The online resource for the historic environment

4.10 Compatible re-users

“Historic buildings …represent a significant investment in resources and embodied energy which we cannot afford to lose…re-use of these buildings makes a significant contribution to the wider objectives of environmental conservation and sustainability.”
Stevens, J. Sir., past Chairman English Heritage.

“The challenge in managing the historic environment sustainably, and in a way which contributes to the vitality of modern life, is to identify its key characteristics and to establish the parameters within which change can continue so that it enhances rather than diminishes historic character.”
Historic Scotland (2002) Passed to the Future

“The context of re-use is multi-dimensional. Re-use plays a role within the conservation debate and this is reflected in government policy. Changing attitudes to historic buildings, ...have also drawn attention to the extent of building underuse or neglect. For those working in conservation, the challenge has shifted. Whereas early campaigners fought to safeguard buildings from loss, their successors are insuring that buildings will continue to survive by containing and appropriate, if not original use...ones that can provide an economic [and sustainable] impetus for successful conversion.”
"Creative Re-use of Buildings." Latham, D. Donhead. 2000

If an historical asset is to make a useful contribution to the society it serves it must accommodate change. How that change is managed is vital to ensuring that the asset’s significance is not adversely affected.

Most buildings need to be altered during their lives. The ability of an historic asset to respond to change required by its existing user will need careful consideration and evaluation of impact if an inappropriate response to on-going user need is to be avoided.

Most buildings will also need to respond to the requirements of new users and, additionally to ensure continued viability, may have to be subject to conversion from one use to another. The proposed new use should not threaten, devalue or detract from the historical and aesthetic record that the asset offers.

The compatibility of the new use must be subject to scrutiny and matched against the asset’s ability to accommodate it. The need for you to defend an asset against an inappropriate new use may depend upon your ability to understand the building sufficiently to place an argument against the new use. Such knowledge can only stem from a clear understanding of the asset and its significance. The new use should be able to be accommodated by the existing asset with a minimum of alteration. Moreover, you should be able to identify and recommend alternative uses that are compatible with the asset and the owner’s use of it; without compromising significance and whilst recognising the owner’s need to maintain income or value.



Paraphernalia of use, lights, signs and sign brackets, impacting on an historic facade.

Pick a building in your local area that is of aesthetic, social and historic interest and identify at least 10 alternative uses for it that would be appropriate and have minimum impact on the significance of it. How might issues of more intense use be addressed.

Now respond to the question in respect of a redundant church.

Appropriate new uses might be judged against the following criteria:

Culturally significant fabric should not be affected by the change. All changes must be substantially reversible or have minimum impact
The structure and the character, either internally or externally, should not be affected
Uses which will create excessive wear through use should be avoided
Avoid changes that affect the equilibrium of the building (moisture movement, thermal properties etc). Inappropriate intervention, that adversely affects equilibrium, could lead to accelerated decay or deterioration.

The achieved quality of intervention works to convert original use to an alternative must reflect the status of the building and its inherent architectural quality and use of materials.
An asset may be subject to user requirements that threaten the historic fabric and its record. The need, for example, to alter internal layout or floor plan will seriously threaten significance. If, as an example, a 17th century farmhouse with an enfilade first floor plan was considered incompatible with modern use how might you go about changing the layout to suit an owner’s requirement for room privacy? If change becomes essential, such as in this example, and cannot be avoided, then such changes should be reversible to permit the ancient record to be reclaimed from modern use at some time in the future. If this is not possible then accurate recording of the structure, fabric and layout should be made for future reference.

“Change is inevitable … change is constant.”
Benjamin Disraeli

We should not impose unnecessary barriers to change but we must be aware of how they might be reduced in effect, be reversible and recorded if unavoidable loss of fabric is involved. In the extreme and in order to avoid total loss a building may need to accommodate what, in an ideal world, might be inappropriate change. Such a situation in conservation terms may seem to fly against all that conservation seeks to achieve but if the incompatible/inappropriate use is the only option available, compared with total loss through demolition, then such change may be inevitable. The conservation practitioner may need to argue strongly against such use and present a case for better alternatives or failing this to argue for modification of use to reduce the effects of change. In any event if such change is to adversely affect the historic environment then a system of detailed recording of the asset prior to change will at least maintain a record of its former or original state.

Changes of use are probably, potentially, the most injurious to significance. Pressures of use and, particularly, changes to a more intense use will create wear which the structure and fabric are not capable of sustaining. You should be able to advise on the impact of any proposed new use comparing the risks to the historical asset against the potential advantages of the new use in assuring longevity. You should be able to demonstrate ways of mitigating the impact of any proposed new use to avoid compromising significance.

It may be necessary for you to become an advocate for the asset in order to protect it against uses that are incompatible with it. You may need to back your argument with an alternative use suggestion that takes account of an owner’s need to show a financial return. You may need to clarify how such an alternative use may be financially viable or, even if it is not, be able to argue for its adoption in order to protect significance: perhaps, identifying sources of grant or support funding that reduce the drain on owner’s resources.

Based on your past experience select an example of a project where you have had to argue for a more appropriate alternative use. Consider how your argument was made and how it might have been improved to protect significance.

See also Nugent, R (2002) The Re-Use of Industrial Buildings Building Conservation Directory, Tisbury