Built Heritage Recording: what’s really required?

David Sorapure

David Sorapure, our Head of Built Heritage, shines a spotlight on historic building recording and what’s required to discharge planning conditions...

Communities and developers are becoming more aware of the importance of built heritage and the value of the positive contribution historic buildings and structures can make. However, developments may involve some planned loss of historic fabric through demolition, or alterations. Although these structures may not be Listed or otherwise designated, they can have historical or architectural significance that needs to be understood and recorded for posterity. If that’s the case you may get a planning condition that reads something like this:

“No works to which this consent relates shall commence until an appropriate programme of historic building recording and analysis has been secured in accordance with a written scheme of investigation, to be approved by the planning authority…….”

These conditions cannot usually be discharged with some photographs and site drawings alone, as the aim of the recording is to also analyse, understand and interpret the story of the building.

So what is required of you?

The good news is that you are not required to record everything, rather what is significant about the structure. The local planning authority reviews heritage documentation submitted with planning and specifies the appropriate level of detail to which a building needs to be recorded, depending on significance. They will usually refer to  Historic England guidelines, which set out four levels of recording from, a basic visual record to a comprehensive analytical record. At MOLA, we find that most of our recording work is between levels 2-3, which typically includes an analytical description of the building, a drawn record with plans and perhaps elevation or section drawings, photography and documentary research for historical analysis.

Once it’s clear what is required, a building archaeologist will write a Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI), which outlines the buildings archaeologist’s aims, method and timescales. This has to be submitted to and approved by the local authority before recording, and subsequently the developer’s programme, can take place.

Unsurprisingly most recording takes place prior to the start of the developer’s works. Recording a building with its original interiors, or machinery still intact is the ideal. However, the soft-strip of interior fittings and the removal of suspended ceilings and cladding can sometimes reveal original fabric, features or phases of build and in these cases a watching brief during works may be an additional requirement.

Building recording methods and innovations

Sketched plans, elevations and section drawings are usually made on site and then using computer aided design software (CAD) turned into scale drawings. High resolution photography is a vital tool in building recording and recent developments in the use of 3D photographic modelling have further expanded our tool kit. Check out some of our 3D models on Sketchfab.

With aerial (drone) survey, it is now possible for archaeologists to capture images of whole buildings and generate 3D models efficiently, resulting in significant time and cost savings at the fieldwork stage. This ease of data capture also allows for regular surveys over time, so that historic structures that have been retained can be monitored by heritage specialists. Read more about the advantages of aerial survey.

Looking to the future, Historic BIM is also being used to incorporate heritage features into BIM models for building and conservation management.

Our three tips for success with historic building recording

  • There may already be existing measured survey drawings and historical information that can be useful to buildings archaeologists. Survey drawings supplied by the developer, prior to site work, can help archaeologists save a huge amount of time and keep costs down. Bear in mind what information you have and provide it to archaeologists early to avoid duplications, delays and unnecessary cost.
  • Factor into your programme that discharging the condition can be a two-stage process. The WSI can take several weeks to be approved by the local authority before the archaeologists can begin on site. Planners may also want to see and approve a draft report, before confirming that demolition can start. Speak to heritage specialists early to get an idea of the likely timescales.
  • The final report isn’t just for the archives! Unique stories can be unlocked through historic building recording and there are often opportunities to shine a positive light on a development through its heritage assets, which can be a great selling point, bringing both positive PR and commercial benefits.

You can check out examples of historic building recording projects and further information on our project pages or if you’d like to discuss your particular requirements, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via business@mola.org.uk- we’re always happy to advise!

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