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After the destructive fire in Paris, Paul Groves looks at how we preserve historic buildings

The devastating fire that swept through Notre Dame in Paris captured the world’s attention.

As one of the truly iconic buildings, there has been plenty of coverage about the causes of the fire, the destruction it caused and the attempts to rebuild this landmark site.

For those of us involved in building and construction the fire also served to highlight two long-standing and significant questions: how do we preserve and transform historic buildings for a modern world; and do we still possess the necessary skills and expertise to recreate sites like Notre Dame?

Although both these questions have been met with fairly negative responses since the Paris fire, the answers are actually a lot more positive.

What could be simpler? All it needs is Parliament to come together and agree a plan of action to move the programme forward

Paul Groves Paul Groves Editor of Specification

Preserve and modernise

There has to be a positive response, as recent surveys by Historic England show an increasing awareness of both the need to preserve our built heritage but also to bring them up to modern standards for residential, commercial and leisure use.

A report published by Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, has revealed that businesses, big and small, are choosing to trade from listed buildings.

Research carried out for Heritage Counts in 50 cities and town centres in England shows that the number of listed buildings occupied by a business has increased by 18% since 2012, from 10,465 to 12,353.

When applied to all towns and cities, estimates suggest that there are now approximately 142,000 businesses operating in listed buildings across England.

According to the report, the value and comparative advantage of historic buildings arises from the ‘cache’ of these often unique places that are full of character. They can also offer businesses and brands something different, and are an alternative to average corporate office buildings, for example, generous floor to ceiling heights are often attractive and allow for mezzanine insertion.

Don’t ruin the character

But how do we preserve and modernise such buildings without ruining the character and historic features that attract us in the first place? The heritage sector is looking healthy, contrary to some reports.

The National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) was recently awarded a grant from the B&CE Charitable Trust. The grant will be used to run a series of built heritage training courses, which will see around 86 delegates learn about historic buildings and the skills needed to maintain them.

The course is accredited by CITB (Construction Industry Training Board) and those who attend will receive two mandatory units towards their Level 3 NVQ in Heritage skills.

Bob Howard MBE, Chair of the NHTG says: "The NHTG is always looking at ways of getting young people interested in a career within built heritage and we’re hoping this project will help to point trainees into that direction."

Conservation skills

In March this year, Historic England launched new apprenticeships to meet the demand for skilled professionals around the country. The new heritage apprenticeships will be available to training providers and employers this year. They are designed to train an increasingly diverse new generation of skilled professionals to care for, conserve and manage the country’s heritage and historic environment.

Historic Environment Trailblazer, a group of 70+ heritage sector organisations chaired by Historic England, has developed the apprenticeships. It includes employers from the commercial and public sector, professional bodies and training providers.

“We need to attract fresh talent to meet the very real demand out there from both commercial and public sector employers,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive at Historic England.

“These apprenticeship schemes are a huge step forward in terms of the sector’s ability to recruit and train a diverse new generation of professionals.”

Digital tools

This commitment to skills and training is vital. But so is the advent of digital construction tools. The rebuilding of Notre Dame is the perfect opportunity to utilise the Virtual Reality and Artificial Reality tools that are becoming more commonplace in construction.

With such systems, along with other digital tools such as BIM, those involved in renovating, updating and preserving historic buildings are able to accurately map the sites and create plans that will lead to a sympathetic restoration.

It is a marriage of 21st technology and historic building and construction skills that offers greater hope for the future of these important landmarks.

Parliament is leaking

And it is also the solution to the massive task of preserving one of our own iconic sites – the Houses of Parliament. The recent roof leak that disrupted Brexit debates in the House of Commons was an indication of the scale of the problems facing the estate, which mostly dates from the 19th Century.

There is a full "Restoration and Renewal programme" for the site and it serves to highlight both the scale of the challenge and how new technology and traditional skills will combine to provide a solution.

The digital tools will help to tackle problems such as the fact that steam, gas and water services have, over the years, been built on top of each other and next to high voltage electricity wires.

They will also help planners meet the challenge of improving accessibility and incorporating around 200 miles of communication and broadcasting cables across the estate, providing clear blueprints and designs for the skilled contractors to tackle the project and ensure the historic buildings are fit for purpose in a modern world.

Now all that is required is for members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords to come together and agree a plan of action to move the programme forward.

What could be simpler…?

Paul Groves is editor of Specification magazine