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Conserving with care

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Review: Creative Re-Use of Buildings by Derek Latham. Donhead, 2000. Two volumes: £45 each or £80 for the set

These books are very impressive and packed with all manner of drawings, photographs and visual material.

Derek Latham, an experienced architect, has collected together a huge number of case studies and examples of his own and other architects' work, which Donhead has presented in a highly 'visual' way. With its wealth of ideas and past precedents, this is just what architects and designers need for inspiration.

Volume One describes the 'typical' route through a successful project, starting with 'Context for Re-Use' and ending with 'Post-Completion'. It is gratifying to see that a whole chap - ter is given over to 'Enhancing the Value of Property', with reference to the RICS/EH research project on the investment performance of listed buildings. Other chapters are less well structured but the continual diversion of the graphic material makes up for this.

For instance, chapter 10, on 'Materials and Craftsmanship', is very short and selective. Chapter 11, 'Implementation', skates over procurement methods, refers to out-of-date contract forms, and gives only seven lines to the contractor and three to the building surveyor. On the same page, Latham suggests that every team advising on an historic building should, by law, include 'a suitably qualified and experienced architect'. This is extremely biased and shows no appreciation for accreditation systems or the fact that chartered surveyors may be the appropriate profession for that cen - tral role.

Chartered surveyors are fully aware of the creative skills of archi - tects, and perhaps the latter are best employed as and when needed for some of the design process. Latham also misses an opportunity to promote the Health and Safety Plan and File, which could be part of cogent historical and maintenance information passed on to successive owners. Planning supervisors are dismissed in one line and described under the long outdated acronym CONDAM.

Volume Two contains selected examples of building types and further case studies. Here the author is much more 'at home', and the whole work is once again exciting. Readers can decide for themselves whether or not each re-use is indeed creative, while the visual material is consistently good.

The appendix to this volume contains a very useful reference to all the examples and case studies - what they were and to what use they have now been put. The appendix to the first vol - ume sets down a checklist, 'Principles for Re-Use'. While most of the points are valid, others need scrutinising, for example: 'Think laterally about uses to which the building is put'.

This implies that as a matter of principle one should not rest until a new use can be found for an empty building; and is borne out in the text, where Latham states that conservation has a 'cult status', and that scouring the countryside for potential buildings to convert is 'a popular pro - ject for many couples'.

An instructive comparison is found in the RICS Building Conservation Note No 6, 'The Principles of Building Con - servation', which admits that there are no hard and fast formulae. Latham, on the other hand, does not mention the concepts of minimum intervention and reversibility, now seen as important considerations. While an aspect of conservation is that every attempt is made to bring old buildings back to life, this should not mean change of use at all costs. Equally worthwhile tasks are to investigate, explore, record and assimilate - and to value these processes. Care comes before 'cult'.

The danger, though, is that creativ - ity and looking to the future can be lost. Latham provides a lively anti - dote, and it cannot be emphasised enough that these books are a wonderful asset to have on the shelf. They provide excellent stimulation for all parties contemplating the re-use of old buildings.

John Sparkes is secretary at the RICS to the Building Conservation Group and Practice Panel

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