For most historic buildings, it’s not about preserving them so they don’t change, it’s about conserving those things that make them special, and ensuring they remain useable and valued. Good heritage conservation should be about the successful management of change.
That’s the message from the New Zealand Institute of Building Surveyors (NZIBS) whose executive members have been discussing the issue of effective conservation of New Zealand’s older buildings.
For Robin Miller, NZIBS member and director of building heritage consultancy, Origin Consultants, the idea of age is meaningless.
“What is important is ‘significance’. New Zealand is a young country and our old buildings are significant to us. They ground us in where we come from and what we have achieved.
“As New Zealanders, we are amazed by the internationally-known heritage sites, quaint villages and local monuments we see overseas. Yet we fail to see we have these in New Zealand too, they’re just a bit younger.
“We recognise historic buildings that are of national importance to us. However, few people acknowledge the cultural heritage buildings that exist in our smaller communities and rural environments.”
Although the heritage buildings were suitable when they were built in the 19th century, in this modern age they are cold and draughty unless they have been renovated, according to NZIBS past president, Trevor Jones.
“They need a lot more routine maintenance than an average modern home. There’s often hidden problems that can blow your budget when you start renovating.
“A lick of paint might superficially provide an uplift, but it won’t deal with underlying maintenance issues, such as electrics, plumbing and insulation.”
However, once they have been modernised, they are easy to maintain and are sought after by people wanting to live somewhere with a bit of character.
“With heritage buildings, you get the high ceilings and features that wouldn’t readily be put into buildings these days.
“You also get the special escutcheons on doors and a lot of decorative features from that time that you won’t get in a modern building and would be costly to replicate.”
NZIBS vice president, Rory Crosbie, says that in the New Zealand context, heritage buildings have the added challenge of dealing with earthquakes.
“Owners of commercial heritage buildings are not only tasked with working with the requirements of heritage protection, but also have an obligation to ensure they remain safe.”
According to Mr Crosbie, structural engineers developing seismic upgrade schemes work closely with building surveyors to ensure heritage and weathertightness characteristics are not compromised by strengthening works.
“Many conflicting scenarios can arise when implementing seismic upgrade works. Fire safety, accessibility and the management of asbestos all require more careful consideration when being addressed in heritage buildings.”
Time spent on detailed investigation and reporting at scheme design, along with clear communication between all disciplines involved, is key.
“My experience is even by following this best practice approach, heritage buildings will still throw up surprises during seismic strengthening works.
“Therefore, cost control is essential. My advice for registered building surveyors, or for that matter any professional involved, is to ensure your client has a contingency fund to deal with such surprises.”
When considering the cost of maintaining heritage buildings, and ensuring they are liveable and safe, Robin Miller says New Zealanders should think about them just like they do overseas.
“The value of owning and preserving a heritage building often exceeds the value of its modern replacement.
“New Zealand should promote every aspect of its cultural heritage. We have something special and we would be foolish to lose it, both for ourselves and our visitors.”
Trevor Jones agrees, saying that if we don’t preserve heritage buildings, New Zealand will be left with a bland and uninteresting landscape.
“It’s going to be a significant loss to New Zealand’s cultural identity if we don’t have areas and retention of heritage buildings.”
The NZIBS executive share a vision that NZIBS members will educate, train and advise on the conservation of New Zealand’s cultural heritage.