Last edited 05 Feb 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation in action at the Engine Shed

Conservation in action at the Engine Shed 600.jpg
Historic Environment Scotland’s properties in care provide the setting for the majority of postgraduate site visits, such as this masonry inspection at Linlithgow Palace. (Photo: HES).



The Engine Shed, Scotland’s Building Conservation Centre in Stirling, opened to the public in July 2017. Run by Historic Environment Scotland (HES), our vision is to create a world-class conservation hub, raising conservation standards in skills and training and inspiring a new generation of young people to get involved. We have constructed a creative, inspiring space filled with activities, exhibitions and events, where people can experience conservation in action; a melting pot for exchanging ideas and fostering collaboration.

The Engine Shed exists to support the heritage sector by inspiring and educating people about the importance of our built heritage, the multiple roles it plays in our lives, and the need to properly understand and maintain it. At the heart of this message is a recognition that we require the knowledge, skills and materials to conserve not only the scheduled and designated but also the ‘ordinary’ traditional buildings that provide the backdrop to our lives: our homes, our businesses, our infrastructure and our sense of place.

Everyone in the sector is aware of the loss of knowledge and skills at professional, technical and craft levels which we have seen over the past 50 years. Most will also have experienced the difficulty of explaining the importance, or even relevance, of conservation to a general public that is inundated with information and demands for its attention. The Engine Shed represents a concerted effort to reverse those trends and ensure that young people today can see the opportunities that are present in our sector, as well as understanding the threats, such as climate change, that it faces.

Understanding the audience

An important part of the learning journey with the Engine Shed project has been the need to gain a better understanding of who we were trying to communicate with and how we were proposing to do it. Because we initially found these elements of the project challenging, we sought some external help to develop our understanding of audience segmentation and how to use ‘tone of voice’ to convey key messages to different audiences.

The Engine Shed needed to be accessible, but not ‘dumbed down’. It needed to enthuse and excite, but not trivialise the important concepts that we needed to get across. Answering these needs led us to an audience structure divided into ‘paddlers’, ‘swimmers’ and ‘divers’.


Swimmers :


Using this model has revolutionised how we develop our education and outreach programmes. Driven by the outputs of our ongoing research strategy and project work, every idea for an event or activity is tested against the paddlers, swimmers and divers framework so that we ensure that each audience is being addressed, and addressed in a way that engages, promotes understanding, and inspires further, deeper and more prolonged engagement. The aim is that paddlers become swimmers, swimmers become divers and divers dive deeper.

For example, the same technical research output on the properties of natural stone can be conveyed through the use of petrographic slides to an expert audience, or through the medium of impermeable chocolate on a biscuit to schoolchildren. Both approaches are equally appropriate and memorable to the relevant audience, and both are based on the same scientific knowledge and understanding of materials.

Into the melting pot

The concept of the Engine Shed as a melting pot has been fulfilled in two ways.

First, we moved three teams – Science, Digital, and Technical Education – into the same building: the melting pot. Uniting these different disciplines allows us to convey our messages through informal and formal methods of education and outreach using inspiring and innovative techniques. These range from state-of-the-art technologies like virtual reality and visualisation using 3-D headsets to traditional ‘low-tech’ approaches such as apprentices gaining hands-on experience of traditional stone carving. Secondary School children visit the lab to learn about microscopy and thermal imaging, which links science activity at school to the world of work. Undergraduate built environment students attend a summer school to gain practical experience of craft skills which, one day, they could be specifying.

Second, by opening our doors to the public from Monday to Saturday and hosting meetings of organisations from across the heritage sector and beyond, we can bring together diverse groups of users. The melting pot can be shared by toddlers from the local play group playing with rubber bricks, young people undertaking a creative industries course at the local college looking at digital interpretation, and the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland seeking technical advice. This mix of ages and abilities, with different questions and needs, can find a common interest in what the Engine Shed and HES have to offer.

The Engine Shed has provided HES with a platform to support the sector in a different and hopefully innovative way. However, we realise that the issues the sector faces cannot be solved by a single building. We have found in the past eight months that what it does provide is a model and methodology to present the historic environment in a different way, which links in with the current agenda of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, without diluting the importance of our cultural heritage. In fact, we have discovered that we can enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation by demonstrating the real people with real skills and ability who stand behind these topics.

Since not everyone can come to Stirling, we are also continually developing a network of partners to share our experiences and ideas with, including community groups, schools, BPTs and national organisations. We see the Engine Shed as a hub with many spokes, hopefully providing ideas and support for those who, like us, wish to raise standards and inspire a new generation of young people to get involved.

Colin Tennant is head of technical education and training at Historic Environment Scotland’s Conservation Directorate.

Conservation qualifications at the Engine Shed

At the heart the new Engine Shed facility is a programme of innovative postgraduate training designed to provide a practical conservation education for fledgling heritage professionals. The course was devised to enable HES to share with this next generation of conservationists the wealth of in-house knowledge accrued by its architects, scientists and practitioners over many years of practical site work and extensive research undertaken for its catalogue of technical 35 publications.

The HES postgraduate course focuses firmly on the nature, use and repair of historic building materials within the wider context of Scottish architectural traditions, universal conservation principles and practices, and the latest techniques of scientific investigation, analysis and documentation. The emphasis on traditional fabric provides the framework for a practical understanding of best practice in repair, monitoring and maintenance work, enhanced by the study of challenges brought on by climate change, issues of skills training and the need for sustainable sourcing of appropriate replacement materials.

The taught programme, devised in accordance with IHBC’s Areas of Competence and the ICOMOS Guidelines on Conservation Education, is augmented by hands-on craft work, petrographic and mortar analysis in the Engine Shed science labs, and studio work with the HES digital documentation team. A unique feature of the course is the opportunity to undertake site visits to active repair projects across the HES estate, as well as to a range of grant-aided sites where conservation practitioners from the private sector also share their broad experiences and invaluable expertise.

The range of qualifications includes:

Gordon Urquhart BA MSc IHBC FSA Scot is the postgraduate course manager at Historic Environment Scotland.

This article originally appeared as ‘The Engine Shed a hub with many spokes’ in IHBC's 2018 Yearbook (Page 27), published by Cathedral Communications.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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