Understanding heritage buildings


In order to look after an historic building it is important to understand how it was constructed, and why.

Historic churches, chapels and meeting houses were often built using quite different building materials and techniques to modern construction. To care for your church in a way which extends its life while preserving its historic fabric, you must understand how and why it was built. This has implications for the way that the building works and how you must work within it.

Most historic buildings have changed over time, as fashions changed or more room was needed. Understanding the different stages in development can help to explain why some problems arise, like cracking at the joint between old and new.

Building Conservation: 10 Ways to Ruin an Old Building

surveying a churchTraditional versus modern

Perhaps the main difference between traditional (pre-1919) and modern buildings is that traditional buildings are designed to breathe, to allow moisture to penetrate the fabric and then evaporate away harmlessly. To enable evaporation, and therefore control damp, good ventilation is vital. Modern buildings are built to be sealed boxes, to keep moisture out at all costs.

Similarly, old buildings are generally built using softer materials, allowing them a certain amount of movement without damaging the structure. Modern buildings are built from hard, impervious materials, and designed to be rigid and not move at all.

Using modern materials in an old building stops the building functioning how it should, and can cause a wide range of problems including rising damp, spalled stones, blown plaster, disintegrating slates and corrosion of lead.

Understanding the difference between traditional and modern, and not trying to waterproof your church by sealing every hole, or prevent movement by filling every crack with hard mortar, is one of the best things that you can do and ultimately save you money as well as protect your heritage building.

There is some great specialist advice to help you understand historic buildings, and how to care for them.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: Breathability and Old Buildings

Building Conservation: Article Subject Index

Historic England: Practical Building Conservation Series

Historic Environment Scotland: Building Components

Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings: Knowledge Base

Traditional building techniques

men working on a church towerLooking after a heritage building and carrying out any work on it means understanding traditional building techniques.

If you plan to carry out any work yourself, it is important that you have the right skills and experience. If you are going to employ someone, make sure you find a specialist.

National Churches Trust: Building techniques

Traditional materials

a church window

You should also understand the traditional materials used to build your church, and the importance of using only sympathetic materials when doing any work. Old buildings are often so pleasing to the eye because of the materials with which they were built and repaired in previous centuries.

Traditional materials also have a natural affinity with each other, so even placing a new stone within an ancient wall will soon blend in if it is done in the traditional way.

National Churches Trust: Building materials