The online resource for the historic environment

1.05 Components of significance

Historical significance

including Cultural significance which encompasses emotional, social and spiritual significance.
Architectural and aesthetic

BS 7913: 2013 offers useful guidance on what factors influence our understanding of "Heritage values and significance". This is contained within "Heritage values and significance":paras 4.1 - 4.4 of BS 7913: 2013.

“The more you can find out about the building [environment, place or artefact] from documents and other non-destructive sources the better informed your decisions about further investigation and repairs will be.”
English Heritage (1994) Investigative work on historic buildings

“The philosophy advocated is that of understanding cultural significance of a building with full documentation before any intervention and then a clear diagnosis and appraisal of what need[s] to be done… all concerned should let the building speak to them.”
Sir Bernard Fielden in his foreword to Earl, J. (1991) Building Conservation Philosophy Donhead/College of Estate Management, Reading.

Historical significance possible sources: on a non-exhaustive list basis.

Primary sources: Mostly physical.
The building itself and its associated original archival records.

Secondary sources: Mostly documentary.
May be local, national or international


  • Local authority records. Sites and Monuments Records and Historic Environment Records
  • Local reference and history library
  • Local history web sites and building/site focused web sites
  • Local records office
  • Local history museum
  • Archaeological studies and reports
  • Local archaeological societies or bodies
  • Local listing documents, statutory lists
  • Diocesan records
  • Quinquennial reviews
  • Local newspaper archive libraries
  • Local authority records, especially planning and building control


  • Site and Monument Records (SMR)
  • Historic Environment Records (HER)
  • Pevsner. Buildings of…. Specific to the region in which the building exists – UK, Europe, etc.
  • Research theses and dissertations
  • English Heritage, Historic Scotland, CADW and in N.Ireland the Environment and Heritage Service of the Department of the Environment
  • Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland
  • Geographical, geological or regional surveys
  • Photographs, prints, or other art work
  • Historical Manuscripts Commission
  • Ordnance Survey

Social, cultural and emotional significance

Possible sources on a non-exhaustive list basis.

Primary sources
Mostly emotional and spiritual and, possibly subjective.

The building itself and associated archival records, particularly how the public perceive the building; the uses to which they put the building – local lay perception of why the building is important – the need for public consultation as to why the building is important.

Secondary sources
Mostly documentary and may be local, national or international.

  • Local records office
  • Parish records
  • Local historians and societies
  • Local history library
  • Local authority records
  • Local newspaper archive library
  • Local reference library
  • Research theses and dissertations
  • Folk music, folklore, oral history, literature, etc.

See also: ICOMOS (1990) Guide to Recording Historic Buildings Butterworth ISBN 0-7506-1210-X for a list of sources.

Architectural and aesthetic significance

Great buildings may have been created to satisfy a societal need, to commemorate an event, make a statement of importance and express an artistic or developmental period in history (not necessarily recognised at the time). Over the passage of time such buildings become structures of local, national or international importance. Their architectural or aesthetic significance may become established at the point in time that they were created or may develop as a result of society’s evaluation over time. They may have been created by a famous architect or artist and be looked on as an example of his/her work. The structure may have gathered layers of significance over time; these additional layers being authentic of their period of introduction.

The qualities of architectural or aesthetic value may be altered by intervention and thus, a clear understanding of value must be established prior to intervention. The evaluation of importance must be made in the absence of subjective or conjectural response. This is particularly relevant in respect of recent structures that, because of the absence of historical effect, may not have established a value that is easily recognised by the lay public (the recent reduction of the period of time considered appropriate for listing from 30 years to 10 years). It is also important to give credit and establish value for all periods of interventions. It might be wrong to assume that any intervention post the original design is of lesser or greater value than the original.

“…Let us always beware of the uncertainty of private judgement, remembering that what to us may be without merit may well prove to prosperity, who can view it in perspective, of considerable value.”
Osbert Lancaster 1976

Consider the value that the listing of a Victorian hexagonal post box may have compared with a 1950s red cast iron telephone kiosk. See the Bath Postal Museum or National Telephone Kiosk Collection websites. Consider within this evaluation process the comparative values of a Victorian terrace house and 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton.
See also the National Trust website.
Consider the effects of a major fire on a building of local and national importance where a substantial part of the fabric and structure of that building was lost as a result of the fire.

Undertake a Google search for images of the Glasgow School of Art and its damage after the fire of May 2014.

Reflect on how intervention and repair works might be structured to retain as much authenticity and historical importance as possible. Consider how the interaction of historical and cultural significance is symbiotically linked and, how the general public might perceive the need for reconstruction. Consider also the need for absence of conjecture and deceit within the process of post trauma intervention and how both secular and philosophical requirements may be subsumed into the processes of pre-intervention planning and strategy.

In respect of a redundant urban church, consider the question as to the extent to which it is acceptable to convert the church to a drop-in centre with coffee bar.

You may wish to consider the effect of loss of religious importance against providing access to the wider public and their consequent exposure to the importance of the aesthetic appeal of church architecture and its history. Consider how in early history the church, and particularly the nave, may have provided a social/secular focus and assembly centre.
Consider how the exercise might be achieved without loss of authenticity, minimal fabric loss, reversibility, absence of deceit and honesty of intervention.

You may wish to read Powell & de la Hey (1987) Churches: a question of conversion SAVE Britain's Heritage

Consider how contemporary judgements of significance must not be allowed to hinder further changes that might freeze an historic structure in its present state.
You might consider the affect on the historic structure of later interventions in respect of aesthetic importance, contextual importance, together with the effects of building deteriology.

Why should assessment of these factors not become subjective or conjectural?

Might it be wrong to assume that any intervention post the original design/construction is of lesser value than the original.

Consider the statements/questions in the last few paragraphs and analyse why they are important and evaluate if, in your own view, they are correct or incorrect. .

Significance and importance of certain buildings is not exclusively applicable to ancient structures and may also be applied to 20th (and 21st) century structures.

Identify at least one example of 20th and 21st century buildings that may have significance in respect of :
    • Celebratory or commemorative importance (related to an event or societal need to commemorate an event).
    • Aesthetic importance – an example of good design or an example of a famous architect’s work.
    • Identify a 20th century building that was an example of a particular architectural design period that has recently been lost through demolition and reflect on why such loss is significant. Q.

For example, the Firestone Factory, London; Greenside, Wentworth; Odeon, Edinburgh.

Consider how intervention works to, for example, a 1950s concrete building may be in conflict with the fundamental tenets of conservation ethics. You may wish to consider how contemporary constructional methods may make compliance with minimal intervention difficult. An example might be deterioration through the effects of use of high alumina cement in reinforced concrete structures.
See Bloomfield J (1996)The Repair of Reinforced Concrete.Building Conservation Directory

In respect of the Glasgow School of Art consider how access, to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, might be achieved. Consider the site’s topography in that the site on which the building sits is steeply sloping in two directions.

Consider the impact of the recent fire damage to the building and how this and repair/restoration/reinstatement works should be carried out to protect significance and historic value.

See Glasgow School of Art website

Consider how a building can have different significance for different sections of society.

Further reading

Furneaux Jordan, R. (1997) Western Architecture Thames & Hudson (Chapter 11)
Macdonald, S. (ed) (2001) Preserving Post War Heritage Donhead Publishing
Macdonald, S. (ed) (1997) Modern Matters. Principles and practice in conserving recent architecture Donhead Publishing