Architecture is the art of design as much as the art of project management. This is particularly true when it comes to projects within sites of historical significance, particularly heritage or listed structures. Whether it be the level of acceptable adaptation within historic settings, or the unknowns of the structure itself, architects must adopt a flexible and inclusive approach to project management to effectively steer heritage projects.
From the outset, it is essential to develop strategies with the client that enable their stewardship of historic estates and the refurbishment and revitalisation of buildings. This allows historic sites to meet immediate user needs while conserving structures for future generations. Inclusivity is paramount to success; all stakeholders need to buy into and actively contribute to a management process that looks back at historic precedent as much as it looks forward for design schemes and solutions.
At Wright & Wright, we have found that listening to the site leads to a successful project, especially in cases of heritage and conservation architecture. Whether transforming the Grade I-listed site of the British Academy in central London, conceiving of a masterplan for Lambeth Palace, or reimagining the Museum of the Home’s 18th century site in East London for future purposes, we respectfully integrate heritage and the lessons of the past in our designs.
At Lambeth Palace, for example, we are undertaking a comprehensive masterplan to reconsider how the many functions of the buildings are accommodated while improving accessibility and sustainability. Throughout, we are ensuring the unparalleled heritage of the site – much of it dating to the 12th century - is retained. The Palace has been the home to the Archbishops of Canterbury for 800 years as well as the communities that support the ministry. The masterplan for Lambeth Palace will aid in extending this long-held purpose through sustainable conservation, repair, and increased accessibility. Heritage management and site upgrades will allow the Palace to have a more open and active role in the public realm and further engage the local community as part of the Church of England’s long-term mission.
Heritage project management extends beyond the site and must consider the wider environment. Of course, adapting heritage sites to the future necessarily concerns the climate emergency. All organisations that inhabit historic sites need to consider how to proactively respond to climate change. As architects, we know that retention and conservation of existing buildings is where sustainability begins. Therefore, understanding the historic estate, its heritage, and its built and natural features is prioritised early in our process. We use this analysis to unearth opportunities to utilise and enhance the estate’s innate assets. Our current project on historic sites are heavily invested in decarbonisation efforts. Most employ a fabric-first approach whereby existing buildings are retained, building envelopes are carefully improved, and end-of-life services are replaced with more efficient systems.
Looking back is equally important to looking forward. Research is fundamental; it is a tool to unlock answers and reveal solutions. During the conception of a project, an in-depth review of archival information - from historic drawings to conservation plans – helps to integrate historic precedent with current and future user experiences or ‘use cases’ to fully understand how heritage sites can be developed. This phase of the project enables us to balance historic significance with essential audience needs.
The outcome is a narrative that tells the story of a site’s use and relevance over time. This often unlocks potential options, revealing solutions we may not have otherwise envisioned. This understanding is also critical in facilitating a dialogue with heritage authorities on a client’s vision for the site and areas for potential change. Working with Historic England and the local council is beneficial in mapping and implementing the client’s long-term vision.
Perhaps what I have learned most through my work as a conservation architect is that in planning project management, one must plan for the unexpected! Fascinating architectural features are not just discovered above the ground during surveys and the construction process, but also below it. It is always a delight and tremendous learning opportunity to engage with archaeology on site. Historic estates contain unknown structures and objects beneath the grounds which offer insights into past human activity. By unearthing and researching such discoveries, we learn more about the precedent of use and how sites were occupied. Site investigation and archaeological recording also contribute to local and national understanding of how humans used to live. In other words, building with an eye to heritage can be informative, benefiting both the site’s future development as well as our shared understanding of our collective past.
Managing heritage sites as an architect in conservation is truly a collaborative endeavour. It requires comprehensive understanding of a site and its history, alignment with an institution’s future ambitions, and the agility to adapt to changing demands of an estate as well as the ongoing environmental shifts. As architects, we negotiate these needs to realise opportunities and find solutions that benefit the site’s inhabitants while ensuring buildings continue to hold relevance and an active role in the community.
Lambeth Palace Masterplan
A comprehensive masterplan and new Energy Centre repairs and remodels the Lambeth Palace community, reframing its relationship with the public realm and enabling the site to reach net-zero targets.