add greatly to a sense of time and place.
The other people to have left their marks, literally all over your house, are the craftsmen who built it. From carefully shaped mouldings and chamfers to purely functional assembly marks and merely incidental signs of the use of a chisel, axe or saw – the evidence of their presence is everywhere. To see the work of the carpenter or mason in front of you and know that he stood on the same spot hundreds of years before, tools in hand, never ceases to be a special experience.
Living in an old house can be a constant voyage of discovery. The longer you live with a building, the more you understand it and appreciate its remarkable longevity; for it, you are no more than a brief visitor, a small part of a much bigger story.
For this reason I frequently advise clients to take their time in deciding how to live in their historic home. There is a natural tendency to want to shape your house to your will but often that risks diminishing what was so special about it in the first place. Over time the building will tend to show the way to go; work with it rather than against it. The result is always much more fulfilling; it is amazing how often the feature you thought would drive you mad turns out to be your favourite element of the house.
As a building conservation consultant, I inevitably find myself spending most of my time in houses with problems – generally caused by abuse or neglect in the recent past. These are the places that can make people think that owning a historic building is more trouble than it is worth. It is true that dealing with these problems can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. It’s not for everyone. But for many, the knowledge that they took charge of an important piece of the past which was in trouble and secured its future, passing it on in a healthier condition, brings a joy all of its own.
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This was originally published on 4th July 2011 in Country Life’s online Property Blog.
Picketts Conservation is a consultancy specialising in the conservation of historic buildings. Services include advice, assessment, project management, pre-application consultation, training and historical interpretation. Often projects are multi-disciplinary and involve working with other specialists, craftsmen and contractors.