As a heritage and archaeology professional I am often asked why we record historic buildings. It is a question for which there is no one simple answer! Records of historic buildings are compiled for many reasons. In the following explanation I will endeavour to explain!

One of the key reasons to record a building is to inform on the day-to-day and long-term management and use of the building, it allows us to promote both the understanding and appreciation of historic buildings. It enables the acquisition of knowledge of a building or complex of buildings and their significance in character and setting to inform on the preparation of a scheme for conservation, repair, and where appropriate alteration. It allows decisions to be made relating to the approval or implementation of a scheme of development as part of the planning or conservation process. An important aspect of the record is to document buildings, or parts of buildings, which will be lost as a result of demolition, alteration or neglect.

During the recording process we consider the building in the wider historic environment. We assess the significance of groups of buildings, settlements, and landscapes to provide a basis for strategic heritage management. In addition, the record provides underpinning data for thematic, topographic, or period-specific works of synthesis by recording a sample of surviving structures. Finally, the record informs on the potential for further academic research across a broad range of disciplines.

Prior to undertaking the actual recording process there are a number of desk-based stages of investigation and research that need to be undertaken. The compilation of any building recording, if it is to be undertaken properly, requires a significant commitment of time. No recording should be undertaken without first establishing whether relevant information already exists and assessing its importance. Once the primary research has been completed an appropriate form and level of recording can be built upon existing knowledge and helps mitigate costs to the client.

Recording will often take place as a requirement of the planning process. In these cases, the required form and level (Historic England Level 1 – 4, these will be explained in a later Blog) of recording can be set out in a brief set out by the Local Planning Authority (LPA) or other regulatory body. In response to a brief, or as alternative, a Written Scheme of Investigation (WSI) can be prepared by an external approved party (AS Archaeology & Heritage Services) and agreed by the LPA in conjunction with their internal planning archaeologist (there are examples of our WSI’s on this website).

The brief or WSI will:

  • Show what is currently known about the building.
  • Describe the circumstances or proposals for change which make recording desirable.
  • Identify the principal areas in which understanding, or information are absent (referring specifically to areas of the building which may be affected by the proposals), and
  • Specify the level of recording required.

Outside the planning system recording may be determined by a similar brief from a commission or funding body (National Trust, Cadw etc.) or by a project design, or by a looser set of research aims and objectives.

Project designs are an important way of focussing recording activity on needs and priorities, but they need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for modification as understanding of a subject develops or circumstances change. Moreover, and in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the records produced should be proportionate to the significance of a building and proportionate to the extent of any works proposed.

In Part 2 of this Blog on Building Recording I will look at the scope of the record and what it will include.

Bibliography: Historic England, NPPF