Last edited 24 Oct 2021

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation for a planet in peril

‘Sometimes demolition is necessary, the precondition for architecture to happen. But much of the time the real skill would be to understand how to reuse and to avoid that tragic waste of embodied energy and embedded memory.’ Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, 9/10 January 2021.

It is unfortunate that Edwin Heathcote sees more dilemma than resolution in his ambitions to avoid the ‘tragic waste of embodied energy and embedded memory’ so prevalent across the management and creation of buildings and places in the 21st century.

Sadly, that reference to ‘the real skill… to understand how to reuse’ reads as hypothesis, at best, and possibly even dream-led fantasy. Certainly it confirms that he does not have even an unconscious awareness that there is already a dedicated professional skills framework in place to manage these intertwined and critical resources together: historic environment conservation.

The lack of awareness of the existence of such skills in an expert as well-read and thoughtful as Heathcote is, in part, because at the very heart of modern society there is little recognition that the cultural and environmental twains might ever even meet, never mind that they must operate in unison if waste is to be truly reduced. Such concerns as his are coming to the fore even more today because, with the threats of Trump and climate so closely intermingled in so many headlines, society finds it increasingly difficult to continue the historic dissociation between cultural inequities and environmental imbalances, or managing sensibly across meaning and material.

The historic norm of that dissociation is well represented by Abraham Maslow’s 1943 model ‘Hierarchy of needs’, which paints social progress as an evolving succession of increasingly more abstracted ‘achievements’. That evolution is represented graphically by a pyramidal rise from a ‘base’ focused on materials necessities for survival – when the most basic of needs of life must first be addressed, such as food and shelter – to a cultural peak of achievement, where ‘softer’ and typically cultural values become the aims of both individuals and society. These last are more personal priorities that sit on top of, but still apart from, the more tangible needs and prerequisites of living. As Maslow’s model represents ‘material needs’ and ‘cultural luxuries’ as sequential, rather than interdependent, they are unified only by the fact that material considerations are relegated as social and cultural priorities evolve.

Ultimately, the thinking that shapes Maslow’s 20th-century model is still firmly in place in this first quarter of the 21st century. It is alien to any search for a balanced iteration in decision making across the physical aspects of a society – such as the physical need for shelter – and the intangible values of culture – such the meanings that shelter embodies.

In contrast to Maslow’s historic perspective, built and historic environment conservation approaches culture – collective and individual – not as a supplanting of the physical and material values, nor as their successor. Rather such conservation recognises culture as being embodied within its material manifestation. This affirms the physical and environmental implications of those embedded cultural values, including when considering options for retention, conservation, and/ or replacement. In conservation practice those two central threads of material and meaning, that make up the places we value, must be managed hand in hand, with open understanding and informed judgement. As Heathcote suggests, if society consistently and fairly balanced both in the management of place, then it could address some of the most damaging wastes in the modern world.

The challenge to a wider adoption of such conservation principles is, however, substantial, not least because the barriers are so embedded in the legacies so well represented by Maslow. Even something as apparently straightforward as the accreditation of historic environment conservation is still widely – and almost exclusively - regarded as a ‘top up’ to a traditional profession. That thinking confines conservation to being thought of a technical skill – no more than a refinement of a comfortably familiar activity – precluding in most areas even the concept of the holistic conservation that should be our response to Heathcote’s big idea.

Specialisation based on refined specification of familiar skills may be an absolutely sound position in a traditional profession. However, over-dependence on that in the 21st century actually pushes further apart those very sectors that must join together to achieve that for which Heathcote calls. Indeed, this attitude flies in the face of the plethora of modern reports that have highlighted the need to integrate skills in interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary practice to secure development that is sustainable, or even just viable.

The management of ‘energy’ (or material) and ‘memory’ (or meaning) have roots in practices that are as distinct and distinguished as the humanities and the sciences, so specifying those skills as a refinement of historic skills can not deliver integration. In contrast, the IHBC’s accrediting framework looks across those historic confines, assessing the conjoined management of material and meaning expressed in Heathcote’s hypothesis.

In another context, incongruities between historic pigeonholes and modern practice might be moot. But in the 21st century, when conservation outcomes are so critical to survival – with social and environmental impacts capable of wreaking planet-wide chaos individually, and even more so when operating in unison – restricting standards on those from past centuries is no more tenable than, say, the blasé adoption of a historic style without any understanding of just why it actually is ‘historic’, and a lot more dangerous.

Instead, the IHBC’s approach to our conservation practice is constructed on the presumption that managing cultural and environmental values together is not only possible, but is fundamental to a sustainable trajectory for future society. From our specification of the eight Competences to our modelConservation Cycle’ with its four generic Areas of Competence, the IHBC’s practice model bridges the historic chasm between the management strategies for energy and for memory. Members are required to operate equitably – and as far as possible – across a process that starts with the holistic valuing of a resource, including both its material presence and its meanings. That process should lead to informed actions on their change.

Maslow’s 20th-century thinking is founded more on a cultural legacy rather than any formal logic, which supports Wikipedia’s faintpraise observation that ‘There is little scientific basis’ for his model. The IHBC also recognises the shortage of a broad science for our own holistic approach to conservation. While accepting that the causes for such shortcomings in science are entirely different, its failure to connect such threads as climate change and culture remains a serious challenge.

One response to that limitation is the IHBC’s investment in developing and promoting its own research and evidence base. The web-based ToolBox collects and helps generate priority research in the form of digital ‘Notes’. And our new CREATIVE Conservation Fund serves in part as a platform for generating research funding. These both represent longer-term ambitions, so we have also pursued other responses to the limits of science today, including the suitably cost-effective adoption of protocols.

The IHBC’s ‘Statement… for the production of standards’, also posted on our site, explains how ‘methodologies for identifying and interpreting evidence… in an interdisciplinary practice like conservation’ need to include ‘using aggregated evidence’. An abstract concept on the surface, perhaps, but an important statement that justifies how – where the science falls short – our guidance on practice should follow the general direction of evidence and logic, at least until more substantial evidence suggests otherwise.

These conscious nods to science offer only part of a way forward for sound guidance on practice on the future. As the IHBC – any more than the planet – can not wait for the undeniable science that confirms the value of our work, in tandem with that focus on evidence, the institute has also expanded its advocacy.

Most recently, and most substantially, the IHBC has redirected resources to offer secretarial support on a new, UK-wide All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Conservation, Places and People. The APPG is a platform that encourages – and offers itself to – the full spectrum and diversity of players helping save a planet in peril. For that reason the first inquiry of this APPG targets ‘21st century places: values and benefits’, as a topic purposefully open to anyone with the will and capacity to participate.

Maslow’s legacy indicates the scale of the challenge faced, but hopefully the APPG’s work will unite, within a more powerful network, an awareness of the benefits to reap if we really can – more widely and with more focus – respond to Heathcote’s hypothesis.

This article originally appeared as: ‘Practitioners for a planet in peril’ in Context 167, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in June 2021. It was written by Seán O’Reilly.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again