Designing for the future by looking back at the past

July 2, 2024

Written by Nico Jackson, Consultant Architectural Historian. 

ADAM Architecture is well known for breathing new life into listed buildings, extending and adapting historic houses in a way that respects their original design, materials and craftsmanship, preserving and enhancing the building fabric to make the homes fit for 21st century living.

The meticulous process involved in restoring listed buildings begins with ensuring a thorough understanding of a building’s history. The time and cost taken to put together a comprehensive historical development report is more than made up for by the numerous benefits such scrutiny provides. Not only does it demonstrate to planning authorities and conservation officers that new interventions have been carefully considered, and the critical historic elements preserved in any new design, it also helps inform the new design, throwing light on the origins of the building and its development over time, as well as providing a valuable historical document for the client.

To carry out this research, we have a dedicated history department, led by Dr Helen Lawrence-Beaton whose PhD was on the English Baroque architect, Thomas Archer. For the whole team, researching a historic building involves detective work which will usually begin in the archives of the Record Office of the county in which the building is located. There, it is possible to trace the development of the building over the centuries, sometimes even laying hands on the intricate calligraphy of original mortgage agreements from the early 18th century, or 300-year-old drawings from an architect to a client – and even vice versa. Architects’ plans and drawings from interventions over the years are often also found in these historic archives and can provide invaluable insight into a building’s evolution, as are books on local history.

R: Historic maps like this first edition ordnance survey map can provide vital clues about a site’s development.

Architects’ plans and drawings from previous interventions are often found in historic archives.

Much information can be gleaned from old tithe maps, estate maps and ordnance survey maps, the first editions of which are delicately coloured and works of art in themselves. Studying the maps, particularly when comparing editions, can reveal vital clues as to the dates of changing boundaries, additional outhouses and altered access routes. They can also reveal extensions and lost structures, which can provide guidance as to where new buildings might be integrated. Generally speaking, the more recent the extension or alteration, the more likely it is that listed building consent will be granted to make further alterations or additions. Equally, for areas of the house that are found to be original, or of special historic significance, particular attention is given to sensitively restore and protect that part of the building. Occasionally, research will uncover an original feature which has been hidden for decades, or even centuries, and can be revealed once more.

Research can include a history of the ownership of a property, which will also throw light on change of use or adaptations over time; perhaps it was at one time a farmhouse, a doctor’s surgery or a village shop. With larger properties it is quite often the case that it was at one time subdivided into apartments. The detailed written history of the building is always accompanied by photographs, both historic and current, alongside any architectural drawings from previous interventions, up to current drawings of the building at the time of appointment. Almost all reports conclude with a series of coloured phasing diagrams which distil the historic information and make it quickly and easily accessible.


Every historic report includes coloured phasing diagrams to show a building’s evolution.

Our historic development reports can prove critical to securing listed building consent, sometimes even streamlining the planning process. This can result in saving our clients both time and money while delivering the home they have dreamed about and securing the future of the historically significant building. Dr Lawrence-Beaton talks of the ‘great success with interventions at even the most highly protected Grade I listed properties, because our research has been thorough and has directly guided our proposals’.

Historic research isn’t limited to listed buildings. For new build houses and masterplans, it is still vital to analyse the architecture around the site, photographing details in order to build up a pattern book to reflect local building materials and any unusual building techniques. This ensures that anything we impose on the site is sensitive to its context, and masterplans reflect previous patterns of growth in a town or village. Most prospective buyers prefer homes which are particular to their context, and this benefits developers too, as such an approach will often add financial value to the properties.

So, in summary, historic research isn’t just limited to existing buildings, and nor is it restricted to searching through archives. ‘It is’, says Dr Lawrence-Beaton, ‘as much about the future as the past, and is often the key to unlocking a building or a site’s potential for the next 100 years.’

Other historic maps, like this enclosure map, can prove useful.

Photographs from previous decades, and sometimes centuries, can reveal details not found in historic plans.

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