Last edited 21 Mar 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The need for skills: The heritage perspective

This article originally appeared in the IHBC Yearbook 2011, published by Cathedral Communications Ltd.


Traditional building craft skills are at risk of dying out in the UK with only 30,000 or so craftspeople with the appropriate skills. Initiatives such as the development of bursary schemes, training routes into the Heritage Skills NVQ Level 3 and an increase in programmed and ad hoc training sessions and awareness courses have all helped, but they have not dramatically improved the numbers of appropriately skilled craftspeople in the UK.

With the oldest building stock in the western world, more than 20 per cent of which is traditionally built with solid walls, you might expect the UK building industry to have developed the necessary expertise to maintain older buildings properly. National Heritage Training Group research published in 2008 suggests otherwise. The research established that a quarter of professionals find it difficult to specify the right work to traditional buildings and almost two thirds felt that their education was inadequate for this kind of work – and these are only the ones who were brave enough to own up. This results in the use of modern materials and techniques which have been developed from a new construction knowledgebase and which are inappropriate and potentially damaging to traditional buildings. It also results in the wrong skills being demanded and deployed. While many of our buildings require traditional craft skills, they are frequently not deployed, partly because the professionals involved are not asking for them.

Genuine conservation specialists will of course specify the right work and demand the right skills, but most work undertaken to traditional buildings involves mainstream professionals. Until mainstream professionals recognise that many of them don’t understand 20 per cent of the UK’s building stock, and that this could be contributing to the deterioration of those buildings, they will continue to specify inappropriate work and consequently the number of appropriately skilled crafts people in the UK will never reach the level required. The full extent of the skill shortage hidden because appropriate work is not being demanded wherever it is required. We must address the shortfall in demand by increasing the knowledge and expertise of the professionals responsible for specifying work, while at the same time increasing the supply by improving the skill levels of craftspeople.

Initiatives to increase the number of craftspeople with the required skills have had limited success, with only about 500 individuals obtaining the Heritage Skills NVQ Level 3. This will not solve the problem, so other initiatives need to be developed. One such initiative involves short courses aimed at increasing the knowledge base of craftspeople so they will be both better equipped and a couple of rungs up the ladder towards the Heritage Skills NVQ Level 3. The courses are aimed at upskilling thousands rather than hundreds of craftspeople and the first is being piloted in painting and decorating. Developed by the Heritage and Conservation Team at ConstructionSkills with the support of the National Trust, English Heritage and individual trade federations, these two-day courses will include an examination. The trade federations will ultimately take ownership of these courses, promoting them to their members as a way of increasing knowledge and obtaining a qualification which can be cited on each individual’s ConstructionSkills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card.

Scrapping proper apprenticeships in the 1980s is often cited as the reason for the current skills shortage in the UK, and while that was a factor, the problem runs much deeper. Craftspeople have been trained in new construction alone and this continues to be the case with basic craft training at NVQ Level 2. Although new construction comprises just over half of the building industry’s output, it is the subject of 100 per cent of training and assessment. Change is needed and a feasibility study is taking place that will hopefully see all craft training at NVQ Level 2 incorporate elements of building maintenance and repair. This will be a major shift that will highlight the difference between construction and maintenance/repair and explain the distinct requirements of new and traditional buildings.

While the developments set out above will go some way towards improving the supply of crafts skills, their success will be limited if the demand for them is not properly addressed too. Although the problem is being highlighted by major heritage organisations and by ConstructionSkills, more needs to be done. Some initiatives are being developed, but these are at an embryonic stage and without the commitment and support of mainstream professional institutions and course providers, initiatives to address the shortfall in the demand for appropriate craft skills simply will not succeed.

At a time when the number of conservation officers is being reduced, many may find it difficult to deal adequately with conservation areas. The issues raised in this article, however, highlight the need for vigilance and for conservation officers to provide greater support for mainstream consultants and contractors, if inappropriate work and skills are to be avoided.

Conservation specialists and those responsible for work to protected buildings should also be doing more to support initiatives aimed at improving the calibre of craftspeople. Too few clients are demanding a CSCS carded workforce. Some conservation and heritage professionals say they can choose the right craftspeople without the need for the CSCS Heritage Skills Card, but looking at the bigger picture suggests that the majority of professionals are not very successful at choosing the right craftsperson for the right job at the right time. Ultimately, an appropriately qualified craft workforce will provide a base standard that should be sufficient for all to rely upon, from experienced conservation professionals to the relatively uninformed mainstream professionals who currently seem to be doing the majority of the work on traditional buildings.

There is little doubt that the public lacks confidence in the UK building industry. The CSCS Skills Card can help domestic clients choose contractors and craftspeople with confidence, but unless all professional clients support such initiatives, they will not take off and little progress will be made in improving the way we care for traditional buildings and ensuring that the right skills are deployed at the right time.

Many challenges lie ahead, including how we manage conservation, how we use our stock of traditional buildings and, most significant of all, how we address climate change. But if we can’t address the expertise and skills issues surrounding the basic maintenance and repair of one in five of the UK’s building stock, we can hardly be well placed to take on the job of retrofitting our traditional buildings in a sensitive and well-informed way. The UK building industry must first understand and practice the basics of maintenance and repair. Only when this has been mastered can we hope to guarantee the future of our traditional and historic buildings in a changing and uncertain environment.


John Edwards MA DipBldgCons CEnv FCIOB FRICS IHBC holds a senior professional position in English Heritage’s conservation department and leads on professional and craft skills development including the validation of master craft courses.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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