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Acting on analysis

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Informed Conservation By Kate Clark. English Heritage, 2001. £10. (Available from 01761 452 966) Heritage publications are, by their very nature, not known for dealing with contemporary issues and, for the most part, Informed Conservation is no exception. This English Heritage document says nothing that is new, but it is astute as it collates and names a procedure that is usually either ignored or blindly absorbed into the design process.

The DOE/DNH 1994 Planning Policy Guidance: Planning and the Historic Environment (PPG 15) states that, when applying for planning permission, applicants 'should provide the local planning authority with full information, to enable them to assess the likely impact of their proposals on the special architectural or historic interest of the building and on its setting'.

Informed Conservation is a much-needed attempt to summarise what this 'full information' might be and how one goes about getting it.

Conservation is the most one-off type of building project; there are rarely standard approaches, let alone standard solutions, so defining 'full information' is near impossible. For Kate Clark (and for Clark we can read EH), it is directly linked to a complete understanding of the historic building or landscape - a complex operation that draws on a range of skills and procedures, from interpreting oral history to dendrochronology.

This collective operation, which Clark calls Conservation-Based Research and Analysis, or CoBRA, is defined as 'the research, analysis, survey and investigation necessary to understand the significance of a building and its landscape, and thus inform decisions about repair, alteration, use and management.' Its physical result is documentation, such as historic reports, paint analysis, conservation plans, and visual impact assessment studies. These documents are used in two ways - as the basis of the full information that the planners require, and also to define and refine the design, development and management briefs.

Informed Conservation covers the whole process of working in sensitive environments, by separating the procedures into five clear stages - assessment, survey, investigation, analysis, and reporting. Although the acronym CoBRA is awkward, its definition has major ramifications. Once defined, the procedure can be valued and made accountable - the fee and programme implications are obvious.

The document is timely, as Lottery funding has enlarged our view of what conservation-based projects might be. Traditionally they have been in the domain of specialist clients (EH, the National Trust, the Church) and specialist conservation architects, but now it not unusual for them to be led by conservationally naive champions and 'ordinary' architects, and for buildings to incorporate major extensions and changes of use. The potential of these projects is extraordinary, but the widening scope demands a more intelligent statutory attitude.

There are, however, some key difficulties in the practical implementation of CoBRA.

For example, conservation plans are often carried out simultaneously with scheme development and cannot be the objective overview that EH demands. All too often they are used to secure the statutory 'tick' and do not loop back into the development process. They are expensive documents to produce - we must question their role.

Moreover, the statutory procedure is sluggish, and dependent on personnel whose qualities vary. The current system favours mediocrity - we must be able to balance conservation requirements with dynamic vision, not accept the lowest common denominator.

It is outside the remit of Informed Conservation to resolve these issues, but it does bring them to the surface and instigate debate. Three points occur to me. First, CoBRA should be linked into the well-established RIBA Plan of Works and Architects' Appointment. Second, consistent inefficiencies of the CoBRA process could be pinpointed by rigorous case studies on completed projects, carried out by a body with the power to make and implement recommendations (a role for CABE? ).

And lastly, integration. A common understanding throughout the process, the integrated approach, is the document's most obvious aim. Except, that is, in the work itself. EH's basic premise revolves around the idea of reversibility - all work should be 'capable of being inserted and removed without lasting impact on the significance of the site'.While this does prevent the worst of pastiche, it favours the shadow-gap approach of polite Modernism. It is a nervous, separatist approach which will never allow great architecture. This is the crucial issue that informs all conservation; this is what we should debate.

Sarah Jackson is an architect in London

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