According to RIBA, more than one in five buildings in the UK pre-date 1919. Kent is lucky to have its fair share of these wonderful heritage sites, from Hever and Dover Castle to Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine’s Abbey. The route between London, Canterbury and the continent means we have an abundance of architecturally significant buildings that were developed along and around this route of pilgrimage, including many that were frequented by royalty.
Some of these wonderful assets have been retained and repurposed, but how can we ensure the long-term success of other heritage properties in the future? We have been involved in many projects where they feature, and we know it is a tricky one.
Viability & Funding
One of the keys to success is viability. We know that grant funders such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund will want to see a sound business case for the building in place. This process starts from the very beginning in understanding not only the costs involved with the regeneration but also being aware of potential other costs, such as maintenance and running costs which will need to be paid for over the lifespan. Having a strong economic case early on facilitates a return on investment that can then sustain these future costs.
Funders such as the National Lottery will also want to see a project that has an ‘outcome’ rather than just an ‘output’. For example, they have 9 potential outcomes they’d like to see on their funded projects, including one that is mandatory – that a wider range of people will be involved in heritage. When developing the vision for the project, if you are reliant on funding, can you meet the funders aims? A clear vision from the outset will also make the project journey easier and enable ‘buy-in’ from all the project team.
Developers must look at the holistic picture and find uses that suit the building, whether it is as a visitor attraction or a transformation into flexible community space or offices for example. The Parliamentary publication The Role of Historic Buildings in Urban Regeneration states that historic buildings ‘should not be retained as artefacts, relics of a bygone age’ and goes on to say that new uses should be allowed where the original use is ‘no longer relevant or viable’. This type of re-purposing can then help enable development, unlocking previously unviable sites all while redeveloping a key heritage asset. Many regeneration schemes now involve these local features and can foster a greater sense of community, especially if local groups have been the guardians of these buildings in the past.
Understanding the local Council’s vision for their area is another key element. Is their end goal to deliver a district with strong cultural heritage which draws tourism? Or are they happy for assets to be transformed into something different? Early consultation with them and other bodies such as Historic England, will assist in understanding and will avoid any tricky issues later when it comes to obtaining any planning needed. At the moment, in many towns, there is a big focus on the repurposing of the high street and many local assets are able to be used to bring the local high street back to life, providing an anchor point and a catalyst for improvements.
Once it comes to the design stage, it is vital that the Project Team understand as much about the building as physically possible. This includes understanding the structural integrity and the extent of repair that is needed, for example, does the building need more than a light refurbishment? Do we understand how the building works in its environment? Surveys are a crucial part of this and must be built into the early pre-construction phase of the project to enable thorough review and analysis of the results. Early procurement of specialist consultants is also key, cost consultants and structural engineers with a heritage specialism can bring untold benefits. When these elements come together, risk will inevitably be minimised and quantified, unknowns will be reduced or removed, and irreparable damage to the building will be avoided.
Of course, with buildings as complex as these, there may be an occasion where the unexpected occurs (for example at Margate Caves, an iron age skeleton was uncovered) and then the team must be flexible and prepared to react to the issue at hand, working together to overcome it and having contingency in place to manage the unforeseen costs that may arise. Quite often, many discoveries, if in situ, can be brought into the design going forward, enhancing the scheme even further.
With restoration projects sorely needed to keep the history of our areas alive, it is clear that strong planning, clear vision and early consultation can enable a project team to breathe new life into heritage properties. Good execution will turn them from liabilities into sustainable, viable assets all while managing risks, minimising costs for clients and spend to funders.