Guest Blog: What You Can and Can’t Do to Listed Buildings

Monday, April 4, 2016

Justin Ayton is an Architectural Historian who advises on our work on listed buildings. He grew up in an old country house and has loved historic architecture ever since, a passion he has carried through an MA in Architectural History, a career as a conservation officer, then as a historic buildings inspector with English Heritage, and now into his current work. We asked him to share with you what significance means in listed buildings and how it affects the works you can carry out.

What is “significance”?

In listed buildings, significance often comes down to the presence of historic fabric, which can be more or less significant depending on its age, rarity and its status within the home. A principle reception room with original panelled walls would usually be considered more significant than a lesser room with a plain masonry wall that had been modified at a later point in time. However, every building is unique, and needs to be considered on its own merits.

Significance can sometimes stray beyond the fabric in interesting ways. In some cases, the layout of a building is considered crucial to its character, so a former chapel would lose its character if its grand, open space was divided into separate rooms or floors. Likewise, a Victorian terraced house with cosy, cellular rooms may not comfortably accommodate modern, open-plan tastes, but tearing down walls may be resisted if the small rooms are an essential part of its character.

There have also been cases where it’s not the fabric that’s significant, but who put it there. I remember an interesting discussion with a colleague in London, who was working on a case where the sash windows on an otherwise entirely uniform terrace by Robert Adam had, at some point in their history, been converted into French doors. The applicant wanted to change them back to match the rest of the terrace – an entirely reasonable demand.

Usually, this would be a clear cut case, but it just so happened that the French doors had been installed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, turning what would usually be an easily reversed historical inaccuracy into a precious piece of history.

What work can be done to a listed building?

Everything that is and is not significant in a listed building is compiled into a Statement of Significance, which is then weighed up against any proposed building works you want to do by the conservation officer overseeing the project.

Any fabric that is being altered should usually be proven to be of limited significance and any additions made should either preserve or enhance the character and functionality of the house, while restoration work should preserve or replicate the original materials as closely as possible.

Extensions can be added to some buildings if they don’t detract from the main structure, often best achieved through clear separation in material, style and space. Replication of the existing materials is sometimes preferable, but not always, as this can confuse the reading of the original structure, while, for example, a contemporary “glass box” extension is clearly distinct if placed alongside a period home.

Basements, which are often of lower significance, also provide an opportunity to extend liveable space and add contemporary style to an otherwise strictly period house.

One area where listed buildings sometimes make your life easier is building regulations, as compliance sometimes isn’t required if the works would be detrimental to the character of the building.

From having been a conservation officer and a historic buildings inspector myself, I know what they want to see in an application. Most importantly, you must display an understanding and respect for the building, with the Statement of Significance forming the backbone of a well presented planning application. It’s also tremendously helpful if the architects and contractors involved boast a portfolio of work on listed buildings.

Most listed buildings have already been altered through the centuries, and in some cases change itself can be considered part of their character. It’s important to remember that the point of listed status is not to preserve the building unaltered for all time but to ensure that we respect what it is about the building that actually makes it important – its significance.

Sympathetic alterations that improve the functionality of the building without damaging these characteristics are welcomed – after all, what’s the point of a beautiful old house if no one wants to live in it? The best way to ensure that a historic building survives, is to ensure that it remains used.

Whilst altering a listed building is always a challenge, if you respect its history and approach the work with great care, you can make the most of a truly unique home while preserving it for future generations.

Thank you for reading,

Justin Ayton