Finding Skilled Craftspeople

Jonathan Taylor


  A classical sculpture is winched from its plinth for conservation  
  Skillingtons conservators Simon Ebbs and Simon Nadin restoring the ‘Wrestlers Herculeus and Anteus’ sculpture at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire for the National Trust: both conservators hold CSCS heritage skills cards. (Photo: Paul Wooles, Skillington Workshop Ltd, by kind permission of the National Trust)  

Research published in 2013 by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), English Heritage and Historic Scotland found that most work on traditional (pre-1919) buildings in England and Scotland is undertaken by non-specialist contractors.

However, the construction techniques and materials used a hundred years ago are very different from those used to construct buildings today. Using modern technology to repair them may not only change their character and appearance, but it can also be highly damaging.

For example, it is well known that the mortars used to build masonry walls were far less rigid and more permeable than the cement mortars used today. Even the early cements used were weaker than modern Portland cement. Nevertheless, it is still common to find untrained builders pointing historic masonry with hard cement. The result is that the surface of the wall is liable to decay.

The results of inappropriate repairs may not always be obvious, particularly to the untrained eye. Some problems are cumulative, such as the use of inappropriate or overly aggressive cleaning methods, resulting in a small loss of the original surface each time it’s cleaned.

This is particularly obvious on old silverware, where the indentations of the original hall mark are lost due to repeated polishing. It is less obvious when ironwork is shot blasted and then over-painted. However, all materials found in historic buildings are vulnerable to over-cleaning or repeated cleaning.

Knowledge of the effects of the processes we use in the conservation and repair of old buildings is constantly advancing, and it is important that those responsible for their conservation remain abreast of current developments. In the best conservation work, decisions are made by the conservation team as a whole, including the contractors and craftspeople involved, together with the architect and the owner or client. The skill and knowledge of a specialist craftsperson or contractor can be invaluable in formulating the best solutions, both in the planning stages and as work progresses.

It is thus essential to have the right skills for every conservation project. But how do you find them? And how do you distinguish the craftsperson from the cowboy?


Contractors and conservators listed in the directory are specialists in the fields described in their entries. Many of the companies listed employ registered or accredited craftspeople, but entries are not exclusive to companies employing these people. This is because, on the one hand, some highly skilled and experienced craftspeople have no formal qualifications, while on the other, a qualified and accredited craftsperson may be perfect for one job but not for another.

Whatever source one uses to find the right person for the job, it is important to understand the particular requirements of the work proposed, and the capabilities of the individual carrying out the work. If there is any doubt about the match, owners of historic buildings should employ a conservation professional (a specialist architect or surveyor, or a heritage consultant) with the expertise required to supervise and co-ordinate the work. The directory is designed to provide a reliable resource for finding both specialist contractors and consultants with experience in conservation.


Although architects, surveyors and engineers may be accredited in conservation, there is no general accreditation system for contractors and craftspeople, and only a few of the craft disciplines offer specific relevant accreditation.

The Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) was established in 1995 to provide a certificate of competence for the construction industry. Backed by a health and safety knowledge test, CSCS cards are currently available for 21 ‘Heritage Skills’ and hundreds of other construction skills. The scheme provides employers and their clients assurance that the contractor’s workforce is up to speed on health and safety issues, and that their craftspeople have achieved sufficient competence in their specialist field. The system is based on the NVQ level achieved by the craftsperson and satisfactory completion of the CITB Health, Safety and Environment Test.

To hold a CSCS heritage skills card, the craftsperson must be trained to advanced craft level, holding an NVQ Level 3 or its equivalent. This card is gold coloured (see table below).

The heritage craft skills covered by the system include a broad range of masonry skills (brick and stone), earth walling, roofing (lead, hard metal, slate, tile and thatch), carpentry and joinery, plasterwork (fibrous and solid), painting and decorating, finishes and tiling (floors and walls).

There are also CSCS skills cards (although not ‘heritage’ skills cards) for heavy timber frame carpentry, conservation technicians, conservation site supervisors and conservators.


The CSCS Cards

All CSCS cards show that the holder has passed the health and safety test. Card colours relate to skill type and level.


NVQ/SVQ or equivalent




Regular and occasional site visitors who are not in a ‘construction related occupation’ (CRO) – this basic card shows only that the holder is up to speed on health and safety, and is suitable for all conservators and professionals



Conservators, craftspeople and others skilled in a CRO that does not have a related NVQ; members of approved professional bodies; and academically qualified people (see for approved degrees, HNDs etc)


Level 1

Construction site operatives (eg labourers) with either NVQ/SVQ level 1 or ‘industry accreditation’


(Level 2)

Site operatives registered on a relevant NVQ/SVQ course who have not yet achieved level 2


Level 2

‘Skilled workers’ with either NVQ/SVQ level 2 or the equivalent City & Guilds; where a full NVQ/SVQ route does not exist, ‘trade specific units’ may satisfy requirements for a ‘craft unit level’ blue card


Level 3

Craftspeople, technicians and supervisors with either NVQ/SVQ level 3 or a City & Guilds advanced craft certificate; conservators registered on the Conservation Register (Icon) NOTE Gold cards include CSCS heritage skills card


Levels 4 or 5
(or QCF level 6 or 7)

Managers and senior managers (QCF – ‘qualification and credit framework’ – level 6 includes BTEC advanced professional diplomas, certificates and awards, bachelor degrees, graduate certificates and diplomas)


Not all the craft skills required for the conservation of historic buildings are covered by the heritage skills card. In particular, wrought ironwork, cast iron and other metal conservation skills currently fall under the umbrella of construction-related occupations (CROs). However, The National Heritage Ironwork Group is working towards establishing an NVQ level 3 in heritage blacksmithing so that conservators can qualify for the CSCS heritage skills card.

Other omissions include glazing related work, such as stained glass and leaded light conservators, metal sculptors and timber carvers (although stone carving is included).

CSCS heritage skills cards are valid for five years and are renewable upon application provided the health, safety and environment test is retaken and passed. Specific craft skills and competencies are not checked on renewal, and there is no requirement for continuing professional development.

Most larger conservation contractors require their craftspeople to carry CSCS cards, and there is a growing demand from central and local government departments for the contractors working on their buildings to employ a fully carded workforce. English Heritage, for example, through its standard preliminaries requires all contractors working on its 400 plus sites to be registered with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and their operatives are required to carry CSCS cards appropriate to their skills. In addition, under a new pilot scheme all specialist lead workers are required to hold the CSCS heritage skills card. This requirement is being showcased on the project to repair the lead sheet roofs and gutters at Audley End, Essex. English Heritage is looking to expand this scheme to encompass other trades, such as carpentry, stone masonry and roofing as the take up of the heritage skills card increases.


Although approximately 20 per cent of the UK’s building stock is traditionally constructed and over 100 years old, the National Federation of Roofing Contractors is the only trade body in the construction industry to have established an accreditation system for the skills required. A more general system of accreditation is offered by the Institute of Conservation (Icon) for a wide range of specialist conservators through the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers scheme (PACR).

Both accrediting bodies provide registers of companies employing accredited people, but it is important to recognise that only individuals can be accredited, not their employers.


NFRC provides accreditation for roofing contractors in the use and detailing of the various types of roofing slate, tile and leadwork used traditionally. Roofers are accredited in specific specialist fields (Collyweston limestone slate roofing, or ornamental leadwork for example) based on their level of qualification, a portfolio of evidence of their work and on-site assessment. Accreditation is renewed every two years and is at three levels:

  • heritage roof masters offering both quality workmanship and design advice
  • heritage craft roofers offering quality workmanship
  • heritage craft roof operatives able to carry out work as specified

Details of firms employing accredited roofers can be found online on the National Heritage Roofing Contractors’ Register (see further information). The register is maintained by the NFRC and is endorsed by English Heritage, Cadw, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Historic Scotland, The National Heritage Training Group, and ConstructionSkills.


Icon’s membership includes a broad spectrum of conservation specialists from conservators of artefacts and museum collections to conservators of historic architectural fabric. They include, for example, conservators of stained glass and leaded lights, sculpture, furniture, paintings and textiles.

The institute maintains an online database, the Conservation Register, to provide details of specialist conservator-restorers who have been accredited by either Icon or certain other specialist bodies such as British Antique Furniture Restorers’ Association (BAFRA) and the British Horological Institute (BHI). Icon and BHI members are accredited under the Professional Accreditation of Conservator-Restorers system and are entitled to use the initials PACR after their name.

The accreditation means that the conservator-restorer has worked for a minimum number of years after completion of their training and that he or she is subject to ongoing requirements such as continuing professional development (CPD) and adherence to professional guidelines and codes of ethics. Only the most skilled conservators will ever be able to achieve full accreditation, and the number of specialist conservators working in the historic environment who are accredited under this scheme remains small. Nevertheless, there is considerable potential for more building conservators to gain PACR accreditation.


Although there is clearly room in the building industry for more accreditation schemes like the National Heritage Roofing Contractors’ Register, the needs of the industry have to some extent been satisfied by the establishment of the CSCS heritage skills card, by those accreditation schemes that already exist, and by the accessibility afforded by the annual distribution of The Building Conservation Directory to 10,000 specifiers, and by its website However, for skilled craftspeople to predominate in the repair of traditional and historic buildings, greater awareness is needed of the importance of using skilled craftspeople, and skill levels must be nurtured by the industry. In particular, the value to employers of having a fully carded workforce needs to be better understood, and more specialist craftspeople need to aim for full accreditation.

The system may not yet be perfect but finding craftsmanship is relatively simple, if you know where to look, and there is beauty in simplicity.


Further Information

The Conservation Register:

The Construction Industry Training Board:

Construction Skills Certification Scheme:

National Heritage Training Group:

National Heritage Roofing Contractors’ Register:

Details of Northern Ireland’s Construction Skills Register are available on the website of the Construction Employers Federation of Northern Ireland:

Skills Needs Analysis 2013: Repair, Maintenance and Energy Efficiency Retrofit of Traditional (pre-1919) Buildings in England and Scotland, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and Construction Industry Training Board 2013


The Building Conservation Directory, 2014


JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.

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