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As a partner in ONE17 Architects & Interior Designers, Stuart Beaumont has worked in private architectural practice for over thirty years. Latterly he has spent more and more time working on historic buildings, listed buildings and in particular on the vast number of churches that make up such an important part of our architectural heritage.
We sat down with Stuart to reflect on the particular skills and experience he brings to bear on his work.
Q&A WITH ARCHITECT STUART BEAUMONT
Stuart, I know you have worked on all kinds of building types during your career, so what drew you to specialising in conservation and heritage work?
It probably stemmed from my time attending my local church, All Saints, Salterhebble in Halifax during the 1980s. I found myself developing a real passion for ecclesiastical architecture and how such buildings could be adapted for changing patterns of worship and community use, whilst retaining the essential qualities of the originals. I ended up project managing work on All Saints with two other church members and my interest grew as more schemes came along.
Do you think it is possible to operate successfully in your specialist field without a more general experience in architectural practice?
No. My training and early years in offices taught me the importance of doing the basic things correctly whether that’s inviting tenders or detailing construction so that it works. A grounding in construction contract law and a detailed understanding of construction from first principles is key to all architectural work - not just heritage buildings.
Can you give us an idea of the type of work you are involved in nowadays?
Some of my time is spent attending DAC (Diocesan Advisory Committee) meetings; this is a body of specialist consultants who provide advice to parishes and then advise the Chancellor whether or not the committee is in support of schemes. These might typically be for conservation repairs or re-ordering (replanning or modification of the interior) of a church.
I also spend time advising churches on funding possibilities and guiding them to make Heritage Lottery Fund applications.
Otherwise it’s the full gamut of architectural work - I don’t deal exclusively with listed buildings! So one day might be sketch proposals, another detailing an element of construction and another compiling a specification for lime mortar. At present I’m involved in the replanning of an industrial complex that happens to contain a listed mill.
You do a lot of work on churches; one of the terms I have come across in church work is a quinquennial inspection – what does that involve?
Canon Law requires Anglican churches to have their buildings inspected by their ‘Inspecting Architect’ - who is chosen from a pool of architects deemed to have the required experience and knowledge of repair of ecclesiastical buildings - every five years. Hence quinquenniual. The inspection results in a report that highlights works required, sometimes urgently, sometimes not so urgently, over the next five year period. It’s a great system and the principle probably should be applied to all buildings.
It must be inevitable that many of your projects involve listed buildings and work in conservation areas – what particular problems or opportunities do these create?
Well the planning system can be a minefield to negotiate on any project but listed buildings and conservation areas add a whole further stratum of legislation to be navigated. Having said that there is a privilege in being able to work on really special buildings and locations and that carries significant responsibility. Deciding the extent of internal modification to allow the original distinctive aspect of the building to be preserved whilst meeting the needs of the brief; balancing the need to extend or modify a building without major impact on its particular character be it a fine Georgian house or a listed Gilbert Scott church.
Achieving a juxtaposition of old with new can be particularly satisfying: black, white, rough, smooth, plain, decorative. Balance and harmony relating to nature.
Does conservation and heritage work mean you have a particular attitude to architectural design? Who or what would you say has influenced that attitude?
I think my appreciation of natural materials and appreciation of craftsmanship and my practical approach which developed when I built my own home. Also ONE17’s philosophy of the use of natural materials and the juxtaposition of old with new etc.
I love to work with structures and fabric of building whenever possible. We have a duty to protect the original design intention and quality of materials and workmanship. Having said that I believe buildings should not be preserved as museum pieces but used to serve current needs to ensure sustainability.
What is the greatest satisfaction you derive from your work?
Seeing a dilapidated, dark building brought back to useful life after a period of neglect and decay. And the pleasure it brings to the community it serves. Even an individual dwelling plays a part in many people’s lives in terms of its contribution to its setting. And of course community buildings can benefit huge numbers of people. Some basic improvements in insulation, heating and lighting, plus a few design changes can work wonders.
What are the biggest frustrations you have to deal with?
Lack of funding, which can limit opportunities for design creativity. A planning system that sometimes ignores the practicalities of working with heritage buildings. Being obliged to work with an unknown contractor who submits the lowest tender and then suffering the consequences when on site: the battle such a contractor wages to pull back costs to balance the books. Poor workmanship coupled with inadequate training and lack of passion to do a really good job.
Which projects stick out for you as the most memorable that you have worked on?
St Peter’s Church, Huddersfield. A long term project. ONE17 was chosen for our strong vision. A relationship which has grown through numerous successful planning applications and contracts to provide all inclusive access, followed by several schemes of repair, i.e. tower, roof, balcony strengthening, ornate ceiling repairs and external stone fabric and window repairs.
The Methodist Mission also in Huddersfield. A challenge to find an alternative home for the original Mission which was to be demolished to make way for the first King Street shopping centre (Kingsgate). Designing and building a new mission church in the heart of my home town. Designing and overseeing fabrication of the font, the communion table and lectern, graphic materials and fixing of a 4’ tall oak cross within the chapel area manufactured by a local artisan.
Most people have very little idea of what architects really do – do you find that the complications of conservation and heritage work adds another layer of difficulty when discussing schemes with the non-specialists?
To a degree, yes. Sometimes people do not see the importance of a traditional long-term repair such as a lead roof covering rather than a cheap fix when money is tight. I remember the struggle to convince a client that repairs were required to some fine stained glass to save it for the future. Does it really matter that some fine Victorian craftsmanship is deteriorating due to lack of maintenance or correct protection? Educating clients to appreciate what they have is difficult sometimes.
What is your attitude to the use of CAD?
CAD is a wonderful modern tool for assimilating information and sharing that information with others. 3D work is particularly useful and creative. My chief concern is that young architects get drawn into the technology for its own sake, a little like learning to play a computer game without fully understanding what is being drawn and what the lines represent in terms of actual building. In other words an over reliance on technology. I still work on the drawing board, particularly at the design stage because this allows freedom of expression, gives time to think and explore ideas with a quick thumb nail sketch rather than concerns over exact dimensions that computers can create. I am not a Luddite but I find that a lot of younger architects brought up with CAD disagree with me and believe they can bypass the drawing board or sketchpad.
Are you an advocate of retention at all costs when it comes to old buildings?
I am certainly not. I think that almost all buildings are worthy of change and can with skill be modified or extended to enhance the original concept. Buildings are fundamentally a resource that must be used. An unused building is unsustainable and will quickly go into decline, culminating in demolition. So modification is often the key to keeping our heritage alive for future generations.
If someone owns an historic or listed building, or one within a conservation area, and wants to do some work on it, what is the best advice you would give them?
Speak to a conservation accredited architect available from the register of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation (www.aabc-register.co.uk) list for your region. Don’t be tempted to go straight to your local builder. All modification works however small will require careful specification and invariably approval of your Local Authority or fall within the Faculty jurisdiction if a place of worship.
Is it easy to find tradespeople and craftsmen with the skills to work on historic buildings nowadays?
No. A good number of contractors profess to be specialists but invariably they are not. The good ones are always busy and we can help with sourcing a suitable contractor in your region.
You must have come across many strange or unusual situations during your working life - is there one in particular you would like to share with us?
Taking a work experience student up some scaffolding on a local church only to find he froze, terrified of the height - it took several minutes to coax him down! Being stuck on a roof in freezing weather when my ageing limbs refused to allow me to get back on the ladder. Excavating on the line of an existing path through a graveyard and finding brick built tombs just 400mm below the surface. Visiting a church to inspect failing plaster embellishment only to be narrowly missed by a 5kg plaster rose crashing down as we stood discussing the repair needs!
In your experience are there plenty of young architects interested in conservation and heritage work?
No. Except in rare instances most young architects tend to fall into conservation and heritage work by accident or situation. In my experience the majority of young architects are attracted by the glamour of designing high rise or ‘iconic’ buildings.
If there is one piece of advice you would give a young architect starting on his or her career now, what would it be?
My advice would be to spend time working on a construction site. Build or make something. Understand the limitations of materials under construction from first principles. Acknowledge the difficulties of the construction industry and try to instigate a fresh approach to construction projects. Cultivate a no blame culture, appreciate the value of working with established and known contractors. Share knowledge.
What is the one item of equipment you could not work without?
A sketch book and pencil.