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Listed Buildings: Dr. Simon Thurley’s Roadmap to a Successful Conservation Project

21 Aug 2023
Trying to make changes to a listed building can be complex, frustrating and at worst confounding. Dr. Simon Thurley, a member of RedBook's Advisory Board, draws on the insights he garnered during his highly distinguished career – spanning roles such as CEO of English Heritage and Curator of Historic Royal Palaces – to share invaluable wisdom on how best to approach the delicate process of gaining listed-building consent.

  • Demonstrate that you fully understand the building. This is the single most important thing you have to do before embarking on a project for a listed house. Normally this is done by commissioning a conservation plan or a conservation statement. This lays out the history of the building based on whatever research is available, includes clear plans and photographs, and at the end summarises what is important about it.
  • Your house will be listed for a reason. This is known as its significance, and the conservation plan needs to clearly draw out the significance. This may be its design, its designer, its age, some rare features or materials, its plan, or even its historical associations. Being clear about what is significant means you can also be clear about what is not. This is crucial because altering things that are not significant should be uncontroversial. 
  • Get the conservation officer (and, if involved, Historic England) to agree to the conservation plan and your assessment of significance. This means that everyone at the very start agrees on what is worth protecting, what significant parts can be improved, and what is not important in listing terms.
  • Remember that enhancing significance can be as important as protecting it. This means that new works to a listed building can reinforce its significance as well as harm it. A proper understanding of what is significant upfront will enable your architect to consider how to improve what you have within the understanding of its importance.
  • Ultimately your conservation officer will be concerned to ensure that no harm is done to the significance of the building. Harm is a legal concept and the word annoys some people who obviously have no intention of harming their own building. However, harm can be traded against benefits, especially benefits that are seen in the wider context of a whole scheme.
  • This means that you should present your scheme as a whole. This is a critical piece of advice. The conservation officer will want to take the whole scheme into consideration balancing all the benefits and ‘harm’ (if any), and will make a decision on that basis. It is normal to have some degrees of harm traded off against enhancements, and getting that balance right is the goal.
  • Finally, remember that the best conservation officers are sensible, reasonable, and well-informed, and can improve your scheme if they work well with your architect. Establishing a partnership with them is far better than taking an adversarial approach.

Success comes from recognising the value of collaboration and empathy right from the start. With this in mind, the journey of transforming listed properties turns from a daunting task to a creative opportunity one that combines both preservation and progress.

Should you require any assistance with your listed property, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Head of Projects, Philip Wright  – 

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