Maintenance of Heritage buildings: planning for forever
Facilities management of Heritage buildings can be daunting. We talk to experts in the field about the challenges and processes involved, and how effective, future-focused maintenance can be achieved.
The maintenance of Heritage buildings is the key to longevity, Paul Rappoport, director of Rappoport Heritage Consultants, stresses straightaway. “Poorly maintained buildings fall quickly into disrepair and abandoned Heritage buildings suffer the indignity of vandalism, squatting and the usual train of destruction, most often resulting in fires and the loss of fabric,” he warns. He emphasises that, with Heritage buildings, lost original fabric can never be replaced, explaining that there are ways of inserting look-alike elements, but they remain non-original. On the other hand, well-maintained Heritage buildings retain their originality and Heritage significance for long periods, says Rappoport.
Paul Connett, principal engineer of diagnostic and remedial at Hyder Consulting, agrees, stating that many of Australia’s Heritage buildings are constructed of good quality, durable materials, which have withstood the test of time.
He notes that their architectural detailing – until the mid- 20th century – has assisted with this, with large projecting cornices and string courses protecting the façades below, and that, correctly maintained, these architectural features will continue their protective role.
However, Heritage maintenance is not cheap and the trades associated with skilful maintenance have become extremely rare, Rappoport notes. “Rarity of skill always means higher prices and, therefore, it is important for facilities managers whose role it is to maintain and care for Heritage buildings and places to plan ahead.”
Long-term view vital
According to David West, executive director of International Conservation Services, in most ways, best practice management of Heritage buildings differs only slightly from that which is relevant for all buildings. He says that the primary differences are: (1) the additional layer of statutory compliance arising from the listing of Heritage buildings on federal, state or local registers of Heritage places; and (2) the need to engage specialist trades to undertake maintenance work on significant elements of the Heritage building.
In his opinion, however, the biggest challenge for the facilities management sector is to step outside the prevailing financial management model for property assets, and consider the maintenance and management needs for Heritage buildings in a very long-term sense. “For after all, if a building is designated as Heritage, then it is because our society, our community, has recognised the importance of retaining the building for the future. And potentially, this means forever. Not the next five to 10 years; not for 25 years, but potentially for centuries or longer.”
And so where a financially pragmatic property management decision might typically be to allow a particular element of a building to deteriorate or run down to the point where it needs to be replaced (and to postpone maintenance until that point is reached), this is often not appropriate or feasible in the case of a Heritage building, notes West.
“Because replacement of the deteriorating element may not be possible, or because the trade skills to carry out the particular work are not readily available in the town, city or state where the building is located, or simply because the Heritage significance of the particular building element is so great that allowing it to deteriorate is unacceptable to the relevant authority (local, state or federal).”
He adds that this doesn’t necessarily mean that maintaining a Heritage building needs to be more expensive than a similarly sized new building, merely that decision- making needs to be carried out with regard to a much longer time-frame. For example, in New South Wales, legislation requires that strata plans prepare a 100-year sinking fund forecast for capital works to the building.
“A sensible approach to such an exercise for a Heritage building would be based on at least a 50-year forecast, and if the building has a slate roof or other elements with a known deterioration life cycle in the order of 50 to 100 years, then a 100-year forecast may be more appropriate. Taking such a long-term perspective allows the building manager to understand likely future costs, and to plan maintenance campaigns to either prolong the life of deteriorating element(s), or to bring forward works to take advantage of access (and thus reduce the overall costs of carrying out maintenance work).” He provides an example of the latter: the building owner who, faced with spending $300,000 in access costs to carry out $50,000 of essential works to the spalling sandstone window sills of a Heritage-listed building, chose
to spend an additional $200,000 repointing the sandstone cladding and replacing a small number of slightly deteriorated sandstone cladding panels because it was likely that these would require work within 10 to 20 years.
Connett explains that Heritage buildings are protected by statute, by local councils, state governments or nationally, and that most authorities require a planning approval process before permitting works to Heritage items. “Sometimes exemption can be sought for minor works, but this should always be agreed with the relevant authority beforehand. For works that remove original fabric from Heritage buildings, or add materials such as lead protection to cornices, a more rigorous planning process may be required.”
According to West, the requirements embodied in these statutory instruments have progressively moved toward the conservation of the Heritage significance of the place, not just the historic fabric. “In essence, this means that it is not enough to just conserve the materials comprising the building, but there must be an understanding of why the building is of Heritage significance, and decisions about management and maintenance of the Heritage building must minimise any negative impact on this significance.”
Connett notes that in Australia, the overarching policy for conservation of Heritage places and buildings is the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter 2013, which is a relatively short, easily read, document of just 10 pages and can be downloaded at australia.icomos.org/publications/charters. A series of practice notes are also downloadable here.
“The Burra Charter advocates a cautious approach to change: do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it useable, but otherwise change it as little as possible, so that cultural significance is retained,” says Connett. “This approach can also make sound economic sense for building owners, for ongoing management of their asset.”
The charter should be on the reference list of all facility managers responsible for Heritage buildings, West adds, adding that an appreciation of it makes communication with Heritage authorities and consultants much more productive.
Where to start
According to West, the preparation of a conservation management plan (CMP) for a Heritage building, in accordance with the Burra Charter and relevant statutory instruments, will clarify the particular opportunities, requirements and constraints associated with managing and maintaining a Heritage building.
Rappoport agrees, stating that the starting point should be a CMP. “CMPs comprise historical research, physical analysis and comparative analysis of the building. From these, a Statement of Cultural Heritage Significance is drawn up. Effectively, the statement summarises the key aspects of the building’s significance,” he explains.
“Next, conservation policies that spell out what in the building has high significance, moderate significance and little significance are drawn up. Through the filter of Constraints and Opportunities, the policies set out the future management strategy for the building and, often, a maintenance plan is attached to that.”
He warns, however, that such documents are time- consuming and can cost between $12,000 and $50,000. According to Rappoport, simpler documents can achieve similar results and usually cost between $5000 and $7000.
“A Schedule of Conservation Works (SCW) effectively analyses the condition, significance and conservation actions for each of the building elements – such as the roof, ceilings, floors, walls, architraves and skirting, windows and doors, cladding and landscaping – after careful on-site inspection by trained personnel. The SCW is set out in table form and tells the facilities manager which items are important and which are less important through a grading system that ranges from ‘exceptional’ to ‘intrusive’.
“In between those two extremes, the fabric may be deemed of ‘high significance’, ‘moderate significance’ or ‘little significance’ and suitable conservation actions are specified for each element. The SCW usually has information about maintenance of the elements and will show how often each element will need to be inspected; i.e. under what maintenance cycle regime.” Rappoport stresses that, without this initial study, future management will be vague, disjointed and potentially intrusive.
West says that what should follow from the preparation of a CMP, but often doesn’t, is the preparation of a maintenance plan and schedule, and the implementation of this plan. “Why doesn’t this happen? Often it is because Heritage buildings get ‘conserved’ as part of a redevelopment or refurbishment, and this is seen as an ‘endpoint’ rather than a stepping stone for ongoing management.
“Conservation of Heritage buildings is a long-term commitment, and needs a long-term strategy (minimum 30 to 50 years) populated with shorter-term actions and tasks. A maintenance plan with a long-term schedule allows the facilities manager to balance short-term imperatives with longer-term benefits, and provides the basis for a reasoned assessment of priorities for maintenance expenditure.
“Heritage buildings is are typically old. And, as such, the building elements will be in varying condition at all times. It is not feasible, nor is it desirable from a Heritage perspective, for everything to be in an ‘as-new’ condition.”
The other aspect to be aware of, Rappoport adds, is the intensity of government scrutiny in the process. “Heritage buildings are considered highly particular building types by councils and the state government when it comes to approvals and modifications. These government bodies expect high levels of documentation to show that managers understand the fabric and have considered wisely what changes need to be made. There are tried and tested methods when it comes to modifying Heritage buildings, but there are also quick-fix approaches. The latter need to be avoided because they end up costing more.”
Thorough research required
Often, deterioration of Heritage buildings is self-inflicted by owners or their contractors, through the use of incorrect repair materials or cleaning techniques, Connett notes. “Good examples from the past are hard cement-based mortars or mastic repointing materials, which can cause original stone or brick façades to deteriorate rapidly; or high pressure or chemical cleaning, which leave permanent damage. These leave the owner with much more expensive repairs to do.”
For this reason, he recommends seeking advice from an appropriately qualified and experienced Heritage professional or builder before starting maintenance works. Rappoport also says it’s important to obtain specialist advice from trained conservation architects who understand fabric and can specify the correct cleaning or repair methods at the outset.
“Some very costly mistakes have been made in the past,” he says. “The classic one that emerges from my 30 years of experience as a conservation architect is the cleaning of Central Station in the 1960s when an acid solvent was applied to the sandstone on the northern façade. The acid leached out all the characteristic yellow block sandstone colour and permanently turned the building into a ghastly grey edifice. This calamity can never be reversed.”
He adds that the Burra Charter strongly encourages research before taking any action. “Conservation is considered to be both a high art and a rare science, and old, fragile buildings need to be treated with care and respect. Yes, conservation is costly and this is another reason why planning intelligently is central to the whole process; i.e. in order to avoid abortive work,” says Rappoport.
Know the deterioration modes
According to West, another consideration that will assist facilities managers of Heritage buildings is ensuring that the condition and mode(s) of deterioration of major building elements are known and understood.
Connett notes an understanding of the mechanisms of deterioration will be informed by an understanding of the form of construction – whether the building has a steel frame, for example – and the quality and nature of the materials from which it is constructed. He explains that this will assist in making cost-efficient decisions about the conservation of materials in Heritage buildings.
Record drawings and photographs of the building under construction can greatly assist with this, according to Connett. “If the owner has no records of the building’s construction, some councils hold extensive archives of drawings and photographs. Another good online source of photographs is trove.nla.gov.au, which links national and state library records. It is most important to understand the mechanisms of deterioration before embarking on sometimes costly solutions.”
West says that, preferably, the condition and mode(s) of deterioration of major building elements will be documented in a form that is easily accessible to all key stakeholders in the management of the Heritage building. “Too often, short-term decisions are made about deterioration of a component of a Heritage building without an understanding of the longer- term timeframe in which that deterioration has been (and continues) occurring.
“Knowledge of the deterioration modes can often lead to solutions that will minimise short-term maintenance spending and extend the service life of the element until more substantial maintenance (conservation) is appropriate.”
West’s final advice is to conduct regular ‘walk-round’ inspections of the Heritage building, as this will lead to a better understanding of the slow nature of deterioration of the building elements. “This time-based appreciation of the life cycle of the building elements will be an invaluable adjunct to using the CMP, maintenance plan and schedule, and the available maintenance budget in the most efficient and effective way,” he concludes.
The areas to focus on
Targeted annual budgeting and expenditure on items that matter is a more cost-efficient approach, according to Connett. There are a number of items that, in his experience, if regularly inspected and effectively maintained, greatly reduce long-term repair costs: “As with all buildings, a great deal of costly damage can occur in a very short time from poorly maintained items such as roof membranes and flashings, gutters, downpipes, cornices and other weather protection elements, resulting in falling damp damage to the building.
“Similarly, broken drains and in-ground waterproofing or salt-damp issues – and inadequate ventilation – can severely damage footings and cause rising damp damage.”
Forewarned is forearmed
According to Rappoport, the best investment a facilities manager can make when engaging a Heritage building or place is to commission the services of a trained and experienced conservation architect in order to ascertain the condition, significance and future maintenance actions for each element in the building.
“The best results will always be achieved with careful forward planning in mind. As they say, forewarned is forearmed. It is a principle that has guided conservation practice for the better part of 160 years, since the days when the great Englishman, John Ruskin, first started thinking and writing about Heritage conservation in the 1850s,” he says.
When Heritage buildings are expertly managed and maintained, they can prove to be a cost-effective investment for any building owner, Connett concludes.