What is the point of keeping this bit?

In the past, without the benefit of modern mass communication, construction methods and practices where orally passed onto the next generation through apprenticeships and guilds.

The need for construction employees engagement when working on heritage stock by Andrew Howell BSc (Hons), MSc, MCIOB

Communication was and still is one of the main keys for a successful project; currently despite the trappings of modern technology with its instant messaging, we produce project contract documentation that fails to include ideas and decisionmaking processes.

This is especially true for renovation or refurbishment to historic buildings and structures. Beyond the ‘normal’ run-of-themill projects, client professional teams are sometimes working outside of their comfort zone. To highlight this point, in 1975 Sir Bernard Feilden recommended that every architectural office should have at least one qualified architectural conservator. Unfortunately, over the intervening thirty years since that recommendation, a 2005 survey of UK architectural offices found that out of 5,400 registered practices, only 1,700 profess some conservation expertise.

Within construction projects, general contractors’ management and ‘normal’ site trades are often in the same predicament as the professional team, by experiencing unfamiliar work practices on heritage schemes. For instance, contractors will be required to retain sound but clearly distressed features or to work in a particular way, for no apparent reason or explanation. To illustrate this point, a carpenter instructed to replace part of a distressed beam with a complicated joint with a common reply ‘why can’t I renew the whole beam and save a lot of time and money!”. Without reasons as to why to keep as much as possible historic fabric, most site operatives are unclear as to what to do without recourse to request instruction from others.

Part of the problem arises due to the use of standard forms of building contracts where general workmanship and temporary works design are the responsibility of the contractor. The issue for heritage work is that contractors are not privy to the project’s overall conservation strategy, this may result in the contractor taking the ‘normal’ approach. For example, temporary works such as access scaffolding may require highly intrusive work due to the need for anchor points drilled into the structure with the result of permanent damage to the retained historic building material.

Furthermore, we should not rely on our current conservation legislation to protect our heritage stock as these laws are only a legal framework in which to work, they are not a method for providing a guiding philosophy or even how to have collaborative working; this is where conservation policies and charters are useful management tools. However, heritage policies and charters, if used, tend to remain at the top end of the construction hierarchal tree, rather than being explained to those that physically undertake the work.

When certain terminology is used in the contract, terms like honesty repairs/ alteration/ restoration/ preservation/ reconstruction and the like, these terms have difference meanings to different people without further explanation. For example, English Heritage defines restoration as ‘reassembling existing elements without the introduction of new material’ and the Oxford English Dictionary ‘bringing back or attempting to bring back to the original state by rebuilding or repairing’. Same word but different interpretations.

When asked, site staff admit to being confused and sometimes annoyed when trying to understand how a particular decision for the works is made. Despite present day charters, conventions and documents exploring the theme of social value, to increase our societies understanding of heritage asset, construction is too often forgotten. By taking this course of action, the clients’ team fail to engage the contracting part of the construction industry in the overall conservation project plan. Each worker on a heritage project is important as each trade relies on its predecessor to complete their work to the best of their ability.

Retaining certain parts of the existing building fabric, means those building trades can find themselves working alongside existing material and as such, they must make a conscious effort and take extra care not to cause physical damage to historic material. Because of this requirement, it can at times add further work stress on the individual, as the employees’ management team may apply pressure in an attempt to get the job completed quickly, in order to reduce labour costs and increase the companies’ profit. By being made aware of the project’s overall conservation strategy, tendering companies have the opportunity to allow enough time and money to undertake the works with due diligence. After all, most companies are aware of the ‘winners curse’, that is to say the one who wins work is the one who least understood what is required and bid too low.

Construction is a task orientated manual process, relying on design information being adequately communicated along the (sometimes a very long) supply chain. Due to the very nature of construction, this fragmented industry lacks clear direction due to no overall controlling body. Furthermore, construction projects are subject to many variables outside of the control of the designer and construction teams, such as the effects of the weather and construction operatives’ performance in a physically demanding environment. Therefore, it is imperative to have worker engagement, as these are the ones who undertake the building process.

Contracting organisations, designers and clients must remember that the ‘real workers’ will determine the efficiency of the building process and the quality of the product. We need to have these valued employees involved in the construction process, therefore in order to achieve this we need to include them in our reasoning behind fabric retention and a history of the building being worked on.

The thinking behind construction worker engagement is important to consider because there is a need to challenge attitudes and increase awareness, to deter unskilled conservation and unsuitable work taking place. After all, a labourer with a hammer and bolster can cause untold accidental damage to historic fabric without even realising what they have done. The potential loss of any part of our historic built environment by inappropriate work is considered unacceptable in our Western society. However, as George Orwell once said ‘progress is not an illusion; it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing’.

There are no quick fix solutions to heritage engagement even with fully committed individuals. However, this in itself is not a reason not to try, as heritage is a diminishing asset and we need to pass on our historic building stock to the next generation and action needs to take place now.