The Building Conservation Directory 2021

152 T H E B U I L D I N G C O N S E R VAT I O N D I R E C T O R Y 2 0 2 1 C AT H E D R A L C O MM U N I C AT I O N S COMMISSIONING SOMEONE TO CARE SARA CROFTS “We are only trustees for those that come after us.” William Morris C ARING 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 The ‘restoration’ of a 16th-century wooden polychrome sculpture of St George in the church of San Miguel de Estella, Navarre which was propelled to worldwide notoriety on Twitter