What is ‘Conservation Philosophy’ and how is it developed ?

Conservation Philosophy, its roots through to current policy and application.

Michael Foley was asked for a Critical Statement of his Conservation Philosophy for his Portfolio submission for the very well respected Professional Development Diploma in Historic Building Conservation and Repair; PDD ( Building Cons.)

This is the final part of the qualification and is on top of four years of traveling down to West Dean College  of Arts and Conservation,  to complete ten of their Building Conservation Master Classes (BCM’s). The Professional Development Diploma and BCM’s are  recognised by Historic England.


Here is the Critical Statement, followed by William Morris’s manifesto to the SPAB ;

William Morris’s manifesto to the SPAB in 1877 was my introduction to conservation philosophy. I first read the manifesto while working as a carpenter & joiner in 2011 while studying part time for an HNC in Building Surveying. The manifesto seemed to be fully aligned with what I had come to learn over the decades of onsite experience. I had found that leaving things that didn’t need work doing to them and repairing insitu where necessary was the best strategy in terms of fabric retention and the conservation of a budget (resource); the money saved on unnecessary work could be used elsewhere.

By 2014 I was working with and shadowing senior surveyors at a conservation led building surveying practice. We were carrying out a lot of Timber and Damp surveys on old timber framed buildings. I didn’t particularly like these types of surveys as I used to say to my colleague “it’s never good news when we survey these buildings”. I knew that I had to develop my understanding of timber framed buildings, with a view to learning about appropriate repair techniques. My RICS mentor and colleague told me to look out for some decent CPD/training on the subject. I had seen the BCM Conservation of timber advertised and we both booked and attended in 2016.

The course was introduced in the stately home building at West Dean College and was delivered in the Gridshell building and onsite at the Weald and Downland living museum. The course went way beyond our expectations with a mixture of lectures, practical demonstrations and site visits. Joe Thomson’s and Peter McCurdy’s conservation philosophy’s had a direct influence on me. Joe’s demonstration of old repairs at the museum showed that harsh ‘honest repairs’ actually drew the eye to them and changed the character of the timber member(s). I was introduced to the concept of ‘harmonising the finishes’ by Jo and Peter, which was a move away from the 1877 SPAB manifesto (or was it?).

Peters vision and study of his subject revived the lost art of timber frame construction. His case studies of new construction (the Globe), reconstruction of damaged buildings, along with the reconstructed timber framed -buildings in the museum presented me with a philosophical question on authenticity.

I appreciated the way the course was delivered and found spending time with the course leaders and fellow students invaluable, as we could discuss the various parts of the course and ask reflective questions in an informal environment. After attending the BCM; Mortars for Conservation (2016), I decided that the PDD was the right development route for me. (Attending the BCM’s and writing up this portfolio has helped shape my personal conservation philosophy over four years).

I was now commuting into London for site visits via St Pancras International. The new extensions’ asked a question about part of the SPAB manifesto; show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one’.

My personal view, which has developed over the last few years, is that the reconstruction and extension(s) of the station are in context with its current c21 use and they are faithfully indicative of the previous building by using traditional materials, construction technology and design.

 I now relate this to our structural survey of the lime kiln at Amberley (BCM: The structural repair of old buildings). Our group survey analysis of the case study was ‘to leave as found’ and re-inspect in five years. Even though the kiln is in a dilapidated condition and its structural repairs look like they maybe coming to the end of their lives, the structure is stable and performing its job as a museum piece.

The visit to Uppark House showed that repairs carried out using traditional materials, construction design and technology, can reproduce an authentic re-construction that produces the sense of place that the building had before the fire. I was now relating this to Peters McCurdy’s work, the reconstructed buildings in the Weald and Downland and St Pancras International. All these works, in my developing opinion, represent and describe passive cultural identities to the conservation world and the wider general public. The Nara document on authenticity (ICOMOS), helped guide my thought process.

There were two words that were used by several of the lecturers on the BCM’s at various points through out my time at the college when discussing intervention. These two words were; ‘it depends’. I feel that these two words are the most important of all in conservation and form a question that everybody understands; they trigger critical thinking and the decision process on a case by case basis. What may be good for one building may not necessarily be so for another.

The SPAB have since modernised their manifesto but still has fabric retention at the top of its hierarchy. ‘The SPAB Approach generally rejects arguments that original design or cultural associations are more important than surviving fabric. For the Society, protecting fabric allows meaning and significance to be drawn from it by individuals, groups and successive generations’. This ‘approach’ appears to be in conflict with the Nara Document and brings me back to the question ‘it depends’. It shows us that we need to view our questions through more than one or two lenses. We have to consider the loss / benefit equation when effecting change in the historic built environment.

Historic England’s CONSERVATION PRINCIPLES FOR THE SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OF THE HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT (which is consistent with other documents such as the NPPF and BS 7913) Helps us on our decision pathway with intervention, with particular reference to;

Principle 5: Decisions about change need to be reasonable, transparent and consistent.

But at the end of the day, having a real understanding of all aspects of an historic building; its setting, history and significance, the physics, biology and geochemistry of the materials, the construction design and technology and understanding of defect mechanisms and building pathology, will help us with coming to justified answers to questions on best conservation practice.

I now look forward to surveying timber-framed buildings and have several potential repairing projects coming my way.


Manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)

By William Morris

A Society coming before the public with such a name as that above written must needs explain how, and why, it proposes to protect those ancient buildings which, to most people doubtless, seem to have so many and such excellent protectors. This, then, is the explanation we offer.

No doubt within the last fifty years a new interest, almost like another sense, has arisen in these ancient monuments of art; and they have become the subject of one of the most interesting of studies, and of an enthusiasm, religious, historical, artistic, which is one of the undoubted gains of our time; yet we think that if the present treatment of them be continued, our descendants will find them useless for study and chilling to enthusiasm. We think that those last fifty years of knowledge and attention have done more for their destruction than all the foregoing centuries of revolution, violence, and contempt.

For Architecture, long decaying, died out, as a popular art at least, just as the knowledge of medieval art was born. So that the civilised world of the nineteenth century has no style of its own amidst its wide knowledge of the styles of other centuries. From this lack and this gain arose in men’s minds the strange idea of the Restoration of ancient buildings; and a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of history – of its life that is – and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.

In early times this kind of forgery was impossible, because knowledge failed the builders, or perhaps because instinct held them back. If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time; a church of the eleventh century might be added to or altered in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, or even the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deeds done midst its fashioning. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their very contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no possibility mislead. But those who make the changes wrought in our day under the name of Restoration, while professing to bring back a building to the best time of its history, have no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible; while the very nature of their task compels them to destroy something and to supply the gap by imagining what the earlier builders should or might have done. Moreover, in the course of this double process of destruction and addition the whole surface of the building is necessarily tampered with; so that the appearance of antiquity is taken away from such old parts of the fabric as are left, and there is no laying to rest in the spectator the suspicion of what may have been lost; and in short, a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour.

It is sad to say, that in this manner most of the bigger Minsters, and a vast number of more humble buildings, both in England and on the Continent, have been dealt with by men of talent often, and worthy of better employment, but deaf to the claims of poetry and history in the highest sense of the words.

For what is left we plead before our architects themselves, before the official guardians of buildings, and before the public generally, and we pray them to remember how much is gone of the religion, thought and manners of time past, never by almost universal consent, to be Restored; and to consider whether it be possible to Restore those buildings, the living spirit of which, it cannot be too often repeated, was an inseparable part of that religion and thought, and those past manners. For our part we assure them fearlessly, that of all the Restorations yet undertaken the worst have meant the reckless stripping [from] a building of some of its most interesting material features; while the best have their exact analogy in the Restoration of an old picture, where the partly-perished work of the ancient craftsmaster has been made neat and smooth by the tricky hand of some unoriginal and thoughtless hack of today. If, for the rest, it be asked us to specify what kind of amount of art, style, or other interest in a building, makes it worth protecting, we answer, anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial: any work in short, over which educated, artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue at all.

It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.

Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.