Review 2020: Conservation and the Climate Emergency

Welcome to our Review of 2020

The 2020 Review is centred upon the theme of sustainability, and what we at Insall are doing to reduce the environmental cost of building conservation. The year 2020 will, however, be chiefly remembered for the impact of Covid-19. The theme was planned before any of us had heard of ‘social distancing’ or the ‘R number’, but it now seems somewhat prescient: our impact on the natural environment has, at least in part, created this novel coronavirus, and our hyper-connected world of vast cities, frequent air travel, and ‘just-in-time’ supply chains has exacerbated its effects. As the pandemic arrived in Europe, one of my children asked me: Is this History? 2020 has certainly been a year that none of us will forget easily or quickly, and it is under the shadow of restrictions and lockdown that the articles in this year’s Review have been written. They reflect our concern as a Practice with our impact on the environment and our ability to reimagine historic buildings for new purposes in a post-pandemic world.

We are already living with the consequences of climate change. As signatories to initiatives such as Architects Declare and Heritage Declares, both of which call for more urgent action on the climate emergency, we take our responsibilities to respond to the crisis seriously. Our work aims to dispel myths about traditional buildings being barriers to sustainability; we show that older buildings can be resilient, flexible and highly energy efficient.

We recently found, researching a site in Wiltshire, a photograph of workers taken outside a factory gate; several of them were wearing face masks. The photo was taken in 1918 and it is likely that they were masked against ‘Spanish Flu’, the deadly influenza pandemic which infected approximately 500 million people globally, and killed anywhere between 17 and 50 million between 1918 and 1920. It made both the image, and the concerns of the lives of people who lived over 100 years ago, seem very modern.
The Oxford office – the newest branch of the Insall family tree – has been asked to guest-edit the Review this year. Helen Warren, part of the Oxford team, considers the city of Birmingham, another of our newer offices, and reflects on the 20 years which have passed since the Blair government’s Urban Task Force’s call to make our urban fabric work harder for us. She examines how acres of Victorian floorspace lie unused and where we are sensitively repairing and re-purposing some of these spaces to the benefit of the city, the environment and the community.

Global tourism is one of the major contributors to emissions and something that has been stopped dead by Covid-19. With many people now holidaying at home, Francis Maude’s article describes our work to attract staycationers to Raby Castle in County Durham. A particular emphasis has been placed on retrofitting environmentally sustainable measures to this wonderful Grade I listed building, whilst always being mindful of what makes Raby significant.

An entirely different set of issues are raised by Vicky Webster of our Manchester team in her thought-provoking piece on the creation of a new solar park at RAF Coltishall, which was recently designated a conservation area. The public benefits of both the conservation area designation and the creation of a large source of renewable energy are both evident, and the ways in which this development impacted on the significance of the site are set out: her article makes it clear that the two can work in harmony.

The Cambridge office illustrates the importance of selecting the right materials in the service of energy and building conservation. Matthew Seaborn explains how the re-opening of a Collyweston slate quarry has enabled the conservation of Bodley’s Court at King’s College in Cambridge. The process of the extraction of local materials to enable the proper conservation of traditional buildings can be fraught: quarrying is an inherently unsustainable activity, as the quarried material is not renewable, and can have negative impacts on the local environment. However, the alternative – using a different material which may have been imported from abroad – merely kicks this particular can down the road, and would have a greater impact on emissions caused by shipping and haulage, as well as on communities who are much less able to defend their rights. This is one of many instances where traditional and local building techniques are, on balance, inherently more sustainable, as well as having clear aesthetic benefits.

Plas Gwyn, Pwllheli

Matt Osmont in Conwy describes two buildings where environmental improvements have been effected, which show very clearly that historic buildings are capable of the upgrades necessary to make them competitive with new buildings in terms of environmental credentials, but which also have more character, resonance, and sense of place. A number of projects are discussed which consider both environmental and community sustainability, and which demonstrate the variety of approaches that can, and have, been taken.

Jeremy Trotter, from our London office, describes the work undertaken at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, the oldest continuing hospital in England with a 900-year pedigree. The site’s unique Grade I listed buildings, designed by James Gibbs, presented particular challenges when considering proposals to upgrade and improve them; but here it is community sustainability, and the community’s ability to continue to access high-quality healthcare in these historic buildings, which is the key lesson.

Facade of the North Block at St Bart's Hospital, where Insall are undertaking a series of repairs and conservation

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

From the Chester office, Chloe Sheward explains the work we have undertaken for the Grosvenor Estate in Cheshire to make the Estate’s portfolio more sustainable, whilst placing the significance of its historic buildings at the heart of its policies for management. This work has begun with the consideration of one traditionally-built house – 7 Church Lane in the village of Aldford – built in 1896, and where we have undertaken a review of the available academic literature to consider the efficacy of interventions into such buildings in terms of improving their energy performance. We will go on to make recommendations and carry out improvements, focussing not on the ‘easy 80%’ but the ‘hard 20%’ of energy efficiency measures. The ability to potentially look more widely at an entire estate of buildings in single ownership is particularly exciting and enabled us to go further than perhaps we could have done if dealing with a number of different owners. The role of larger estates in upgrading fabric and reducing environmental impact, as well as bringing about culture changes in building use and management, should not be underestimated.

It seems that any discussion about energy efficiency in historic buildings eventually alights on the questions of the building’s windows, and gives rise to the myth that historic or traditional windows are a primary stumbling block to thermal efficiency. Lucy Barron in Bath tackles this misconception head-on by explaining that the retention of traditional windows is a key contributor to sustainability. Historic windows can be improved and updated relatively easily; the embodied carbon of traditional windows, often made of high-quality timber, and their ability to be easily repaired and continuously used for hundreds of years, means that they are inherently sustainable. Her illustrations of this point also show practical ways in which windows can be upgraded without waste.

Conservationists often claim, with justification, that conservation is at its heart a sustainable activity, not least because of the embedded carbon within historical structures which also have an inherent cultural and aesthetic value. Those who are more concerned about leaky, draughty old places pumping out heat to the detriment of the planet take the opposite view and seek to create new, highly thermally-efficient buildings. We don’t think that people should have to choose between a characterful home and a warm home, and at Insall we have developed the expertise to rise to the challenges posed by the climate emergency. We hope you enjoy reading about our work.