Historic building recording

Historic building recording – methods and approaches

When a building has been identified to be of heritage value, whether as a listed building or as an unlisted building of historic interest, plans to alter that building may require some form of archaeological/heritage work to be carried out prior to alterations commencing or even during the alterations being carried out.  

The level of archaeological/heritage work undertaken will depend to a great extent on the significance of the building. Alterations to a Grade I listed structure may require a very high level of intervention whilst a building of minor or local significance might require a fairly light touch.

The methods normally applied to historic buildings by heritage professionals comprise historic building recording and structural watching briefs. 

The 4 levels of historic building recording

Level 1 – is a basic visual record obtained through photographic survey and sketches with a minimum amount of information about the building generally only noting the building’s location, age and type. The focus is normally the exterior of the building.

Level 2 – requires a record of both the exterior and interior of the building which are described and photographed with conclusions presented on the development and function of the building.

Level 3 – is an analytical record providing a systematic description of the building’s origin, development and use. Structural components of the building are examined in detail and plans of the interior and exterior of the building are produced in addition to a detailed photographic record.

Level 4 – examines the full range of sources available concerning the building and includes a very detailed photographic and drawn record of the building so that the buildings significance in terms of architectural, social, regional and economic history can be assessed.

In accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) the records produced should be proportionate to the significance of a building and to the extent of any works proposed.

Therefore, major changes to a Grade I or Grade II* listed structure would require the highest level of building recording whilst minor changes to a Grade II listed structure may require minimum intervention.  

Recording and assessment before planning

It is important to remember that historic building recording and assessment is best undertaken prior to the drawing up of any plans for alterations because it can guide the process of change by highlighting the significance of a building as a whole and draw attention to specific features which are more sensitive to change or loss than others.

This helps to guide proposals for alteration to a historic building away from potentially damaging works and can save time and money later on during the planning process if plans have been drawn up without consideration of a building’s sensitivity to change.

Structural watching brief

When planning permission or listed building consent has been obtained for changes to a historic building there may be a condition attached to the consent for archaeological monitoring by a heritage professional during any works being undertaken internally and/or externally to the building.

The purpose of the structural watching brief, is to identify any structural, archaeological or historical evidence which may come to light during works to the buildings. For example, removal of a ground floor may reveal concealed structural remains relating to much earlier phases of the building’s development whilst exposing roof timbers in an attic may reveal evidence of historic construction methods. Of course, the older a building is the more layers of its history may be exposed.

Any additional information about a building’s history and development which comes to light during the watching brief is carefully recorded using photography, measured survey and written descriptions.

Commercial Archaeology specialises in the assessment and recording of historic buildings.