Photo of the a sunlit front of Kenwood House with people walking along the path in front

Kenwood House © Historic England DP052254
Kenwood House © Historic England DP052254

Using Technology to Preserve Heritage Assets at Kenwood House

At Kenwood House, new technologies are being deployed to better preserve the building and its contents and improve environmental efficiency.

Historic buildings usually predate any form of building regulations. Much of the infrastructure in place, critical for their continued use today, did not exist when they were originally built.

The retrofitting of modern amenities including water supplies, gas, electricity and passenger lifts in historic buildings therefore creates new risks to actively manage. For example, vertical and horizontal voids can contribute to the rapid spread of fire.

A fire or severe weather event can be devastating for a historic property. The potential loss of the cultural assets that they hold – which can include some of the nation’s treasures – does not bear thinking about. Therefore, prevention and active protection by continued maintenance is key.

Glass dome in high ceiling above staircase
The Deal Staircase in Kenwood House prior to restoration © Historic England DP035571

Over the years, the use of historic buildings has diversified so new income streams can fund their often costly upkeep. Additional footfall, the installation of new equipment and different operations can put extra pressure on the building infrastructure.

To protect the building as well as reap any benefits, its performance needs to be as efficient as possible and to cope with the pressure safely. For example, many kitchens which previously made light snacks and beverages for a few people, are now catering for weddings, conferences and other large events for many people. Yet the water pipes, or electrical cabling for example, have not been updated.

As we strive to develop a more sustainable built environment, there is also a need for heritage organisations to reduce their carbon footprint.

Illustration showing droplets from a leaking pipe coming down onto antique vases
Leak detectors can help to recognise a leak in the pipe work and fix it before damage occurs. © Ecclesiastical

New technologies

Technology can help to prevent or minimise damage to our most valued historic sites, offering an opportunity to improve energy efficiency and maintenance costs while being unobtrusive and fitting in with the fabric and constraints of the buildings themselves. Ecclesiastical Insurance and English Heritage, in partnership with technology firm Shepherd, are piloting battery-operated sensors to discreetly monitor environmental changes at Kenwood House.

The technology learns what normal looks like for the building over a short period. The sensors deployed in the estate then send real-time data back to be analysed, co-habiting seamlessly with any existing building management systems and environmental monitoring systems.

The technology is used to alert the estate team to potential breakdowns, electrical fires and water leaks, to avoid or minimise the loss of critical equipment or damage to the building and its collections. By understanding the performance of the building and its assets, and recognising potential issues early, action can be taken that helps to drive down energy and maintenance costs, prevent or minimise damage, and reduce loss or business interruption.

It's expected that this powerful technology will produce a 25% reduction in operational costs. This is due to the sensors providing more granular data on the building operations, which allows the building management team to make better-informed decisions that can lead to cost savings. For example, if a boiler is coming on every day for several hours before hot water is required, but only takes 20 minutes to reach optimum temperature, then the sensors will pick this up so the team can decide to adjust the boiler.

The application of live real-time monitoring has huge potential to revolutionise the management of heritage estates in a sustainable way. This pilot will enable us to minimise risks to the building and its irreplaceable collections by cost-effective evidence-based preventative maintenance. We’ll be able to identify issues in real-time and take preventative steps before maintenance issues become too large and costly. The cost savings will also enable the charity to invest a greater percentage of its annual maintenance budgets on the delivery of exemplary conservation work across the estate.

Nicola Duncan-Finn, Senior Estates Manager at English Heritage

For more information on this project please contact Faith Kitchen or Nicholas Hartley at Ecclesiastical or Nicola Duncan-Finn at English Heritage.

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