In Britain, you cannot escape heritage. From Norman castles to Georgian townhouses, we are surrounded by history.
Walk down any London street and you are likely to see buildings with blue plaques informing you of their famous former inhabitants. Historical buildings make up the rich tapestry of our nation.
But as the scaffolding on the Palace of Westminster reminds us, there is a constant battle to keep these buildings together. While beautiful from the outside, on the inside they are often unfit for purpose, expensive and inefficient to run, or even outright dangerous. The fire risk at Westminster is so high that 24 fire wardens patrol the building.
Keeping up antiquated structures is not just an exercise in national nostalgia but vital for our economy. Aside from the £106bn that tourism contributes to the economy, England’s 376,000 listed structures are a large part of our built environment, housing government offices, financial headquarters and theatres.
Britain must commit to renewing and restoring its heritage, but high construction costs and skills shortages make this a daunting challenge.
“To preserve our history we must look to modern technology”
Ironically, to preserve our history we must look to modern technology, which makes building management and surveillance easier. Sensors can measure temperature, humidity, warping and cracks. They can anticipate when maintenance is needed, significantly extending buildings’ lifetimes, cutting costs considerably and making energy use easy to measure.
For construction, digital modelling allows previously forgotten or prohibitively expensive techniques and components to be made from virtual models in factories. Such offsite manufacturing increases a project’s quality and efficiency and is just the start. As 3D printing becomes more viable, we can design and make the exact parts needed in the blink of an eye, to precise specifications.
Virtual reality will enable designers, architects and engineers to superimpose their designed renovations over derelict sites, allowing us to view how buildings really looked in their heyday. Take the example of Great Marlborough Estates’s newest project at Regent’s Crescent in London’s West End. Designed by John Nash and built in 1819, the iconic houses were destroyed in the Blitz. In the 1960s, a replica was built, but using poor-quality concrete and not corresponding to the original designs.
Take the example of Great Marlborough Estate’s newest project at Regent’s Crescent in London’s West End. Designed by John Nash and built in 1819, the iconic houses were destroyed in the Blitz. In the 1960s, a replica was built, but using poor-quality concrete and not corresponding to the original designs.
Now we are restoring the Crescent to its former glory, paying homage to Nash’s original plans. Without new technology, this would not be possible.
But technology can only go so far; we also need realism. ‘Enabling development’ on listed buildings was first outlined in 1989. It allowed partial or interior redevelopment on the basis that this was justified by the heritage benefits. We must continue to conserve our beautiful buildings, but not at the expense of progress. We must also ensure that inside they are practical and safe, otherwise they are a hindrance.
We have a choice to either make do with – or worse demolish – buildings that are an important part of our heritage because they are too difficult or costly to restore, or make Britain the world leader in heritage restoration. I hope we choose wisely.