Blog: Unlocking opportunities by understanding Heritage Significance

Blog: Unlocking opportunities by understanding Heritage Significance

Senior Conservation Architect, Helen Walker shares her expertise on the recent Historic England publication entitled “Statements of Heritage Significance: Analysing Significance in Heritage Assets”.  Helen gives us her insight into how and why we assess heritage significance.

The most successful heritage projects balance the needs of the client and the needs of the building.

Architects are trained to understand the needs of the client but to understand the needs of the building, we first need to understand the heritage significance.  Once this significance is understood, we can understand the capacity for change and develop realistic proposals to meet the client’s brief.  If done properly, this is a continual process of assessment throughout the design development.

The Historic England publication provides advice on the National Planning Policy Framework and emphasises the need for undertaking these assessments before developing proposals.

The document and the Planning Practice Guidance place less emphasis on the requirement for a Heritage Statement and more on the assessment of the significance as part of the Design and Access Statement.  This is a welcome attempt to stop the heritage statement becoming a tick box exercise to validate a planning application.  It will encourage the integration of the assessment of significance and impact as an important tool for design development.

The advice note also discusses the importance of understanding the “Interests” of an asset namely archaeological, architectural, artistic and historic.  This is a move away from the heritage “Values” (evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal) referred to in the Historic England publication “Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance”, which were not as self-explanatory.

The use of the term “interest” is more understandable when associating the contribution any feature may have on the significance and why.  When assessing the interest and significance of a heritage asset, it is not a “yes or no” evaluation.  The level of the contribution an element of a building makes to the significance can range from detrimental to high.  It is only by understanding this level of contribution that we can determine the capacity for change to make informed decisions about the development potential.

A few years ago I undertook an assessment of the heritage significance of a Grade II listed residential building.  In undertaking the assessment, we determined that there had been a number of alterations to the internal layout that were detrimental to the plan form of the building.  We were granted permission to remove internal walls and reconfigure the internal layout.  This met the client’s brief and more closely reflected the historical layout of the building, therefore, enhancing the significance.  The assessment of significance was used, not to restrict, but to unlock the potential of the heritage asset.

Understanding what does and more importantly does not contribute to the significance of the asset is key in the exploration of design options.  These options may not have been considered previously and can lead to a successful project for the client and also for the heritage asset thus securing its future for generations to come.

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