Quality depends on my flexible friends
Brian Morton reflects on the lHBC Annual School in London.
The difference between the IHBC Annual School and any other conference that 1 attend involving the building industry is the total dedication of conservation officers to their job: not only a total dedication but a total interest. It may be that members of the IHBC are more relaxed and informal in most of their working practices, but 1 ask whether this is a bad thing when decisions are being made on a dayto-day basis on matters which cannot possibly be covered by written rules and regulations. If the IHBC became linked with one of the existing professional institutes, the flexibility would all but disappear and, inevitably, the interest would be eroded away.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the role of engineers in my practice is not being able to give a client clear guidelines as to a conservation officer's likely view about the particular aspect of any scheme. This does cause difficulties, but experience suggests that a conservation officer should be brought in to discuss proposals for repair or alteration at the very earliest date, before a pencil goes on paper, to establish the broad principles and, indeed, the character and attitude of the officer concerned. Quite often we are called in as engineers too late to save elements of the building that by using engineering conservation experience could have been saved.

There have been two situations in recent years related to fires where engineers have proposed total demolition and the intervention of the conservation officer asking for a second opinion from us has led to substantial parts being saved. What decision would be made if we had been bound by a set of rules, with professionals worried about their professional indemnity insurance cover?

Our role, of course, overlaps very much with that of the architect. When we are called in to handle a complete scheme which does not involve any aesthetics, we become involved in discussions about materials. On these occasions, frustration with what is loosely called "conservation philosophy" comes into the discussions. 1 do not believe any professional should go along with replacing materials like-for-like if it is clear that the original material is not fulfilling its purpose. We should be building into historic buildings inherent defects.

Telford Bridge, St. Katherine's Dock, London.
Photo: Brian Morton.
The requirement to comply with regulations led to the replacement of the 1830s retractable Telford Bridge at St Katherine's Dock in London, simply because the structure needed to be upgraded for higher loading, although it had been used for 160 years satisfactorily. Three Engineers had been involved over a period of four years in putting forward proposals for strengthening but it had been found that this completely changed the aesthetic look of the structure. This led to my suggesting the total replacement of the bridge with a modern structure, following the outline of the original bridge.

At Ferris Court in Stroud, Gloucestershire (see Context 33, March 1992) a wealthy landowner was proposing to demolish a listed farmhouse. After seven days of the inquiry the council members came to the conservation officer and said that they thought we were going lose the inquiry and that we should withdraw. It was made clear to the conservation officer that he was putting the council at risk and there would be repercussions. He and 1 decided we could win. Eight days later the landowner lost his case and damages were ordered against him.

The flexibility required of the conservation officer has led to the changes we have seen over the years, with a different approach being necessary as the performance of materials has become clearer to us. Thirty years ago we were providing concrete floors within historic buildings, without realising that this was going to drive the water up the walls. We have also put concrete ring beams into historic walls to tie them together, whereas today we would use brick reinforced beams that do not have a different thermal capacity to the structure, being bound together, thus overcoming differential movement problems. Over the last ten years we have trained our engineers to be flexible in their approach in providing solutions to historic building problems. On two occasions we have asked engineers to leave us simply because they regarded the codes of practice and regulations as written in stone.

Conservation officers should retain their flexibility through the IHBC and should not be pressured into linking with any more formal institution.

Brian Morton is a consultant to the Morton Partnership.
CONTEXT 70 : JUNE 2001