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Building in conservation

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Over the last two years, more than £750 million has been awarded by the main lottery distributing bodies to projects which were wholly, or in part, museum and gallery developments. Construction activity has catapulted many museums and galleries into a world they could before only dream about of new or refurbished galleries and better-designed spaces. However such a dream can become a nightmare for those unfamiliar with the building process - and for many museums this is a new experience.

Museums employ a range of professionals; some have skills in common with other industries, such as managers and engineers, while others like curators and conservators have specialised skills. Because of their scientific training and experience, conservators in museums are vital to the success of building projects. Museum conservation uses chemistry or physics to understand and treat the deterioration of materials from which objects are made. Since deterioration is often caused by the interaction of materials with their environment, conservation has developed to include an understanding of the built environment and its effect on collections. Conservators therefore have an intimate knowledge of the buildings in which collections are housed through surveys and environmental/monitoring programmes and are able to specify the performance required of a new building or facility.

Conservation input into a building project can take many forms, all of which can be useful to the museum client and design team. Conservators can make a specialist contribution ranging from monitoring environmental threats to collections, to evaluating the suitability of display and construction materials in terms of their chemical stability. Familiarity with technical issues can benefit the client, the design team and ultimately the project in other specialist areas.

Despite the advantage to both the museum and the design team of having scientific input from within the client team, this involvement is often limited or applied too late to be useful to the project. Despite the availability of information on the client's role in building projects from organisations such as riba, cibse, bsria and ciria, little effort has been made to publicise its availability beyond their regular readership. Consequently, the sequence of work stages, so necessary for effective client input, can remain a mystery even to museums involved in capital projects! Without an understanding of the project structure, which will vary depending on the chosen procurement strategy, the timing of valuable specialist advice from the client to the design team can be a hit or miss affair.

This complexity is highlighted by comparing the effectiveness of conservation advice throughout a project procured in a traditional way, with the cost and timing of different stages (see chart above).

This advice is most effective before the tender stage of a project, after which a conservator can only review progress at contractor meetings. So while a notional 85-90 per cent of the project budget and 45 per cent of the project timetable may be spent on construction, conservation advice is least effective during this time. Conservation issues should inform the early development of a project, when design rather than construction costs are incurred and when decisions are comparatively less expensive to alter.

A better understanding of the value of this input can be obtained by focusing in more detail on how this advice can be integrated into riba pre-design stages A and B, design stages C, D and E, and stages F, G and H when preparations to build are carried out.

A+B: inception and feasibility

The involvement of a conservator should begin well before the design team is appointed. When the initial idea of the project is discussed, a conservator should gather information on the current facilities and the activities which take place within them. This will help to explain the need for new or improved premises and to justify the functional brief - an essential step for lottery-funded projects. At this stage, a conservator should participate in developing the project criteria and relating them to the priorities of the museum's corporate objectives. A museum should use this information to identify its options, evaluate their relative costs and benefits, select its preferred choice and cost it in terms of capital budget and expected future revenue.

A work stage too seldom carried out formally on museum projects is the feasibility stage, when the initial brief is prepared, the management and operational procedures of the project set out and the accommodation schedules drawn up. This stage provides an opportunity for the site or premises to be assessed and for the concept design solution to be judged feasible. While design concepts are still flexible, the input of a conservator with information on health and safety matters, emergency planning and the scope of the environmental and engineering services can be critical in saving time and money later, especially as this is also the time when initial budgets are checked and updated.

C+D+E: outline, scheme and detail design

It is during the design phase that a conservator's advice is most critical. This input is most effective when the schematic design is being developed and in-principle design decisions are being made. At the end of stage E, the design should not be altered without serious justification, as someone, the client or the designer, will start to lose money. Even so, there are numerous examples when conservation advice has been ignored until stage E. This situation creates unnecessary and avoidable stress as both the client and designers count the cost in terms of time and money of taking late advice on board.


Until this point, it will have been possible for conservators to be proactive in offering advice and influencing design decisions. As preparations to build begin, a conservator's involvement is more reactive. Nevertheless, input is still crucial as construction documentation including tender specifications, working drawings and bills of quantities must be reviewed to ensure that the project criteria have been fully considered. A conservator may well have a view on the contract method, the sub-contract arrangements and the phasing of the project, particularly if collections have to be decanted from galleries and environmental and security precautions have to be implemented by contractors before work can begin.

Yet for advice to be effective the adviser, in this case the conservator, must be aware when the information is needed. Too often potentially valuable client input is under-utilised. To help bridge this communication gap, the Royal Armouries in Leeds with the support of the Museums & Galleries Commission, the Museums Association and the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation are holding a conference* on the theme of the conservator's role in building projects on 29 and 30 October 1998. The aim is to bring together building designers and museum professionals to make both more aware of what the other has to offer to make a project successful in the short-term, and sustainable in the longer term.

* For information about this conference contact Bob Smith at the Royal Armouries on 0113 220 1920.

May Cassar is environmental adviser at the Museums & Galleries Commission

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