Sir Donald Insall set up the practice in 1958, having previously been a Lethaby Scholar at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. At that time, the challenge for a conservation architect was to provide appropriate professional services to help owners of historic buildings that had often become disused through changing circumstances or dilapidated through lack of maintenance. Frequently, traditional uses had to be re-examined to ensure a building’s survival. Technical knowledge was one thing, but there was always the danger that this could be misapplied if the significant and real needs of buildings were not properly understood.
From its earliest days the practice developed a methodology for analysing and understanding a building’s form and history, its significance and opportunities – a process now universally adopted and formalised in such guidance as Conservation Management Plans and Historic Building Appraisals. Having applied this approach to individual buildings, the practice soon started to use it in relation to historic towns, notably in the Chester Report of 1968.
Donald Insall Associates has enjoyed steady, sustainable growth, its structure changing to reflect this expansion and to ensure continuity. The practice has expanded gradually across the country – with offices opening in Canterbury and Shrewsbury (1991); Cambridge (1995); Bath (1997); Chester (1998); Conwy (2007); and Belfast (2009). Donald Insall was knighted in 2010 for services to conservation architecture, and continues to be actively involved in the practice as a consultant.
The practice was incorporated as a limited company in 1981, and a Board of Directors appointed in 1991 (currently chaired by Tony Barton), when an Employee Benefit Trust (EBT) was also set up. The purpose of the EBT is to maintain, through its shareholding, a controlling interest in the ownership of the practice on behalf of all the employees. In this way the EBT provides both security and the framework for continuity and succession in our work and organisation. The EBT currently owns 78% of the company’s shares.
Throughout its 50 years the practice has carried out pioneering work within its field, including new buildings for sensitive sites as well as the care, conservation and adaptation of old buildings. It now employs more than 40 architects and as many technical and administrative support staff. It continues to face new challenges and is now addressing issues such as climate change, sustainability and energy conservation, whilst embracing contemporary requirements for accessibility, health and safety, and flexibility. At the core of our work, however, remains a deep concern to honour and enhance the buildings and environments whose futures are entrusted to us.