What is a historic building?
We do no doubt that Saint Paul’s cathedral or a Cotswold’s thatched-roof cottage are historic buildings. Saint Paul’s is a religious building designed to gather big groups of people. The cottage allows a family to live.
Although we can quickly identify both as historic buildings, they don’t seem to have much in common. One is public, and the other is private. They also differ in size and style, as they belong to different times in history and serve different purposes. There must be an extra layer beyond their materiality that allows them to be under the label ‘historic’. The Cotswold cottage displays the local stone. Saint Paul’s shines in Portland stone, a traditional stone for public buildings throughout history in the City of London.
How to identify a historic building
The term historic refers to history, and therefore the clue is in the 4th dimension: time. Independent of their appearance, historic buildings can tell us about their own time and past events. The Cotswold cottage tells us about when buildings used local resources and were shaped to adapt to the local climate.
Saint Paul’s tells us of its medieval origin and presence during WW II. It tells us about the classical taste during its reconstruction in the late seventeenth century, and it shows the advances in mathematics through the achievement of its dome.
Historic buildings have the quality of encapsulating the traits of a past time. They can tell us about the culture, the economy or the technology of their time, or the time they have lived.
When does a building become historic?
Time is relative, and so is the concept of a historic building. Conceptually it is challenging to establish a virtual line to point to when buildings stop being historical and are just buildings. This virtual line keeps moving as time passes by. For instance, Georgian buildings were just ordinary buildings during their time. Now we look at them with interest.
The cultural and political context is crucial when defining this virtual line. For instance, preservation rules in the USA offer a guideline of 50 years allowance to locate this invisible line. In Hong Kong, the conservation rules advise that buildings should be older than 30 years. Similarly, Historic England, the body that reports on the protection of historic buildings in this country, considers that a 30 years period allows us a sufficient time perspective to understand the significance of a building.
Lloyd’s Building by Richard Rogers Partnership, on the left below, was built between 1981-1986. Thirty years later, in 2011, the Secretary of State granted the grade I. Lloyd’s was striking since it appeared in the City. Still, those thirty years confirmed the relevance of this building as a representative of the High Tech style and the significance of its innovative design. Half a mile from Lloyd’s is No.1 Poultry, on the right below. This building by James Stirling has been a grade II* listed since 2016 and was built between 1985-1988.
(Left) Grade I listed, Lloyd’s Building by Richard Rogers Partnership built between 1981-1986. (Above) Grade II* listed, No.1 Poultry by James Stirling built between 1985-1988.
Are all historic buildings listed?
Historic buildings can come in many forms beyond listed buildings. Signs of history are present in traditional buildings, conservation areas, buildings of local interest, buildings in world heritage sites or the place where you live. Buildings with no statutory protection can also have value as heritage assets. British Standard 7913:2013 and national and international bodies, like SPAB and ICOMOS, recognise their value.
Conservation is not just for the care of those historic buildings legally protected. The use and maintenance of historic buildings can benefit owners, users and the community. There are the aesthetic benefits, the chance to enjoy architecture done differently from today. It also offers creative opportunities, especially in the case of upgrading buildings to current standards and in the reuse of existing structures to create new uses and spaces.
Why should I care about historic buildings?
An updated version of this article has been published in Designing Buildings.