Commissioning Someone to Care

Sara Crofts

  Surface consolidation and repairs being carried out by Icon-accredited conservator Peter Martindale ACR to the surface of the spectacular 15th-century Doom painting at St Thomas’s, Salisbury (Photo: Jonathan Baker)

“We are only trustees for those that come after us.” -
William Morris.

Caring for an old building or a precious heirloom is both a privilege and a responsibility. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in an old house or to own a cherished object handed down from a relative or uncovered in the dark recesses of an antique shop, will almost certainly want to look after these treasures as well as possible.

While there is a desire to retain their financial and personal value and to be able to enjoy them, there might also be the sense that we are their guardians, charged with temporary custodianship of objects that ought to be passed on to future generations.

So, when it comes to commissioning conservation work, be it maintenance or repairs, conscientious owners will aim to find the most appropriate professionals and craftspeople to help them to look after their properties and their contents. So why do things go wrong? How is it possible that clients sometimes end up with a ‘botched’ job?

Sadly, things do go wrong much more frequently than they should, and the evidence is all around us. A stroll through any historic town or village will highlight examples of badly pointed brickwork, chemically injected damp-proof courses that do not alleviate dampness, and badly designed plastic windows where once there were elegant timber sliding sashes. And then there are the news stories, the well-meaning but damaging attempt to restore a fresco in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja in 2012 or more recently, the attempted restoration of a 16th-century wooden polychrome sculpture of St George in the Romanesque church of San Miguel de Estella in Navarre by a local arts and crafts teacher. Both stories generated much amusement on social media but general dismay and condemnation from the art and conservation communities.

Having undertaken casework for the SPAB, developed historic environment policy and grants guidance for the Heritage Lottery Fund and now in my role as chief executive of Icon, I’ve seen both exemplary conservation practice and projects that have gone spectacularly wrong. My conclusion is simple: the best way to ensure a successful project outcome is to help clients become good clients. This is especially true for novice clients, those who have not commissioned a conservation or building project before. Being a good client isn’t easy: it requires a combination of skills and some technical knowledge too. With that in mind this article offers a few ideas on how new clients can improve the odds that they will achieve a happy result by considering a series of key questions before they start.

Types of Professional Help Available

There is a wide range of professionals working in the cultural heritage sector and it isn't always easy to identify the type of specialist required. Commissioning someone to repair a single object is the most straightforward case. If your Victorian family portrait looks dull and grimy, a paintings conservator is probably needed, and if your grandmother’s wedding dress has been attacked by moths, a textile conservator may be able to help.

Components of a building which involve a single trade can be equally straightforward, such as rethatching a roof or repairing a timber window, but properties often have multiple repair issues and the causes of deterioration are not always obvious. Under these circumstances it may be wise to employ an architect or a building surveyor to help diagnose the problem and to propose a suitable solution.

Dealing with dampness is a typical example where expert help is needed. The tell-tale signs of damp such as stains on the walls or a musty smell may be obvious, but working out the source of the excess moisture can be complicated and may require careful investigation by independent professionals who specialise in historic building defects. (A free survey offered by a contractor is not independent, and often results in unnecessary work.)

It's worth noting that there is considerable overlap in the skill sets of architects and building surveyors. Both are able to advise on conservation and repair projects but, if there is an element of design required, you might prefer to commission an architect as their training places greater emphasis on design skills. Where the solution requires the coordination of several craftspeople or conservators then your architect or building surveyor will have the skills to schedule the work to ensure a successful result.

Preparing the Brief

Good projects start with good project briefs. To commission a heritage professional, you need to explain your problem and your needs clearly, accurately, and fully. The more information you can provide to your potential advisor the better. Also, it is important to consider carefully whether the project expectations are realistic in terms of the time, budget and other resources which are available. This might be a good moment to indulge in watching a few episodes of Grand Designs – a quick way to learn from the mistakes made by others. The brief should explain not only what you want to do but also what you are hoping to achieve with the project. What is your ideal end result? Investing time in writing a clear and comprehensive brief is a worthwhile investment, as a poorly defined brief can cause problems further down the line when it becomes clear that the client and the professional have a different understanding about the ‘agreed’ course of action.

Finding the Right Heritage Professionals

Even for readers of The Building Conservation Directory, finding the right professional or craftsperson may seem like a daunting challenge as there are so many different disciplines in the heritage sector, and carrying out research to establish a viable shortlist is essential. Happily, there are some easy ways to narrow the potential field.

The first step is to assemble a list of specialists in the chosen field. Building conservation is not necessarily a core element of training programmes for architects or surveyors, and generally good practitioners will have chosen to undertake further training to gain the knowledge needed to deal with historic buildings. In recognition of this, most of the heritage professions (architecture, engineering, surveying, archaeology and object conservation) maintain registers of members who have been able to demonstrate that they have expertise in their specialist field.

In order to achieve accredited status, conservation professionals must prove that they have an in-depth knowledge of conservation techniques and practices, a high degree of professional competence, sound judgement and a deep understanding of the principles which underpin their practice. By undertaking the accreditation process, they are obliged to demonstrate they are proficient and professional and that they are committed to maintaining their expertise through ongoing professional development (CPD). Only individuals are accredited, not their practices, although the larger conservation businesses may employ heritage professionals accredited in a range of conservation disciplines.

The second step is to match the skills which the long list of heritage professionals hold against the needs of the project. Although there are some ‘generalists’, many professionals work in a defined specialism or have particular experience in a certain type of project. Within object conservation there are many specialisms such as stained glass, paintings, paper or furniture. And then there are sub-specialists. For example, a paper conservator might concentre on vellum manuscripts or perhaps on printed images. When it comes to buildings, architects and building surveyors will have varying experience of working with different building materials, because many are locally distinctive. Think of the flintwork of East Anglia for example, or the use of heather thatch in the Scottish Highlands.

Within the heritage sector there are also a variety of specialist consultants who are able to assess and advise on specific issues, from the structural integrity of plaster ceilings to the decorative history of buildings revealed through their many layers of paint. All such professionals must have the necessary training, skills and experience to carry out these specific and highly specialist projects successfully.

Finally, it is important to engage with those professionals or craftspeople shortlisted to find out more about them and their approach. Do they understand the client and are they a good fit in terms of personality and ways of working? Taking up references and looking at past projects is an essential part of this last stage of the process. Does the client like the work that they have completed for other people? Are they able to supply reassuring recommendations from past clients?

Adapting to the Budget

Money is often a sensitive issue, and it is always better to be honest about the budget from the outset. However, do bear in mind that conservation projects can be a slow process and that craftsmanship cannot be rushed. Time is the key factor and there are rarely any shortcuts. If someone offers to carry out the work at half the cost of another, then the risk is that the result will only be half as good.

Where cost is a genuine constraint, consider reducing the scope of the project, or consider phasing the works to tackle the most pressing issues first. And make sure the budget contains a contingency sum, just in case something unexpected happens. Dealing with historic objects and buildings is rarely straightforward and even seasoned professionals cannot predict every eventuality. There may not be skeletons in the closet but there could be mummified cats under the floorboards or, more problematically, building foundations which prove less robust than anticipated.

“There is hardly anything in this world that some men cannot sell a little cheaper and make a little worse. Those who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.” John Ruskin 1865


Timing is often a critical factor in building conservation projects. Certain types of work, such as repointing in lime mortar, should not be carried out in the winter when the cold weather risks potential material failure. Alternatively, plans may have to fit around the annual lifecycle of bats, a protected species, if you are lucky enough to have a colony living in your house (or belfry). It is also fair to say that competent heritage professionals, conservators and craftspeople are often in high demand and may be committed to projects months in advance.

Once the brief is established, someone appointed and a budget set, make sure to obtain written confirmation of everything that has been agreed. Appointment letters and contracts may not make exciting reading, but they are a safety net in the, hopefully unlikely, event that something goes wrong. The terms and conditions need to be read carefully and the agreed processes followed. Every decision that you are asked to make as a client should be clearly articulated and carefully documented. Making changes in the middle of the project will add to the cost if any additional work by the professional advisor or craftsperson is required. Communications skills are vital.

Although it is always best for heritage professionals to share information with their clients in plain English rather than specialist profession al language, effective communication is often hampered by the occasionally unavoidable technical jargon of the conservation and building professions. No one expects clients to become fluent in the more complicated terminology but undertaking some background reading at the outset to get a broad grasp of the concepts is always helpful. And one final piece of advice which applies to all the stages of a project: if, in doubt, ask.

Further Information


The Building Conservation Directory, 2021


Sara Crofts, trained as an architect and after gaining specialised historic building conservation experience she moved into the voluntary sector taking on roles at the SPAB and the Heritage Lottery Fund. She is currently Chief Executive of Icon, the Institute of Conservation (

Further information


To Restore or Not to Restore

Buildings At Risk

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