Every building has a story to tell: How historic research informs what we do – By Helen Lawrence-Beaton

September 9, 2020

People are often curious to know what my job as an architectural historian at ADAM Architecture involves. I trained in art history before specialising in architectural and garden history, and I am lucky enough to have been employed as a full-time member of staff since first leaving university. I spend my days exploring properties and unpicking how they have evolved over time, identifying and dating original features wherever possible. This is backed up with visits to archives to find out as much about the property as possible. It is a bit like being a detective, and it is always exciting to uncover a dusty historic photograph or engraving that hasn’t seen the light of day for decades. I still get a geeky buzz from unearthing something new, from graffiti drawn by Second World War soldiers in the basement of a country house, to a hand-drawn estate map that captures an image of a Tudor house before it was radically refaced by the Georgians.

Historic maps can be beautiful snapshots into the appearance of a site centuries ago. They can also be incredibly useful in showing the location of lost structures, sometimes providing guidance as to where new buildings could be integrated.

However, far from being a luxury for the practice or an academic indulgence, this delving into archives all has a practical purpose and is essential to the work that we do. I write up my findings into a report, identifying key phases in the building’s evolution, such as when a new wing was added or removed, or a staircase altered by its owner. The report is usually accompanied by phasing diagrams to make the history easy to visualise.

 

My historic reports are accompanied by detailed phasing diagrams that show the evolution of the building. This allows us to assess the significance of the structure and its individual features.

This deeper understanding of a building’s history directly informs the design process. If we are planning to extend a house, my work can uncover which parts of the structure might already have been altered and are therefore more suitable as a site for a new intervention. Conversely, the older, more historically significant parts of the building can be identified, protected and sensitively restored. Sometimes, original features that had been covered over for centuries can be revealed and celebrated once more. Essentially, research can reveal a narrative - a story of change that can guide the next phase of a property’s history.

A medieval, jettied building in Hampshire, now restored by ADAM Architecture. This building’s timber framed structure was completely concealed by later works. Historic research helped to uncover its vibrant past.

My work can help us open a useful dialogue with local authorities and Conversation Officers, and for this reason, it can be vital in securing listed building consent, sometimes even streamlining the planning process. Good research conducted at the outset can therefore save our clients time and money, usually giving them the home that they want, whilst also ensuring the best outcome for the historic property and those who are duty bound to protect them. We have had great success with interventions at even at the most highly protected, Grade I listed properties, because our research has been thorough and has directly guided our proposals.

If we are planning an entirely new build or a masterplan for a village extension, historic research still plays just as important a role. I carry out analysis of the local architecture around a site, exploring a place by foot and photographing its details. Admittedly this can lead to some strange looks, but it allows us to get to the crux of what makes that place unique. I also use historic mapping to reveal how settlements have grown over the centuries. This work can highlight distinctive materials or quirks in local building techniques. The findings direct our designs, allowing us to create new houses that are sensitive to their context, and to form more unusual site layouts that mirror previous patterns of growth in the town or village.

 

Historic analysis also feeds into our urban design work, helping us to design places that are sensitive to the local character.

When I started out in this industry, these local character studies and pattern books were pioneering and a rarity - they are now recognised as best practice in urbanism and masterplanning, showing just how much housebuilding is changing. People generally don’t want to live in housing estates that look as though they ‘could be anywhere’ – they want to live in characterful buildings that are in harmony with the place in which they are built, and historic research can provide that link. This is good news for developers too, as it can add financial value to the houses that they create.

So next time you see a woman in wellies in your village, studiously photographing granite kerbstones or a window keystone, please don’t stare suspiciously. It’s probably just me going about my business. My historic research certainly isn’t just about archives; it can be as much about the future as the past, and is often the key to unlocking a building or site’s potential for the next 100 years.

Historic research isn’t just limited to archives – exploring and photographing buildings and places on foot is vital to my work.

By Dr. Helen Lawrence-Beaton, September 2020

Read more about our historic research www.adamarchitecture.com/historical-research and www.adamurbanism.com/expertise/historical-research