A survey being carried out before repair works
A survey being carried out before repair works © Historic England
A survey being carried out before repair works © Historic England

Finding Professional Help

There are a number of professions that can help you plan and carry out work to an old building. Going it alone without the help of experienced and qualified professionals in order to save money often proves to be a false economy. It's worth thinking about what help will benefit your project early on. 

On this page:

What professional help do you need?

Whoever you decide to employ, it's important to choose someone who has the knowledge and experience necessary to work on older buildings. They also need to be aware of the problems and pitfalls to expect.

Many building professionals are trained and experienced only in modern building methods. Lacking the relevant experience with older buildings, they're less able to identify the causes of problems or to specify appropriate and cost effective repairs to older buildings.

Working with older buildings calls for a particular set of skills and expertise. Professionals use conservation accreditation and certification schemes to demonstrate their competence. These will be useful for finding professionals to help you as:

  • the professionals registered in these schemes have demonstrated their competence by submitting evidence of their knowledge, skills and experience
  • you can search the registers to find professionals with the skills you need

Depending on the size, complexity and nature of the particular building project you may consider using:

Architects

The term 'architect' is a protected title in the UK. Only those who are registered with the Architects Registration Board can call themselves an 'architect'. Practitioners who adopt similar titles such as 'architectural designer' do not have the professional qualifications needed to be an architect.

Architects are trained in design, and those who specialise in old buildings can bring their expertise to the design of refurbishments, alterations and extensions, as well as designing new buildings in historic areas.

There are more than 30,000 architects registered in the UK but only a small proportion specialise in the repair of old buildings. Those who do may apply for conservation accreditation through the Register of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation (AABC), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), or Royal Institute of Architects Ireland (RIAI).

Chartered building surveyors

Chartered building surveyors (MRICS or FRICS ) have a similar role to the architect in relation to repairing and maintaining existing buildings, but are generally not trained as designers.

Chartered building surveyors and chartered quantity surveyors can apply to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Building Conservation Accreditation Scheme.

The Chartered Institute for Building (CIOB) Conservation Certification scheme has routes for building and quantity surveyors. From their register it's also possible to find a range of other roles with conservation certification including:

  • Works supervisors/site managers
  • Design coordinators/managers
  • Project/construction managers
  • Facilities/estates managers

Chartered quantity surveyors

For a larger project, consider hiring a chartered quantity surveyor (MRICS or FRICS) with conservation expertise demonstrated by accreditation or certification. A quantity surveyor can estimate the cost of building work, obtain tenders, and deal with the financial control of building work and contractual issues.

Conservation professionals

Conservation professionals are specialists in heritage matters who help you manage, care for, conserve and improve your home. Their particular concern is to ensure that any work respects heritage values, historic features and specialist construction techniques.

Conservation professionals might come from a wide variety of disciplines, such as archaeology, town planning, specialist research and investigations, project managers. They can be accredited as full members of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, and have the letters IHBC after their name.

You can find a range of conservation professionals and contractors using the IHBC’s Historic Environment Service Providers Recognition (HESPR) web list of businesses, while the organisation’s national office can guide you towards the relevant accredited members.

Chartered architectural technologists

Chartered architectural technologists (MCIAT) are concerned primarily with the sound technical performance of buildings. They are specialists in building design and construction and can initiate and complete a building project from conception through to final certification.

Those who specialise in conservation may apply to the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists to become an accredited conservationist

Structural engineers

Structural problems are usually best assessed by a structural engineer. Again it's best to find an engineer who is experienced with old buildings. The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStrucE) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) hold a list of engineers accredited in building conservation (Conservation Accreditation Register of Engineers - CARE). Structural engineers can help with examining the condition and defects of the existing structure.

Building services engineers

Also known as mechanical and electrical services engineers, they can provide advice and design on a range of systems including internal and external lighting, heating, ventilation, public health, drainage, electrical distribution, fire alarm and security systems.

Again, it's important to employ suitably qualified professionals on larger more complex historic building projects. Suitable engineers are likely to be chartered members or fellows of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE and FCIBSE) or The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

Recognised trade bodies

For simpler projects, as with listed domestic-sized properties, it may instead be possible to use a quality contractor or local tradesman. It's still important that the chosen contractor is experienced in working on older buildings and is a registered member of a recognised trade body such as:

For electrical works within a domestic dwelling it's also important that the electrician is Part P registered. (Part P of the Building Regulations came into force in January 2005 to ensure that all electrical work carried out within a dwelling is carried out safely by a qualified electrician and that building control is notified of this work).

Conservators

Conservators are experts in the conservation, repair and preservation of materials and objects, such as wall paintings, statues and stained glass. They can also carry out surveys of historic materials and objects, and make recommendations for their repair. The Institute of Conservation’s Conservation Register lists conservators with specific skills.

Builders/contractors

It's worth spending just as much time choosing a builder as a professional adviser. If you have appointed an architect or surveyor, they should help find a suitable builder for you. If you're not employing a professional adviser for the works, it's important to find a builder with experience and knowledge of old buildings. Ask around, check references, go and look at other jobs that the builder has completed. The Federation of Master Builders and National Federation of Builders offer searchable registers.

If you're seeking advice from a builder on what work is needed, be aware that they have a vested interest in how much work there is to do. If you think a builder may be proposing unnecessary work, you should seek independent professional advice.

Many elements of old buildings are quite fragile. When considering a repair, they'll require specialist expertise rather than the skills of a general builder. This kind of work could include the cleaning of brickwork or stonework, paint-colour analysis or the installation of special services. So ask for examples of their experience with older buildings and take up references.

Ask about their training and qualifications. For example, trades people can gain the Heritage Skills CSCS card, while works supervisors and site managers can gain CIOB Conservation Certification.

Specialist suppliers

There are now a wide range of specialist suppliers who can supply traditional building materials. These can include lime products, special bricks, historic paint colours and mixes and many other useful materials. These suppliers can also give advice on how the materials should be used.

Conservation officers

Conservation officers, sometimes called historic buildings officers, are specialists within a local planning authority. They can give technical repair advice on work to old buildings as well as advice on development issues such as extensions and alterations to old buildings. It's advisable to consult them early on in your project if you think Listed Building Consent or Conservation Area Consent will be required.

Landscape architects

Chartered members of the Landscape Institute (CMLI) include a range of practitioners involved in protecting, conserving, planning and managing landscapes including historic parks and gardens specialists. Through the Landscape Institute’s Directory you can find specialist members and registered practices.

The advantages of using professionals

A professional should steer you away from carrying out unnecessary or inappropriate work on an old building. Professionals who have experience of older properties should be able to suggest cost-effective and well-designed solutions to any problems you encounter.

There are a number of tasks that are often best dealt with by a professional leading on the project such as architects, chartered building surveyors or chartered architectural technologists.

These include:

  • Carrying out surveys before purchase
  • Obtaining consents such as listed building consent, planning permission and building regulations approval
  • Writing specifications that detail what works are to be undertaken, which materials are to be used and what standards should be used in the construction
  • Advising on health and safety
  • Finding suitable builders/contractors
  • Tendering works and deciding on a contract
  • Monitoring the building work and administering the contract and payments

Preparing for the work to start

If you decide not to employ a professional to prepare a specification, tender the work or find a builder then there are some important issues you should consider.

The contract

When having building works carried out it is always advisable to have a contract drawn up that includes start and finish dates, the agreed fixed price for the work, and exactly what the price does and does not include (rather than an estimate). The contract should also cover insurance issues.

Professional institutions such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Joint Contracts Tribunal produce standard contracts written specifically for homeowners.

Additional works

Work to old buildings can often include items that were unforeseen at the time the price was agreed but which become apparent as work proceeds and the building is 'opened up'.

Establish with the builder before starting a project how additional works will be costed, and consider a contingency sum to cover unforeseen problems.

Work methods and sequence

Before work starts, find out how it will be carried out, and in what sequence. If you're ordering specific items yourself, you'll need to allow for ordering and delivery times.

Try also to establish how the site will be run. Agree where materials will be stored and what protection measures will be put in place to prevent damage to the building or your possessions. Whether you're having construction work carried out to your own home (or the home of a family member) or as part of a business, you need to be aware of the duties, roles and responsibilities for health and safety under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015).

Photographic record

It's always worth having a photographic record of the building before works start in case there are any problems later. Your works may impact on neighbouring properties so you may need to get advice on party wall matters, rights of light or boundary issues from a chartered building surveyor.

Wildlife

You need to be aware if wildlife and ecology may be affected by your proposed works. Birds, bats, badgers, and some reptiles and amphibians and plants are protected by law. If protected species are present an ecologist can advise, survey and recommend mitigation measures. Find out more from our page on Wildlife and Habitats.

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