- Project plans
- Project activities
- Legislation and standards
- Industry context
- Specialist wikis
Last edited 25 Sep 2023
Guest Editor Seán O'Reilly, Director of The Institute of Historic Building Conservation
Guest Editor Introduction
Seán is director of The Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC), the UK’s professional body accrediting built and historic environment conservation practitioners. In this role he helps shape professional conservation practice and standards, training and services in the UK especially, across industry, government and education.
Seán volunteered to be our first Guest Editor, and as part of this we spent some time catching up on all things from conservation to car manufacturing, carbon, financing, training, the meaning of value and back to construction.
Background, activities and interest in buildings
An architectural historian with a Masters in Regional Planning (MURP), Seán holds Fellowships with the Institute of Leadership and Management and the Royal Society of Arts, while he has worked both in private and NGO sectors and at universities across the UK.
Other historic building, conservation and environment roles he has held include Director of the Scottish amenity society, The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS), and co-founder of and first treasurer to the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS). He was also co-founder and first editor of the Irish Georgian Society Journal under its Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies imprint, and has held a number of roles at the Irish Architectural Archive.
Seán writes extensively on conservation, history and planning, from informal updates and book reviews to academic papers, mainly in the UK, but including also in China and the US. He has a rounded understanding of conservation not only from an academic training and practical experience but clearly well informed in terms of the wider interconnected issues that surround conservation of historic buildings from financing issues to training and embodied carbon to practical maintenance and construction and making heritage decisions work.
I recently worked with a research student at UCL researching finance and economics' skill sets, and that highlighted an issue specific to the heritage sector, but also to the wider context. An interesting issue is that, some responses to her study circulated around not getting too involved or bogged down on economic issues, because most of the time financing in the heritage sector just doesn't stack up. This may be missing the point and does highlight something lacking in the industry, because financing of projects as well as organisations really is part of historic building conservation. What is more important is that we need to be talking about cultural values in the same conversation as economics.
Value brings up many other associated themes that inevitably feed into economics, financing and on the ‘cash’ side, and also indirectly, when we talk about social value, cultural value, community value, carbon value and so on, where heritage value is inherent in and tied to economic values. So reservations in discussing finance must also be coupled with an appreciation of in relation to the wider context of economic generation as well as savings in other areas, for example climate change-related costs, which in turn links closely with other disciplines. In a world of subsidies for new build but not for maintenance, repair or refurbishment, heritage is still too often seen as a constraint rather than the opportunity that it increasingly offers. This is particularly so in the context of other values and pressures that many projects face from land values through to environmental considerations.
So it is critical that there is a better understanding and wider appreciation by construction professionals of the benefits and practicalities of planning approaches by heritage specialists, including especially their responses to existing materials, fabric and buildings. That is why the IHBC's 'crossover', interdisciplinary approach tries to cover and explore these wider areas and issues, rather than restricting terms to any historical discipline. This is why I believe the IHBC's special approach to conservation is so important.
Henry Ford could produce millions of cars on a site through mass production, but once it came to maintenance and repair, we needed thousands of locally accessible garages to ensure the care, repair and maintenance of the cars. And you cannot ‘mass-produce’ repair of buildings any more than you can in cars. In terms of modern construction technologies the maintenance and wider considerations of issues, such as whole life costs of buildings – including disposal - have been largely avoided, at least until recently.
Sharing knowledge across disciplines or institutions and the main barriers to sharing and applying that knowledge.
Where disciplines or institutions meet they are always challenges, and the way to respond effectively is for each to understand where the other is coming from. There is no point in just complaining about the difference, dismissing them or - in more recent practice - using schoolyard-style insults such as 'Nimby’ to deflect from real issues that need to be addressed. The solutions really do lie in grown up conversations about value, including in real term economics. Talking and learning is extremely important, while social media easily masques polarisation as conversation.
Construction and conservation are increasingly linked, but can have distinct legacies and languages, and so generate the challenges - and disputes - we see so regularly in the press. The idea of the IHBC MarketPlace is to build up an open list of contractors , educators and suppliers who are aware of conservation issues or can offer relevant that can be suitably controlled by advisers and regulators. Silos will always exist but we can try to create mechanisms to break them down. In my view DB offers a comparable mechanism to chip away at those silos and boundary walls.
In reality, for all their links, in large parts the mainstream construction sector barely engages with the culture of heritage, and so generally doesn’t understand the issues heritage – and culture – raise: why communities rebel against some housing plans; why demolition and development matters locally; or why and how heritage protection can be misused as the only way to constrain otherwise unfettered change. These are complex issues that cannot be sensibly countered by just pigeon-holing opponents as closed-minded 'nimbys' or rapacious developers.
How did you first discover DB, how do you use it and since when?
I first came across DB, on sector emails, I was so impressed with the service - especially its open accessibility and content range - that I explored with our board its potential and we agreed to fund the establishment and maintenance of the DB's Conservation Wiki.
Of course including the IHBC's conservation wiki news does make a lot of difference as well. And then it’s open and democratic, it is never simply a mouthpiece for the self-interested or their platform. Rather, it is open equally to concerned public, professionals, crafts-people, manufacturers, specialists, students and so on.
Do you have any favourite themes relating to buildings and construction, particular eras of construction, styles or any favourite building that spring to mind?
For my planning post-graduate in what was the Edinburgh college of art (though a Heriot Watt university degree) I did a detailed study of risk assessment in conservation planning, and how it could be used to better inform planning decisions. Sadly - perhaps - taking up the post of IHBC director meant i didn’t take that work further.
Is there anything else you would like to add or highlight for our readers about yourself, the site or the news items and features that you have chosen ?
The IHBC has been investigating the submission of a petition for Royal Charter, and while currently we are focussed on member consultation, we are very keen to hear any thoughts from the readers of DB from all disciplines.
The IHBC’s Heritage MarketPlace web resource is a new way to access, promote and secure quality services, advice, guidance and more on all aspects of heritage and conservation. Here we are collating a resource of sound, well-informed services from designers, and architects to contractors and trades people, and using lists ranging from our own IHBC specialist high-end and commercial advisory listing, HESPR to more general training services and advocacy bodies. It’s centred on helping informed care of fabric and places – historic and otherwise - and is free and accessible to users.
You can find out more at https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/IHBC_Heritage_MarketPlace
IHBC's SelfStarter page is really a quick guide to conservation learning respurces online, one that is open to anyone who wants to find out more, exploring matters from gaining experience to practice standards, research, networking and volunteering.
You can find out more at https://selfstarter.ihbc.org.uk
You can find out more at https://ihbc.org.uk/toolbox/
Nominations and feedback
It's been a really interesting revisit of why we value the DB links and what more we can take from them, so that's refreshing. The trip down the memory lane of my career has been fascinating too while I’m happy to send on nominations for future Guest Editors.
This article is based on an interview with Seán O'Reilly on September 18, 2023 and the guest editor slot on September 21, 2023.
- Heritage Research Award 2023.
- IHBC articles.
- IHBC at 25, where it came from, how it has evolved and where it might go.
- IHBC Gus Astley Student Awards 2023.
- IHBC Marsh Awards 2023 winners announced.
- Introducing the Guest Editor Programme.
- The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conservation, Places and People.
- The IHBC Heritage Marketplace.
- The Value of Heritage report APPG CPP 2022.
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