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Conservation confusion

Conserving our heritage: 'One woman was in tears that her home was a protected structure'

If your local authority decides your house or business is a protected structure, what actually happens?

ARCHITECT WILLIAM CUMMING’S long job title of Chief Architect at the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH), under the equally catchy-named Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, means he’s in charge of preserving Ireland’s structural heritage.

Along with his title, preserving people’s homes and businesses is something that can confuse people.

“A woman called me up in tears once,” Cumming recalls, “Because her house was marked as a protected structure. I looked at a photograph of her house and asked her, ‘Do you like your house?’, and she said, ‘Well, yes I do’.

“I said it’s really obvious you do, it’s well looked after. ‘Are you thinking of doing anything to it, like demolishing it?’ And she said ‘No, no, of course not.’

“I told her she’d already been doing everything to maintain the house and look after it, but the one thing she may need to do is to fix the windows, and because the house is a protected structure, she could apply for a grant for the windows.

“Her experience instantly changed from negative to positive. People think that if there house is a protected structure, they’ll have to open it up to the public, or something.”

He says that there is greater confusion about what a protected structure means outside of Dublin because in the capital city, the conservation process has been around for years.

“We’re not trying to create museum cities,” he says when I ask if there’s a limit on the number of structures that can go on the list (there isn’t).

Building restoration NIAH NIAH

What they aim to do is maintain the character of Ireland’s streets and countrysides – as much as possible with the small team, limited resources and a country in the middle of a housing crisis.

What’s the process? 

The NIAH have been surveying old structures around Ireland and assessing which ones would be suitable for conservation for the past 12 years – and they’re almost finished.

At the moment, their four Dublin staff members are surveying the streets of the two final areas on their list: Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Dublin city. This week they were looking at Camden Street, seeing what are the characteristics that make it so unique.

Cumming and his team don’t survey all the structures in Ireland – their team is too small for that. When they started, they went from town-to-town, countryside-to-countryside, using old maps and Google Street View to draw up a list of what they would survey.

“We don’t survey the inside of private buildings – we can, but we took a strategic decision not to, because it puts the private owners out, and logistically, it would make it next to impossible to complete.”

When the conservation team began their work, they were surveying buildings using pen and paper: “You don’t want to hear about that,” Cumming laughs.

Now, using technology to log information together, they have a fairly comprehensive list of some of the most historically and culturally significant Irish buildings, statues and other structures, which they’ve broken down per county council district, and booklets that categorise structures by their features.

NIAH Laois NIAH Laois NIAH Laois


Cumming says that he’s retiring soon, but after the project is finished, they might have to go back and redo the first-surveyed counties, which weren’t as comprehensive as later counties.

“If a building was already on the Record of Protected Structures, we wouldn’t record the building.

“So for example, in Co Kildare a lot of the country houses are already protected, but Castletown House isn’t protected. You’re trying to figure out the best way of doing it at the start, because this hadn’t been done before, and everything was done on paper. But I think that was a mistake and we should go back and include them.”

Once a building is included on the NIAH’s recommendation for the conservation list, that list is then passed on to the relevant county council who make a final vote on what makes it onto the Record of Protected Structures, under which there’s a legal obligation to look after the structure.

What do you do when you own a protected structure?

Before a building is included on the the Record of Protected Structures (RPS), the owner must be notified, and they have a right to submit reasons why it shouldn’t be added.

Once councillors vote that a building be included to the RPS, the owner has a duty under legislation to maintain the character of the building. If you’re in poor health, you’re not required to restore the house, but simply to maintain the building as is.

If you are proposing to do restoration work, there is funding to help you.

The problem with that funding is that there is very little of it available, and although they prioritise funding applications per urgency and value for money, you could have to wait years before you get the grant you ask for.

NIAH Protected Structures NIAH NIAH

Because of the online system, there is an opportunity to update the system – so if someone feels that their building should be included on the list, or if there’s a structure on the list that needs additional information, they can contact the NIAH or your county council to update the entries.

Does the system work?

“In the overall scheme of things,” Cumming says “The system works. There’s a bit of convincing at local level if things are made a protected structure. How things regarded in the countryside is very different than in Dublin.”

The difficulty comes from rural counties having less experience of protecting historical and local structures. This is almost seen as a negative thing, as rural towns and communities want up-to-date buildings and facilities.

Legislation around conservation really only dates since 2000, and Cumming says it’s still something “people are getting their heads around”.

Everyone is happy Castletown House protected, but people are more iffy if it’s their own house.
We’re not trying to create museum cities. We just want make the point, look, there’s a lot here you should be really proud of.

shutterstock_123131863 Castletown House, Celbridge Co Kildare. Shutterstock / niall dunne Shutterstock / niall dunne / niall dunne

Some of the fear and confusion might come from how people are notified: they get a letter saying they will be punished by the law if damage is done, when in reality all that’s being said is maintain the structure.

Buildings are chosen based on architectural or historical significance, and importance to the local community. A great example of this is old Irish churches, which are ancient structures, architecturally significant, socially important, and usually in dire need of preservation.

“One of the things that was really striking,” Cumming says. “Was the number of churches in small towns across Ireland. In one border town in Northern Ireland, there were Catholic churches and a Church of Ireland, Free Presbyterian Churches, Methodist churches, and in total there were 62 churches in the town.”

Across the Republic, there are hundreds of churches that are important examples of Irish heritage, but not all will get funding, leading to a lot of church fundraisers to meet the demand for repairs.

Where does the funding go?

The Structures at Risk Fund (SRF) is given through the local authorities to encourage the people to preserve their heritage properties that might otherwise be lost.

Since 2011, over 180 structures have been granted funding under the Structures at Risk Fund; in 2016 over 50 projects were funded.

As of 2015, there were over 41,000 protected structures on the RPS.

Most protected structures NIAH NIAH

In 2016, the new Built Heritage Investment Scheme helped a further 270 projects across the country, creating over 17,000 days of employment in the conservation and construction industries.

The scheme has also leveraged just under €5.5 million: more than double the scheme’s original allocation of €2 million.

The grant schemes for protected structures are open now, and the worksheet that is to be started and be completed within the financial year.

As mentioned before, this is not on a first-come-first-served basis, but based on what is really urgent and what would advance the building.

When I ask Cumming about the future prospects are for preserving buildings in the future when we have a housing crisis and a growing population – surely we get to a limit?

“Of course we need to build new buildings for a growing population,” he says. “But there’s a sustainability issue here. A lot of energy is expended to create buildings in the first place.

“We should try to fill buildings that already exist – maybe the ground floor is used, and upstairs isn’t used – before we start building new ones to regenerate towns and villages.”

Read: After surviving 100 years of change, this rare building has been ‘gutted out’

Read: Heritage pubs owner to recreate interior of 100-year-old shop that was ‘gutted out’ last month

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