Putting historic buildings to use

David HumphreysWe speak to the author of a recent CABE Webinar Wednesday presentation, David Humphreys, about how historic buildings can play a valuable role in the modern built environment.

When you ask David Humphreys about some of the differences between historic and modern buildings, the analogy he uses seems perfectly apposite.

“Let me put it to you like this. If you were a craftsman – I tend to use blacksmithing in this example because I’ve trained in blacksmithing myself – you have a piece of iron, you have the fire, and you have your hammer. You’re trying to convert something that was essentially just a piece of iron ore, and it’s eventually going to be turned into something that is quite beautiful, maybe a buckle on a belt or something,” David says.

“If you get a craftsman who is really passionate about what they do, it’s so interesting to watch them because there is such concentration and attention in terms of how they are striking that piece of iron with their hammer. There is all this play between the natural forces and the human being, and the craftsman has the opportunity to put his heart and soul into what he is creating.

“Historic buildings were built like that. However, generally speaking, modern buildings don’t provide us with the same opportunity.”

Sustainable history

As a Chartered Building Surveyor, Chartered Building Engineer, Chartered Environmentalist,  and Chartered Project Manager, David’s appreciation of modern construction is well informed. However, after spending eight years with English Heritage, his passion for historic buildings was set in stone. In 2000, David set up his company, ACP Architectural Conservation Professionals, which is now one of the world’s leading authorities when it comes to preserving historic buildings and incorporating them into the modern landscape.

“My real love is working with old buildings, and especially working with the people who work on old buildings. It is so interesting – they have so much life experience,” says David.

“Historic buildings can teach us a hell of a lot about ourselves and how we lived. They can teach us about the various different crafts and techniques that we have used over the years. And especially relevant today, they can teach us about the word ‘sustainability’.

“These old buildings were generally built out of natural materials that were locally sourced and, in many cases, built using local skills that had been passed down from generation to generation. They are very, very resilient when they are looked after with a bit of maintenance. Even simple buildings made out of cob – clay – have been around for hundreds of years and are still being used. Modern timber-framed buildings, will they still be around in even 40 years’ time? I don’t know.”

Renovation and incorporation

For all their many positive qualities, old buildings are just that – old. That means they can suffer from derelict conditions and structural issues. David’s recent CABE webinar looked at these factors specifically and outlined some of the criteria that building engineers needs to take into account when incorporating historic buildings into their construction plans.

In particular, David used the case study of a medieval building on the site of Galway Castle that was restored and renovated to become a breath-taking retail premises for the Aran Sweater Market. In this instance, the existing building was little more than the external walls.

“A building engineer with little or no experience of historic masonry walls can’t always assess  the structural capacity of historic walls because there are so many variables, such as: how was the wall constructed; are there cross/tie stones; what’s the quality of the mortar that was used; is the mortar still in there between the stones. So it’s down to experience and being knowledgeable about old buildings and really having a professional look at it,” David says.

“There are guidelines that we use in terms of what we’d expect a 600mm masonry wall to be able to carry, but in most cases, we would work on the basis that – particularly where you have medieval walls that have been exposed to the weather for years and years – the wall is capable with some remediation work of keeping itself up nice and happily, but I wouldn’t want to put the additional burden on it to carry what a modern premises needs.

“With the Aran Sweater Market, I designed a concrete structure within the walls that was able to carry all of the modern requirements, as well as stairs, underfloor heating, and was then able to carry the roof. So the external existing walls only had to carry their own load and we tied them into the new interior concrete framework, while allowing for a bit of movement because the concrete expands and contracts at a different coefficient.”

Health and wellbeing

Finally, it’s not just in terms of sustainability and longevity that historic buildings can demonstrate an innate suitability for modern building aims. When it comes to the lived experience they provide, they can offer something special, too.

“An area that I’m particularly interested in is how historic buildings contribute to the idea of healthy buildings. Most historic buildings, if they are working right, are extremely healthy buildings – they’ll have an open fire, they’ll have windows you can open to let the air in and out, they’re cool in summer and warm in the winter because they have thick walls, and so on. If the electricity or gas goes off, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference,” David says.

“In contrast, find yourself inside a modern building that is sealed up, every piece of air that is coming in is filtered, there’s air exchange and heat exchange, but you can’t open a window, there’s no place to light a fire, and the place is full of Wi-Fi and electronic stuff that, in my view, doesn’t help with people’s health.

“So while we’ve all heard of the concept of sick building syndrome, you just don’t get sick building syndrome with old buildings.”

Watch David’s webinar in full – including more about the fascinating case study involving the derelict medieval building that has been turned into a bustling Aran Sweater Market retail premises – below.

Image credit: iStock



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