Last edited 17 Mar 2022

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Historic Building Studio Architect Website

How to identify a historic building

There is no doubt that Saint Paul’s cathedral or a Cotswold’s thatched-roof cottage are historic buildings. It is clear then that not all historic buildings are majestic and famous.

We can quickly identify these buildings as historic, but they don’t seem to have much in common; one is public, the other is private. They also differ in size and style. They belong to different times in history and serve different purposes. The Cotswold cottage uses local stone. Saint Paul’s shines in Portland stone, a material traditionally used for public buildings in the City of London. There is an extra layer, an element that defines such different buildings under the same label: ‘historic’.

Thatched 1709 Castle Combe-4.jpg

The term historic clearly refers to history, and therefore the clue is in the 4th dimension: time. Historic buildings, independently from their appearance, can tell us about their own time, their past events. The Cotswold cottage tells us about the time when buildings used local resources and were shaped to adapt to the local climate.

Historic buildings have the quality to encapsulate the traits of a past time. They can tell us about the culture, the economy or the technology of their time, or the time they have lived through. For instance, Saint Paul’s tells us of its medieval origin and its presence during WWII. It tells us about the classical taste during its reconstruction in the late seventeenth century, and it shows the advances in mathematics by the achievement of its dome.

Nevertheless, time is relative, and so is the concrete definition of historic building. Conceptually it is challenging to establish a virtual line to point to the time when buildings stop being historic and are just buildings. This virtual line keeps moving as time passes by. The cultural and political context is crucial when defining this virtual line. For instance, preservation rules in the USA offer a guideline of 50 years to locate this invisible line. In Hong Kong, the conservation rules advise that buildings should be older than 30 years. Similarly, Historic England, the body that reports on the protection of historic buildings in England, considers that a 30 years period allows sufficient time perspective to understand the significance of a building.

Saint Pauls 02-1.jpgSaint Pauls war damage-3.jpg

Historic buildings can come in many forms beyond listed buildings. Signs of history are present in traditional buildings, buildings in conservation areas, buildings of local interest, buildings in world heritage sites or the place where you live. Buildings with no statutory protection can also have value as a heritage asset. British Standard 7913:2013 and national and international bodies, like SPAB and ICOMOS, recognise their value.

Conservation is not just for the care of those historic buildings legally protected. The use and maintenance of historic buildings can benefit owners, users, and communities. There are the aesthetic benefits of enjoying architecture that is different to today. It also offers creative opportunities, in particular in the case of upgrading buildings to current standards and in the reuse of existing structures to create new uses and spaces.

--Historic Building Studio 17:53, 11 Mar 2022 (BST)

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