At the start of the year, David Johnson finally gained his accreditation in conservation architecture with the RIAS. Here is an extract from his submission, setting out his approach to projects.
It could be argued that conservation architecture should not be limited to a few special properties. Many lesser buildings are important and worthy of conservation and of being kept for generations to come. At the time they were conceived most buildings will have been considered important by their designer, sponsor or occupier. Time, energy and money will have been expended, often at great cost. They all tell a story and are part of our history. Buildings that are the product of such emotional and practical investment deserve our care and respect regardless of age or standing. Why should a rare 16th century barn be considered more important than a 20th century barn that is just as rare? The same approach can and should be taken on any building when dealing with its repair, restoration, adaptation or re-use.
This is even more the case given the acceptance the impact building projects have on the environment and finite resources.
Conservation is more than just preserving the building fabric, important though that is. Conservation is about maintaining the sense of place, together with the emotion and the inspiration that a building generates. If a building is sensitively, carefully and painstakingly restored or reconstructed, using the finest materials and appropriate details but it is left empty and devoid of people because it no longer has a function or purpose then the project is only half completed.
Buildings are designed and built to be used. They are to be enjoyed and interacted with; to be touched and heard as well as seen. They are here for a purpose and that is that they are created by and for people. The first and foremost role of conservation in architecture therefore is to maintain this interconnection of buildings and people. Buildings should be maintained and conserved in a manner so that they can continue to be enjoyed and continue to inspire.
With these principles in mind, my approach before any design is considered is to look for the big picture and ask the big questions before looking at the detail.
What is the most important aspect of this building?
What is the main point of cultural significance?
What is its overall value?
The answer to these questions forms the basis of the Conservation Plan and often can’t be found through historical analysis alone.
A family that has lived in the same house for countless generations will place a different but equally if not more important value on the building than say a building historian. Its ongoing use as a family home is the overriding point of cultural significance that should be maintained thereby allowing necessary but controlled changes over time.
What emotions does this building evoke? Will those emotions be enhanced through what I do or reduced?
The sense of sacred place that a chapel was designed and built to evoke can be preserved and even enhanced through the approach of “as little as possible but as much a necessary.” So long as the elements are sound and safe, that eerie hushed sense of timeless space where one whispers conversation is more important than fully restoring centuries old fabric so that it looks as new as when it was built and installing every technology available to provide a little more comfort.
Will this building still be just as enjoyable and inspirational as the day it was built, after it is taken out of my care?
A magnificent castle designed to stir the soul and make people walk tall but also designed in the age of servants and staff will almost always need to be adapted and changed over time to keep in step with current living styles. Securing a long term and viable future for such a building must be the primary focus of any design approach.
Why was this building built in the first place? What was its original purpose?
An ornate stables block from the 18th Century may well have outlasted its original use, but it will need to be converted in order to also secure its future. This should be done in such a way as to preserve the look and feel of its original purpose. The key fixtures and fittings that defines its original use should be preserved and restored at all cost, even if this means compromises to the layout and design of the new use.
Informed by the answer to these important questions, my design approach generally follows a pragmatic one, implementing a Conservation Plan that seeks to balance often many conflicting considerations so that each building is secure and accessible for the inspiration and enjoyment of future generations.