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European Scene: June 2011

Don’t go changin’


June 10, 2011
By John Roper

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Some years ago I went with a bunch of guys from the British Plastics
Federation Windows Group (BPF) to talk to English Heritage.

Some years ago I went with a bunch of guys from the British Plastics Federation Windows Group (BPF) to talk to English Heritage. Now, English Heritage is an organization tasked with preserving our old buildings. Well, actually, buildings of historical and architectural interest. At another level we have Conservation Areas, which are the responsibility of the local authority planning department.

These guys can be very unforgiving. Recently there was the case of a shopkeeper who bought his premises, in a Conservation Area, 20 years ago. The previous owner had installed an “inappropriate” frontage but nobody had noticed at the time. The new owner of 20 years was deemed to be responsible and now has a criminal record. Rather than just tell him to change it, the bureaucrats took him to court and it was apparently a criminal rather than civil matter. In addition, he still had to stump-up around 20,000 pounds to replace the shop front plus a fine and legal costs – around another 10,000 pounds. I am sure the bureaucrats were breaking out the champagne but it does make you wonder what gets people off.

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Anyway, as the BPF guys saw it, EH hated vinyl and wouldn’t allow it in any of the buildings in its care. We had a nice lunch but didn’t really achieve much, so later I went back to do a definitive interview. You can appreciate why the vinyl guys feel paranoid, what with Greenpeace after them as well, but it turns out that EH doesn’t just hate vinyl – it hates everything and that includes timber!
I suppose I had better qualify that before the phone starts ringing: English Heritage’s position is that it would rather repair than replace, and anything not completely in keeping with the period of the building it is trying to refurbish, materials as well as design, is out.

Of course, back in the 1980s we didn’t have people trying to preserve the planet as well. Now that that industry is well and truly established, we are beginning to see new conflicts arise.

The complaint, simply, is that conservation officers are not allowing changes to listed buildings and properties in Conservation Areas that would bring those buildings up to the standards demanded by building regulations. The government has set out targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions quite radically (and is even now about to up the ante). Conservationists (the ones concerned with preserving mouldering buildings, not the ones concerned with preserving the planet) just do not seem to be on-message.

Of course, with a heady mix of quangos, politicians and civil servants, you are going to get a major cock-up no matter what the subject.

For all their concern for the precise appearance of heritage buildings, planners are strangely oblivious when it comes to overall esthetics. When we moved into our neighbourhood 30 years ago pretty well all the houses had single-glazed picture windows. Disregarding the fire hazard – there was no way out through those windows – they just did not look right. But the planners didn’t care about such things. It was not until the PVC salesmen came around and we started to put back outward-opening casements that the square began to look the part again.

I would not want to have to fight with planning control every time I wanted to work on my house but the desire to preserve some periods just because they are old and considered to have some merit architecturally smacks of mere nostalgia. Old is not better. Neither, often, is new, but if there is a good reason to upgrade the old to bring it up to state-of-the-art, and you can do so without spoiling the overall effect, not to do so just seems hypocritical.

If we had always banned new materials we would still be living in daub-and-wattle huts instead of brick-built houses. The government needs not just to set emissions targets, but also to bang a few heritage heads together and drag the owners into the 21st century. •


John Roper is the editor for The Installer, The Fabricator, The
Conservatory Installer and Glass Works magazine published in the U.K.


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