Looking up from the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral towards a RAF Belvedere helicopter lowering the 80ft bronze spire on to the roof of the new cathedral

Historic England's Approach to the Reconstruction of Heritage Assets

Historic England’s approach to reconstruction sits within a range of other guidance. Our recommended approach sets out a series of issues which need to be worked through in coming to an informed decision about whether to reconstruct.

Relevant and related Historic England guidance

It is many years since English Heritage, Historic England’s predecessor, provided guidance on the reconstruction of heritage assets. Parts of English Heritage’s 2001 Policy Statement on Restoration, Reconstruction, and Speculative Recreation of Archaeological Sites including Ruins have been incorporated in more summary form in the advice below.

Historic England Advice Note 2 Making Changes to Heritage Assets (2016) contains sections on restoration, additions and alterations, relevant elements of which have been included here, sometimes in slightly modified form to reflect the differences between restoration and reconstruction.

Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment (2008; hereafter 'Conservation Principles') is currently being revised. The information provided on this webpage informs and is informed by the sections in the 2008 'Conservation Principles' on reconstruction and on the related topics of restoration, new work and alteration.

Historic England’s approach to reconstruction as outlined below has taken account of some significant factors that have emerged since 'Conservation Principles' were first published in 2008. These include advances in digital technology, which allow for more accurate and comprehensive data about heritage assets to be recorded.

In addition, a conservative approach to reconstruction and restoration is generally supported by international charters and documents, as well as domestic publications which place great weight on having accurate evidence on which to base reconstruction.

Historic England advice

Historic England recommends that any reconstruction proposal needs to be based on a thorough understanding of the heritage values of the site or place, and the impact of the proposal on these values.

Even when a lot of information is available, reconstruction will not always be appropriate. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • when there is insufficient knowledge of, and evidence for, the history of the asset for a credible reconstruction;
  • when any elements of the significance of the asset may be unnecessarily damaged or lost;
  • when the fact of loss or damage is of high significance;
  • and when (a) key stakeholder(s) do not support reconstruction.

This applies particularly for places where their primary value comes from the potential to provide evidence about past human activity, and the weight attached to historic fabric or archaeological evidence is the basis for its significance. In these places, it may not be appropriate to undertake any reconstruction work that would disturb or conceal it so that it is unavailable for study.

It can also apply to heritage assets where their incomplete or ruinous nature provides a commemorative value which gives them their significance. Examples of this include St Luke’s church in Liverpool, and the National Picture Theatre in Hull, where the maintenance of the buildings as ruins provide places where the impact of bombing on communities in the Second World War is remembered.

Before reaching a decision about whether or not to reconstruct heritage assets in England, and in determining how to carry out and document reconstruction work, we recommend that the following questions are considered, although not every question will apply to every individual case. If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then reconstruction may not be in the best interests of the heritage asset and the values which it embodies.

  • Is the record of the asset prior to damage or destruction good enough to to enable accurate reconstruction rather than speculative re-creation? Digital recording technologies offer great opportunities for significant places to be recorded comprehensively in a cost effective way to allow this, particularly where heritage assets are vulnerable to damage or destruction
  • Is the relative significance of the elements proposed for reconstruction, including their evidential value, fully understood?
  • If reconstruction will cause harm to any of its heritage values, will the significance of the whole and of the elements that would be restored decisively outweigh the significance of those that would be lost?
  • In places whose primary significance is vested in their evidential value will reconstruction sustain this value rather than damage or conceal historic fabric or archaeological remains so as to make them unavailable for future research?
  • Will it be possible to distinguish the reconstructed elements from any physical fabric and/or archaeological remains that have survived from before the damage occurred or, if destruction is total, will it be clear that the asset is a reconstruction?
  • Can such a distinction be made discreetly and subtly, rather than overtly? If this is not possible, for example where this would harm the aesthetic values of the place, would comprehensive recording and archiving offset the harm?
  • If the form in which the heritage asset currently exists is the result of a significant historical event, can reconstruction take place without harming the ability to understand this event?
  • Does the work proposed respect previous forms of the heritage asset?
  • Have any proposals to reconstruct a particular phase of a heritage asset been balanced against any reduction in value as a result of a loss of fabric from, or ability to understand, other phases?
  • In addition to expert advice and opinion, do decisions taken on reconstruction involve the communities (where they still exist) that created the heritage asset and/or the communities that now care for the asset?
  • Can a conflict between the aspirations of communities that care for heritage assets and the principles set out in UK policy and guidance and/or widely accepted international guidance be avoided? If so will this represent a balanced solution, based on respect for the legitimacy of the cultural values of all parties with a recognised interest?
  • Will the materials and methods of construction be based on conservation planning and values, so that they reflect and embody the cultural heritage values of the place?
  • Does the approach adopted take into account the future needs of the place by addressing factors such as historic structural failure, the need for disaster resilience and the desirability of improved energy efficiency, and if so to what extent might this compromise the significance of the place?
  • Where archaeological reconstructions are being proposed for experimental research or interpretation purposes is the greatest care being taken to avoid harming surviving archaeological evidence? Is there a clear and convincing justification for setting aside the general presumption against them in national and international policy and practice?
  • In the case of archaeological earthworks and archaeological remains that have been removed by excavation, should appropriate material to re-establish the pre excavation profile or surface level be used, and will an accurate record of the works be made?
  • Will the reconstructed asset or feature create, or have the potential to create, cultural and heritage value in its own right, and has this need been considered in coming to a balanced decision?
  • Have the maintenance implications of the proposed reconstruction, and its long-term physical and economic sustainability, been taken into account from the outset?
  • Will monitoring of the effectiveness of the reconstruction work, and the consequences of it, be undertaken and will any lessons learned for the future be shared widely?
  • Have arrangements been made for a full record of the reconstruction work to be made and deposited in a secure and accessible archive, supplemented by information on any lessons learned?
  • If reconstruction of places, sites or features is to proceed, have the heritage values impacted, and the balanced decision-making process leading to a decision, been fully documented?

It should be emphasized that Historic England does not accept that the potential to reconstruct heritage assets, or to create comprehensive digital records, provides a valid justification by itself for demolition or for allowing physical fabric/archaeological remains to fall in to disrepair

Once these questions have been considered fully, it should be possible to make balanced decisions on whether reconstruction is appropriate and, if so, what form it should take.

If this advice is followed, the rationale for the decision and the lessons learned from it should be well evidenced, accessible and of value in the future.

Cultural Protection Fund

There is a renewed interest in reconstruction as a result of natural disasters such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the destruction of significant archaeological and historic places in Iraq and Syria. In response the UK Government has established the Cultural Protection Fund to 'foster, safeguard and promote cultural heritage in conflict-afflicted regions'.

While the approach taken in England will not always be applicable elsewhere, there are some aspects of this advice that may help to inform decisions on proposals made to the Cultural Protection Fund involving reconstruction.