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A (too?) sentimental journey

Some years ago, the subject of one of Sarah Beeny’s TV property shows was the restoration and redevelopment of a listed house. In this particular case, there was a great deal of friction between the homeowner and the planning department over a number of changes that were being proposed. Obviously, there’s a good deal of televisual mileage to be had from a good old dust-up between warring parties, so we’d have to assume that some of the tension was slightly exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Nevertheless, one particular issue stood out as typifying, for me, the absurdity of some of the occasionally misplaced reverence we have for listed properties.

The new owner wanted to replace the hideously inappropriate modern plastic guttering and downpipes at the back of the house with some smart reproduction aluminium versions that looked to all intents and purposes like the iron and lead originals, only a good deal cheaper. The planning officer refused the improvement point blank and instructed the owner to use only the traditional materials.

Long story short, the owner discovered that the plastic arrangement had been installed prior to the building being listed and could simply be replaced like for like. At which point, the planning officer said they’d be happy to see the aluminium solution after all…

I have been fortunate to have worked on a varied range of historic buildings over the years and continue to do so. One of the great skills of this type of work is striking a balance between being sensitive/sympathetic and being sentimental. In architectural terms, does old automatically mean good?

I worked on a listed house recently and the whole design team plus the conservation people became embroiled in extensive debate about retaining and not altering some apparently lovely old wall panelling in a grand room, only to find after much debate that the panelling was in fact painted MDF and no more than 20 years old. However, it was well executed; in which case, does it really matter that the materials are not old? Would a poorly executed but historic bit of detailing be better than well-designed and built piece of 21st century work?

On the continent, they tend to more vigorously assess historical merit rather than take the its-old-so-it-must-be-good approach. Are we protecting our built heritage or simply stifling what could be a more considered, progressive approach?

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