Buildings of Special Importance

Sustainable Design > Buildings of Special Importance

Historic buildings, whether countryside cottages or Georgian terraces, safeguard future well being and contribute to our sense of place.

Importance of Historic Buildings

The character of the areas in which we live and work is positively shaped by our historic buildings. From traditional cottages in the countryside to Georgian terraces or redundant mill complexes, historic buildings are rare survivals from our past that contribute to our sense of place and future wellbeing. They are also increasingly recognised as important economic drivers, serving to attract tourists and businesses in search of interesting locations in which to invest.

The everyday older buildings that make up our local neighbourhoods, such as the mill workers’ terraces or traditional shops are just as important as the more conspicuous landmark buildings that dominate the street scene or historic landscape. However, like any precious resource, all our older buildings require active care and informed management, particularly from owners and occupants who are ultimately the key custodians. There is no better way to ensure good conservation than through planned, preventative maintenance rooted in a thorough understanding of how these buildings work.

Differences Between Traditional and Modern Construction

  • Traditional buildings are usually constructed with natural, load-bearing materials, such as stone, brick and timber, all held together with soft binding materials like lime. The walls are usually thick and solid, and built without a cavity. They are also flexible and permeable, allowing both the absorption and release of moisture, hence often referred to as being ‘breathable’.
  • Modern buildings, on the other hand, often rely for structural support on a framing system constructed from steel, concrete or timber, with the outer walls or cladding material simply acting to keep the weather out (as well as giving the desired aesthetic effect). Modern materials are usually harder and more brittle and cannot expand or contract with the prevailing climatic conditions, unlike their traditional counterparts. Modern buildings must rely on a series of damp proof barriers to prevent water penetration, and expansion joints to facilitate movement. Mechanical ventilation and high levels of insulation in modern buildings also contrasts with traditional buildings which depend on natural ventilation and thermal mass.

Those considering an intervention to a traditional building should be aware of these differences, as altering such a delicate balance through, for example, the excessive use of modern materials and techniques, could have extremely damaging consequences.

Societal and legislative expectations to adapt older buildings to deal with issues such as energy efficiency, disabled access and fire control also need to be handled sensitively, particularly when dealing with protected structures where government policies are sometimes perceived to be contradictory. The maintenance, repair and adaptation of our legacy of older buildings can meet 21st century needs without compromising their essential character and historic interest.


  • Regular maintenance is essential to keep buildings in good working order, yet maintenance budgets are often the first to be cut during times of austerity. This is a false economy and can prove to be an expensive mistake. Routine maintenance, even something as simple as cleaning the gutters, can help to prevent more extensive and costly future repair.
  • Maintenance is particularly important for older buildings, which often retain historic fabric and rare detailing. Otherwise irreparable damage can be done to the features that lend a building its individual character.  A visibly neglected building can also attract unwanted attention from vandals, reducing its value, whilst detrimentally affecting the character of the local area.
  • To achieve greatest effect, maintenance should be planned. Problems can then be identified early on and timely action taken to prevent the need for more drastic intervention at a later date. The unnecessary inconvenience brought about by a serious failure of the fabric or services of a building can therefore be avoided. It can also have an added benefit for budgeting as maintenance tasks can be programmed and costed well in advance.

Preventative Maintenance

Preventative maintenance must be based on a thorough knowledge and understanding of the building together with the sort of problems that might appear. In an older building, these commonly occur at roof level which is more exposed to the weather and is crucial for directing rainwater safely away.

  • An integral part of a planned maintenance regime is a regular pattern of inspections. This follows a pre-prepared inspection checklist and forms part of a wider maintenance plan. On smaller buildings the plan and inspection could be undertaken by the owner, perhaps with some professional input, but it is advisable on larger buildings or complexes to employ and architect or surveyor experienced in historic buildings.
  • The complexity of the checklist and plan will depend on the size, nature and complexity of the building but in all cases can follow a fairly similar format. The checklist should be comprehensive and organised in a methodical and easy to follow format, setting out each building element, such as the roof, rainwater goods or external walls; the required frequency of the inspections; the maintenance task, such as cleaning the gutters; and the person responsible for completing the task.
  • It is important to get right the frequency with which each task is to be undertaken. They are best classified into occasional, regular and cyclical tasks. Occasional could include inspecting a roof and replacing a slate after stormy weather.  Regular tasks are carried out at least once a year or, in the case of gutter cleaning, every 6 months. Cyclical tasks include painting external timberwork every 5-7 years or checking wiring and electrical installations every 4 years.
  • A good record of all maintenance work should be kept, including of any inspections; what was found; and any subsequent actions taken. Photographs are especially helpful to track changes in condition over time. Records can prove useful for future planning of maintenance as well as an invaluable resource for future owners or managers of the property.


  • If maintenance is carried out systematically, damage, decay and the subsequent need for repair is minimised. However, there are inevitably occasions when repairing an older building becomes an unavoidable necessity. This may be due to a prior lack of maintenance; the need to put right previous inappropriate work such as the use of cement for pointing; a particular material or element may have come to the end of its natural life; or storm damage may have taken its toll. Whatever the reason, it is important that repairs are also approached thoughtfully and with the historic integrity of the building in mind.
  • Guiding international conservation principles promote minimum intervention and maximum retention of historic fabric. A practical and fairly common example of such an approach in an older building is the bottom rail of a timber sash and case window, which can deteriorate rapidly if neglected. Rather than condemning and replacing the whole window, as often happens, conservation minded repair would simply involve splicing in a new bottom rail and ensuring over the long-term that a painting regime is maintained.
  • In other cases where the condition of the building element has gone too far it should be replaced on a like-for-like basis, taking care to have an accurate replacement made or sourced from a reputable supplier. Ensure that only contractors with experience of older buildings and materials are employed to undertake the work. Repair is inevitably more expensive in the long-term that regular maintenance.

Consents and Grants

  • Planning approval is not normally required for maintenance. Approval is also not needed when undertaking repairs, except on buildings protected through legislation where extensive work is proposed. It is highly recommended that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency or the local planning authority is called in advance to discuss an agreed plan of action.
  • No specific grants are available for maintenance work. However, the NIEA suggest that their new Historic Buildings grant programme in Northern Ireland offers support for the repair or maintenance of listed buildings. Other funding bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, increasingly require the preparation and implementation of maintenance plans as a condition of grant aid for conservation schemes.