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Adapt and survive

Matt Thompson

With clients using adaptation to help heritage buildings pay their way, architects are coming into their own, as a recent RIBA round table found out

Ben Greener, Heritage Lottery Fund.
Ben Greener, Heritage Lottery Fund.

The UK’s built heritage bears witness to our political, artistic, industrial and scientific history. In that sense, it is culturally and socially valuable. But it is also big business. In 2013, companies based in listed buildings contributed £47 billion to GDP and produced a ‘heritage premium’ of over £13,000 per occupying business per year compared to the average. Meanwhile, the heritage-based tourism economy added £14 billion to GDP in 2013. As the designers who help to keep these buildings alive, architects are clearly an important part of this success. The latest RIBA for Clients round table meeting asked heritage clients what they look for.

Work on heritage buildings tends to fall into two blurred but useful categories: conservation and repair, and adaptation. Conservation is mostly about preserving the historic built fabric, and is typically constrained by limited funding.  Adaptation on the other hand attracts investment because it allows sensitive redesign and changes of use with modern materials and styles to breathe new life into the building. 

According to the round table panellists, sympathetic adaptation is gaining traction, even in the most traditional circles. Look no further than 2014’s Stirling Prize winner – Astley Castle. It brilliantly rejuvenated a ruin, giving it a new use and a sustainable future for the Landmark Trust. 

At the grander end of the sector, many clients think of themselves as mere custodians, with the buildings as the real client. In stark contrast to other sectors, the needs of the building outweigh those of occupiers, owners or financial stakeholders. John Sell, chairman of the Joint Committee of National Amenity Societies, said, ‘Value comes from giving the building what it needs, not what that particular owner at this moment needs.’ The happy upshot of this is that suitably competent architects are greatly valued. 

At the more humdrum end, however, it’s a different story. According to Judith Cligman, director of strategy and business development at the Heritage Lottery Fund, private owners of, for example, the many thousands of modest grade II listed houses fear that architects might be ‘expensive and inaccessible’. However, Alastair Dick-Cleland, conservation manager at the Landmark Trust, said that thanks to TV shows about sympathetic adaptation ‘people are beginning to see that there are serious risks in not using an architect.’ 

Not surprisingly, the roundtable discussion focused heavily on technical skills. Conservation and, less exclusively, sympathetic adaptation, require a rare understanding of fabric, crafts, culture, history and context. 

However, clients are increasingly turning away from pure conservation to adaptation to ensure the economic sustainability of their buildings.  In this paradigm, deep conservation knowledge can be traded off against creative invention, architects’ stock-in-trade. But there’s a balance to be struck. As Cligman said, ‘An architect who isn’t particularly a conservation architect can do that job – if they’re sensitive.’

  • Sarah Robinson, director of conservation deputy CEO, The Churches Conservation Trust
    Sarah Robinson, director of conservation deputy CEO, The Churches Conservation Trust
  • John Barnes, conservation and learning director, Historic Royal Palaces.
    John Barnes, conservation and learning director, Historic Royal Palaces.
  • John Dyer, director, Savills.
    John Dyer, director, Savills.

The RIBA’s conservation register and the Architects Accredited in Building Conservation scheme provide quality assurance that clients look for but it seems they are not yet widely depended on. Dick-Cleland again: ‘I wouldn’t say we rely on accreditation, but we do want the technology and knowledge that it demonstrates.’ 

Dale Sinclair, director of technical practice at Aecom, predicted that digital innovation will bring profound changes in the next five years. Hugh Feilden of Feilden & Mawson Architects thought that BIM in particular brings significant opportunities: ‘Somebody has to own the model and its design and management, and it tends to be the architect.’

While new technology has its place, clients recognised the value of old-fashioned draughtsmanship. Janet Gough, church care director, Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops’ Council, enthused about it as a way to share ideas, saying: ‘I want you to sketch by hand on these really exciting projects.’

Indeed, drumming up excitement through knowledgeable, passionate leadership is critical. Dick-Cleland wants architects to ‘really fight on our behalf to get the right result for the building’. This is important. Clients face difficult decisions and, according to Gough, they need ‘thoughtful, engaged and exciting architectural input. You need to teach us how to be good clients.’

It seems, though, that some architects fall short of the mark. Sell said, ‘I don’t think all architects are good at explaining the significance of the building in a way that clients understand and get enthused about.’ He identified a misplaced fear of losing the client as inhibiting what he calls ‘productive dialogue’. Jonathan Carey, Insall Architects, sees the same timidity in some clients, however: ‘They don’t understand that criticism can be constructive.’  

Either way, how architects engage with not just their clients but other project team members really matters. Christine Sillis, director of estates at the Girls’ Day School Trust, said, ‘Architects are used to leading but actually we need better team players.’ For Sell, this is not just about hitting deadlines and budgets. ‘The good conservation projects are ones where everybody – the contractor, the design team and the client – all share the same values. That’s the perfect collaboration.’ 

Stakeholder consultation is critical for long-term success. Cligman said, ‘We need architects who can have that dialogue, think creatively and understand the building and the needs of people today’. Opinions differed about how well architects achieve that aim. Whereas Crossrail’s David Keeley thinks that by and large they succeed, Sillis is not so sure. Architects can, as she puts it, ‘go native’ and start treating stakeholders as the client, a huge frustration for her. 

When it comes to tracking the programme and budget, Sillis finds that architects only tell clients what they want to hear. ‘I would rather they told me it was going to cost more or take longer.’ Budgets are flexible, though. Dick-Cleland warned that being too open about costs can ‘kill off’ a project without properly developing the brief and considering the business case. In reference to Astley Castle, he said, ‘If our trustees had known what the final bill was going to be on day one they would not have done it.’

In common with clients in other sectors, heritage clients want architects who listen. In Keeley‘s experience, architects have ‘very set ideas and don’t take criticism well’. Sillis agreed, often finding a need to ‘rein in’ architects, while Gough had had ‘issues’ with architects who refuse to conform to the client’s way of doing things. 

Clients also admitted their own limitations, implicitly acknowledging unrealistically high expectations. They want architects to supply solutions for untouchable spaces. As Gough wistfully accepted, this may be ‘looking to architects to achieve the impossible’.  


  1. Focus on the needs of the building by demonstrating your technical conservation competence as well as your creative design skills.
  2. Listen to client’s needs but do not shy from potentially difficult constructive dialogue.
  3. Rethink the brief creatively – even on conservation projects – in case there is a better long-term business case that benefits the building.
  4. Engage the client through passion, education and traditional draughtsmanship.
  5. Foster teamwork and collaboration during the design by agreeing a common vision and leadership.
  6. Embrace digital innovation, especially BIM, to add extra value for clients.


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