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Oxford Castle

Altering or Extending Historic Buildings

When old meets now: architect Anthony Pettorino shares his views on getting the best results when altering or extending historic buildings
Anthony Pettorino

Scars should be repaired carefully but never removed completely, as they also tell part of the heritage story

Working with historic buildings can at first seem daunting, particularly if it is a listed building. Often this is seen as an unnecessary obstacle, an unfair burden imposed on property owners.

I prefer to take a more positive view. Buildings are listed for good reasons and they have interesting stories to tell. They are one of the reasons villages, towns and cities in the UK have retained their uniqueness, and ‘heritage’ is considered by many to be a national asset. Understanding their heritage is key and that’s where ‘virtual time travel’ comes in. The first journey is a trip into the past.

The part I find most fascinating is getting to know the context within which the building came to be in the ¬first place. How buildings are procured changes constantly as we move through time, largely due to the fact that social and economic culture is forever changing. Aspirations, trust in the future and the local economy affect what is being built, and how buildings are being designed and constructed.

I start by ­finding out as much as possible about the history of the site, local area and building in question. Historic Ordnance Survey maps are extremely useful as they give us periodic snapshots of development patterns across the UK as far back as the 1700’s, when their records began. Prior to this it becomes more dif­ficult, but in most cases all sorts of information can be unearthed about buildings that were constructed up to a thousand years ago. As with all research stories start to reveal themselves and open doors into unexpected places.

Buildings are listed because they are seen to be ‘of special historic or architectural interest’ and therefore worthy of legislated protection. This could be for any number of reasons. A connection with a particular historic event perhaps, a well preserved example of a type of design or construction of the period, or the part the building may play in creating a local setting, scene or view. Fortunately, for each listed building there is an entry on the register that explains when a building was listed and why. This helps a great deal when it comes to the next stage which starts with the second journey in time, back (or forwards) to ‘now’, the present.

As our culture and lifestyles evolve, so must our built environment and listed buildings are not exempt from this. The only difference is that additional controls are in place to protect them from interventions that might confuse our heritage, and for that we should be thankful. Legislation ensures that alterations or extensions to listed buildings are subject to additional levels of scrutiny by local planning authorities and Historic England (formerly a part of English Heritage).

Listed buildings are not museums. They are recorded heritage assets and these controls ensure that work on them has been properly considered and is re‑ erected on the public record. The words we use today to describe historic buildings almost humanises them. Buildings are referred to as ‘scarred’, or as having ‘memories’. This gives an insight into how best to approach them when adapting them to meet the alien needs of their current custodians. When a building’s heritage is fully understood, the next step is to consider the design itself. I follow a few simple rules:

1. Undo previous bodges

Inevitably there will be some. A poorly considered, cheaply constructed extension or alteration may have been carried in the past out of pure necessity. If it hasn’t passed the test of time it will be obvious and will need to be removed. This then creates a new blank slate to work from.

2. Look for patterns and opportunities

The next step is to create a masterplan identifying where alterations or extensions might take place. The structure of the original design should be apparent and should be enhanced, not eroded, by any new work. Consider views from within and without and maintain any important sight lines or vistas that the site offers.

3. Be honest

In other words, do not deceive. Creating something that looks as if it has always been there creates ambiguity and will make the site dif­ficult to ‘read’. All stonework for example was new once and weathers in its own time. If a window is to be blocked up, make it obvious. If a wall is to come down, leave some of it behind. This is what is meant by leaving ‘memories’. An example of ‘scarring’ occurs where an undesirable extension has been removed. Scars should be repaired carefully but never removed completely, as they also tell part of the heritage story.

4. Think ‘now’

At the time the building was built, the designer was thinking ‘now’. It will have been designed and built using the best available technology and current thinking. Contemporary materials such as glass offer many opportunities for working with historic structures. The photograph is an example of where ‘old meets new’; to the left is a new stone building, then a transparent link connecting it to a former Victorian prison, now the Malmaison hotel in Oxford.

5. Build to last

The host building will have been built to last, so attempt to do the same. Specify the best quality materials available and ensure that those with the best skills are used to install them.

Finally, step back into the time machine and travel forwards a hundred years or more and be your own judge in the ‘test of time’.


Anthony Pettorino is the managing director of Pettorino Design Ltd in Witney and can be contacted at anthony@pettorinodesign.co.uk


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