Caring for the aged

The rewards and opportunities of working with historical buildings are challenging and exhilarating, writes our latest Rising Star

Surveying the floor void of Netley Chapel, part of Royal Victoria Country Park, which is being redeveloped with Hampshire County Council architects.
Surveying the floor void of Netley Chapel, part of Royal Victoria Country Park, which is being redeveloped with Hampshire County Council architects.

The historic environment is more than just a series of buildings, landscapes and physical remains; it is the fabric of our past and represents our shared cultural and social identities. It gives an often indefinable sense of place that is essential to how we see ourselves and our communities. The physical fabric of historic buildings and landscapes hold a collective memory, and are the foundation of our built environment. With sensitivity and imagination they can be used as a stimulus for innovative architecture and design, a driver for regeneration and can contribute to the quality of place.

While it is vital to preserve and conserve our heritage, often the only way to provide this long term protection is to allow adaptation and change to ensure a sustainable future. We should not see ourselves as guardians of these buildings, but as those who oversee change. We are not there to preserve in aspic, but to adapt and alter while sensitively looking after what is significant.

I have spent most of my short career working on historic buildings – not purposely – but it is something I wouldn’t change. Although it is often perceived as a specialism for which the stereotype is an older, elbow-patch-wearing architect, many young architects would be surprised by the opportunities it brings.

Surveying the external elevations of Netley Chapel, part of Royal Victoria Country Park, which is being redeveloped with Hampshire County Council architects.
Surveying the external elevations of Netley Chapel, part of Royal Victoria Country Park, which is being redeveloped with Hampshire County Council architects.

Working to conserve, repair and alter these buildings brings different challenges that require bespoke responses. Architectural education teaches that it is essential to respond to context – whether location, aesthetics, environment or the less physical historical, socio economic, political or cultural context. Working on historical buildings requires the ultimate in understanding and responding to context: it is the true nature of what architecture is.

Conservation projects involve in depth research, surveying, recording and understanding. This process allows for careful and considered decisions to be made about a building’s future that takes into account its context throughout; which is not just measured in the historical value of the building or site but also its communal, aesthetic and evidential values. While good judgment and informed decision making is key, this must be matched by a sensitivity that extends not just to the building and place, but to the client and local community, who have often cared for, maintained and tirelessly worked to ensure the future of what they see as their heritage.

A historic building is the antithesis of a blank sheet of paper; you are not paralysed by countless opportunities but limited by constraints. Many see this as restrictive; in fact they are exciting design opportunities. Architects are inherently problem solvers anyway. The best adaption and conservation projects often embrace the challenge and become one-off, beautiful solutions that would never have been considered had the constraint never existed.

For those that want to work directly with an engaged client and community, truly respond to context and feed back to society, working with historical buildings could not be a better specialism. The work is challenging, rewarding and always interesting. There’s the opportunity to take something old and combine it with something new to create an architecture that is of greater lasting value than either on its own.


Bethan Knights of Hampshire County Council Architects is one of RIBAJ Rising Stars 2016. Find out more about RIBAJ Rising Stars, a scheme to reward up and coming construction professionals. Rising Stars 2017 is open for entries 

  • Proposed front elevation of Netley Chapel in Hampshire.
    Proposed front elevation of Netley Chapel in Hampshire.
  • Sketch view of the external lift shaft at Whitchurch Silk Mill, a Georgian water mill that weaves silk using 19th century machinery.
    Sketch view of the external lift shaft at Whitchurch Silk Mill, a Georgian water mill that weaves silk using 19th century machinery.
  • Constraints drawing showing historic fabric and machinery that limited the proposed new lift at Whitchurch Silk Mill, resulting in the approved proposal for an external li
    Constraints drawing showing historic fabric and machinery that limited the proposed new lift at Whitchurch Silk Mill, resulting in the approved proposal for an external li
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