With conversion specialists working in such individual areas, comparison on price between them can be very difficult.

If working on your property involves the renovation of a period building, you may need the skills of a specialist conservator or restorer who will use the highest standards to ensure the preservation of original material. But how do you go about finding someone suitable? Fortunately, there are sources of information at hand and growing numbers of well-qualified experts.

For the less challenging tasks, there are also courses for the layman, and these can give both hands-on experience and historical background. In addition, there is a wealth of technical advice from a variety of impartial organisations; if nothing else, this can help give you an understanding of what a conservator is trying to achieve.

Finding a professional

The Conservation Register is a database of professional conservation and restoration businesses throughout the UK and Ireland. It is operated by the UK Institute for Conservation (UKIC, ukic.org.uk) in collaboration with the National Council for Conservation-Restoration (NCCR) and Historic Scotland, which administers a parallel Register database for Scottish conservation practices. To be included in the Conservation Register, various stringent criteria have to be met, including seven years of experience, relevant training and qualifications, and references from five projects completed within the last five years.

The database can be searched according to subject and geographical area, with print-outs of five workshops being supplied for £7.50. Although currently available by phone (weekdays 10am-4pm), it is expected that the database will be available via the web by the autumn of 2003. Dr David Leigh, Director of the Conservation Register, explains that it will be possible to search under specialisations and localities. “We can already do that, but people will be able to do it themselves.”

Although the Conservation Register hasn’t been promoted much in recent years, it gets about 1,000 enquiries a year the majority from the public, rather than professional bodies. “Private individuals tend to hear of it by going through some other organisation,” says Dr Leigh. “Many people phone up the V&A, for instance, and then the V&A tells them to phone the Conservation Register, or they contact the National Trust or English Heritage. So they funnel people to us.”

“Many of the specialists on the Conservation Register deal with artefacts such as textiles and paintings, and will not perhaps be directly relevant to those working on buildings. But we do have specialists in plasterwork, floor tiles, wallpaper, wall paintings, stained glass, stonework and so on.”

In addition to supplying names and contact details, the organisation has some good general advice on what to look out for when choosing a conservator. For example, it recommends that you look for evidence of training and experience especially in the sort of project that you are involved with. You should be given the opportunity to check references and to discuss the conservation work with the specialist on site. Visiting their own premises will also give an insight into how professional and well organised they are.

Training is high on the agenda of UKIC, the organisation which manages the Conservation Register. A professional body with members working for public institutions (such as museums) as well as in the private sector, it aims to ensure that the training in the field is of the highest quality and, to this end, has developed an accreditation scheme for conservators. The scheme is becoming a benchmark for recognition of professional status, with over 400 UKIC members now accredited and numbers growing. UKIC accredited members can bear the letters ACR.

Explaining how the accreditation scheme is developing, Dr Leigh confirms that, for a proportion of the people on the existing Conservation Register, the workshops lead person is accredited. “We are not accepting any new people onto the Register unless the lead person is accredited, and its a rolling programme, so when we revisit a workshop it won’t stay on the Register unless the lead person is accredited. So we are gradually raising the standards. Its worth noting too that, to mark excellence in conservation, the Pilgrim Trust Conservation Awards have been given for the last seven years, with entries for both public and private work.”

Although members of the public renovating buildings will probably find conservators accredited through UKIC most relevant to the projects theyre tackling, there are in all eleven professional organisations and trade associations which relate to conservation in its broadest terms.

Regarding fees, Dr Leigh stresses that, while the Register doesn’t give specific guidance, the information provided to enquirers more often than not indicates conservators usual rates, so prospective clients can compare. “In such a varied field, guarantees will also vary from practitioner to practitioner. But any reputable conservator will only use tested materials and methods that are largely reversible, and will use their skills to attempt to stabilise instability, in the light of current scientific knowledge,” he explains. “And a reputable person would also be prepared to look again at something that’s gone wrong.”

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB, spab.org.uk) is another excellent source of information about conservation specialists. The largest, oldest and most technically expert national pressure group, fighting to save old buildings from decay, demolition and damage, the SPAB celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2002. It was established by William Morris to counteract the destructive restoration practised by many Victorian architects; today it continues its campaign to convince people that technically and aesthetically there is a right way to repair an old building.

As well as having a professional membership, the organisation caters to homeowners living in houses spanning all historical periods and among the support it offers is an extensive list of conservation specialists. Promotions Officer Laura Gibbon says: “We can’t recommend people but we can suggest builders, suppliers, craftsmen, surveyors and architects. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to have something in your area but we recommend people to ring up our advice line which is open from 9.30am to 12.30pm. The advice line is available to non-members but if you would like to join, SPAB membership is £30 a year or £45 for two people at the same address.”

Another good source of information is The Building Conservation Directory, available from Cathedral Communications at £19.95 (buildingconservation.com). It lists over 1,000 conservation organisations, companies and individual craftsmen and covers everything from lime putty to traditional timber frame builders. The latest edition of the Directory also includes informative articles on such topics as limewashes and distempers, varnish and oil paint. In addition, Cathedral Communications runs an extensive website which lists products, services, courses and books which will be of use to those renovating traditional buildings. There is a wide ranging network of links which can be accessed from this excellent site including many of the organisations now offering conservation support, training and information.

If you’re based in Ireland, the Irish Professional Conservators and Restorers Association (IPCRA, ipcra.org) publishes a comprehensive reference book which explains how to choose a conservator and gives insights into the skills offered by its membership. The Directory costs £7.50 and is available from the National Gallery of Ireland Shop, the National Museum of Ireland Shop (both in Dublin) or the Ulster Museum Shop in Belfast.

You may also be able to get information from trade associations, but advising the public is not always the remit of such organisations. If they do offer an information service, their membership may not include conservators and traditional building crafts. And even when their membership does cover relevant skills, it’s worth asking what they require of those joining their association: their demands may be very different from your own needs. However, some trade associations certainly do include conservation experts among their members; you can find a helpful list of a wide range of associations in the Directory published by Cathedral Communications and on their website.

What sort of companies will you find listed by these conservation-minded organisations? Like the projects they deal with, no two are the same – either in size or in the skills they offer. Among them, for example, are larger organisations such as The Heritage Building Contractors Group: this offers a wide range of highly skilled specialists with experience in repair and conservation of historic buildings. Its membership goes from larger companies to small organisations which focus on just one skill. There are also businesses such as Hayles & Howe, plasterwork conservation craftsmen, and individuals like Andrew Nichols, who specialises in tower clocks.

Learning the Skills

Never underestimate the skills and historical understanding required in good conservation and restoration work: most specialists have spent years acquiring their know-how. But if you do feel there is project you could tackle yourself (perhaps something small) there are various courses which will help you find out what’s involved, test your abilities or just learn what problems and possibilities there might be in your own property.

Many courses are designed to be suitable for surveyors, architects and craftsmen, as well as members of the public working on their own renovation project: so you will be expected to have at least a keen interest and perhaps a certain level of knowledge and skill. Check with the organisers that you will not be out of your depth.

As well as providing its advice line, the SPAB offers courses designed for both professionals and home owners who want to make informed decisions about their properties. Called Introduction to the Repair of Old Buildings, the homeowner course includes information on specifics such as roofs, pointing, interiors and so on, as well as a practical lime demonstration (with hands-on opportunities), plus a question and answer session.

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (wealddown.co.uk. ), in Sussex, also offers a range of practical workshops and seminars which are approved by English Heritage. With the Museums fine range of historic timber frame buildings, its no surprise that this form of construction is a particular speciality, with one-day courses on Timber Decay and its Treatment and Repair of Timber Framed Buildings, for example. However, other courses available include Introduction to Gauged Brickwork, Traditional Lime Plasters and Renders and Introduction to Historic Ironwork. There is also a Home-Owners Day, which looks at traditional trades and crafts, and includes presentations by architects and surveyors.

Practical courses now take place in the Weald and Downlands recently opened Gridshell Building (which offers a new building conservation workshop), while some of the master class courses are run in conjunction with West Dean College and take place there.

Although the master classes are aimed at professionals, Diana Rowsell – Weald and Downlands Training Co-ordinator – says: “An interested amateur can almost always keep up. Both Weald and Downland and West Dean have suitably inspiring surroundings; Woodchester Manor Trust is another organisation which offers training in a wonderful period setting, running short courses on the craft skills used in traditional buildings.”

The Scottish Lime Centre (scotlime.org)also provides practical training for homeowners, with its Repair of Traditional Houses course. The focus is on traditional vernacular Scottish buildings and includes hand-on sessions, but the Centres training officer, Kate MacDonald, stresses that it is suitable for beginners. You can also phone the Centre for advice, to request a site inspection or analysis of building materials.

The organisation’s website has just been launched and now provides contact details of suitable specialists, an introduction to lime, and explanations of the difference between sick and healthy buildings. In addition, as the Scottish agent for Natural Building Technologies, the Centre can supply environmentally friendly traditional materials.

Other suppliers of specialist material can also offer practical training. For example, one-day courses on lime products are available at the Lime Centre in Hampshire, which produces lime mortars, plasters, renders and washes. The courses are given by Bob Bennett, who worked on the conservation of historic buildings for many years but became aware of the lack of practical training. He still continues with his own consultancy work which has included high-profile projects such as stone cleaning Wells Cathedral and the manufacture of lime mortar for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Lime is again the subject for several of the courses run by The Old House Store, near Henley, although they also offer Blacksmithing and Ironmongery, which gives attendees an understanding of the differences between wrought and cast iron, and steel alternatives.

The Old House Store (oldhousestore.co.uk)itself stocks a very wide range of traditional materials including lime products, hand-riven laths and battens, and a range of ironmongery, as well as technical and practical guides mainly on the topic of lime. Anglia Lime, based in Suffolk, is another company that both stocks materials and gives lime classes suitable for homeowners and renovators. If you need guidance as to the quality of the various lime courses on offer, the independent and voluntary Building Limes Forum will be able to advise you.

But as well as the courses run by specialist organisations, some universities and local authorities provide relevant classes for the public, so its worth checking whats available in your area. For example, Bristol University (bristol.ac.uk)has held meetings on Understanding your Victorian House; York University’s (york.ac.uk. )short courses include the Conservation of Stone, Historic Plasterwork and Brick, Terracotta and Tiles; and Essex County Council’s seminars include Historic Barn Conversions and hands-on courses in Lead Details, Wattle and Daub and Flint Walling.

Technical Advice

In addition to its courses and advice line, the SPAB has a number of publications available, including information sheets and technical pamphlets (costing either £1 or £3 each) on such subjects as The Repair of Timber Frames and Roofs and The Control of Damp in Old Buildings.

There are also general publications, such as Living with a Listed Building, and comprehensive practical building conservation books on topics such as Stone Masonry and Metals. Laura Gibbon adds that the latest publication, ‘Historic Building Controls and Grants‘, covers Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas subjects on which the organisation gets a great many enquiries from the public.

The Victorian Society, formed to promote the preservation and appreciation of the arts and architecture of that period, does not offer courses but can give advice over the telephone and via email – although only to members. However, there are some practical tips available on the organisation’s website and its series of eight-page booklets, published under the heading Care for Victorian Houses, covers such subjects as fireplaces, decorative tiles and interior mouldings, and includes some practical information on restoration and maintenance. The booklets cost £3* each. The Victorian Society Book of the Victorian House, also with some practical information, is published by Aurum Press at £25*. Membership of the Victorian Society costs £28 a year or £36 for a household (two adults and children under 18).

The Georgian Group (georgiangroup.org.uk) offers study days and lectures about Georgian architecture, although these are of a theoretical nature rather than practical. However, it does have a variety of useful publications, including 15 short leaflets on aspects of restoring Georgian houses (also available collected into a single volume The Georgian Group Book of The Georgian House). The leaflets, covering subjects such as windows, brickwork, doors and stonework, cost £3.50 each, and the Georgian House book costs £25. Its most recent publication, Chimneypieces and Staircases, costs £6. The Group can also supply a Register of Craftsmen and Suppliers for Historic Buildings in Wales (2). Membership of the Georgian Group costs £24 a year or £38 for two people at the same address.

English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk) is another source of technical publications, though many are aimed at professionals, and these can be ordered on-line. The organisations website also has a number of free publications which you can download among them such titles as Timber Sash Windows and Lead Roofs on Historic Buildings.

The internet has been a boon for period property restorers. One site in particular, bricksandbrass.co.uk, gives a variety of advice and a useful directory for owners of Victorian and Edwardian homes, from window choices to suitable styles of decoration.

Finally, as well as being involved in the Conservation Register, Historic Scotland (historic-scotland.gov.uk )also offers some useful publications. Its range of Technical Advice Notes includes Conservation of Plasterwork (£5) and Thatch and Thatching Techniques (£7.50), and some material can be downloaded free from the organisation’s website – Just Windows, for example. Of course the conventionally published material is more detailed and in some cases includes details of specialist firms which can undertake repairs.

Support for the renovators of period property has grown tremendously over recent years: it has become easier to get technical advice and find conservation experts. That development is also reflected in homeowners appreciation of period features and original detailing few would now take the attitude so prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s that fussy mouldings were best covered up.

So, whether for your own satisfaction or with an eye to increasing eventual saleability, its worth considering conservation work and making sure it is carried out well. Start by finding out exactly what sort of building you are dealing with, how it was built, the materials and techniques employed and then find the appropriate methods for repair and modernisation. Never just rush in – modern materials such as cement, concrete, sealants and paints can be totally inappropriate for old buildings and may serve only to accelerate the rate of decay.

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