Old buildings and structures form an intrinsic part of Ireland's national heritage and are an irreplaceable and finite resource.

Built heritage conservation can be described as preserving and prolonging the integrity of old structures while accommodating changes necessitated by occupants or by environmental factors. This involves respecting the original design, materials and craftsmanship of buildings and structures in order that they retain their authenticity and character.  

In an urban environment such as Dublin, building conservation takes on an added layer of importance, as traditional buildings form the essential building blocks of the city. It is these elements – whether public buildings, terraced houses, shopfronts or street furniture - that collectively generate urban distinctiveness, character and a sense of identity, immensely enriching our everyday experience. Buildings help shape our connection to where we live and work, and give a physical expression to our local and national culture. In some ways, these buildings become an extension of ourselves.

Conservation is often described as the sensitive management of change, as most buildings experience alterations in circumstances over their lifetime – from the types of uses they are put to, to the demands and requirements of occupants, to the gradual processes of weathering and decay. Addressing these impacts and needs while preserving the special characteristics of a building is the core function of conservation, which has a growing relevance in an increasingly pressurised and globalised world.

Applying the principles

Many owners embark on renovations without truly appreciating the nature of the building in question, or with misguided intentions of restoring a property to its ‘former glory’. It may come as a surprise, but today this is not the primary focus of building conservation.

When undertaking a renovation project, there is a fine balance between getting it right and getting it wrong – something that is not an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as 1862, the great Victorian architect and restorer of cathedrals and churches, Giles Gilbert Scott, stated ‘the great danger in restoration is doing too much and the great difficulty is to know where to stop’. Above all, he advocated working in ‘a tentative and gradual manner’. Such an approach is still relevant today.

The less we change, the more we conserve

Getting to understand a building is perhaps one of the most important undertakings in conservation. The subtleties of this process are not always well understood and our precious architectural heritage continues to be depleted as a result. It is important to recognise that over time an old building will develop a character which is unique to itself. The factors which contribute to this character can be both tangible and intangible and include its architectural style and detailing, the use of traditional materials such as handmade brick, joinery, glass, slate and lime, the patina it has developed, as well as its setting – especially in an urban context such as Dublin, with its complex and varied historic streetscapes.

In order to protect our architectural heritage, we need to fully understand what constitutes this character and take a sensitive approach to repairs and refurbishment works.