Conservation of Historic Buildings

Matt Osmont - Donald Insall Associates

The speaker at our meeting on 16th February 2017 was Matt Osmont, who gallantly stepped in at short notice to talk about ‘The Conservation of Historic Buildings’.  Matt is a conservation architect, working at Donald Insall Associates (DIA) – a firm of architects specialising in historic buildings, with branches throughout the UK, including in Conwy.  Matt is also a guest lecturer at Liverpool University, and delivered an informative and entertaining talk to a packed audience of members and friends on a dark and drizzly evening.

The thinking behind conservation has changed in the past 20 years, shifting from an emphasis on physical artefacts to the cultural significance of places, and conservation includes all the processes of looking after a site to embrace this cultural value.

In the first half of his talk, Matt described the statutory protection given to buildings, from the scheduling of monuments to the recent British Standard (BS7913:2013) which sets out the current conservation approach – the need to understand buildings and work with them, without introducing unnecessary changes.  He dealt with some of the myths around listed buildings – basically, all parts of a building, including the interior and any recent or unsightly elements, are included in a listing – though it may be easier to get permission to alter intrusive additions. Consent is needed for any changes, apart from like-for-like repairs, and it is always best to check.  Extensions, if approved, do not necessarily need to blend in – any intervention should be ‘of its time’ and contemporary, as was demonstrated in the case studies.  To find out if a building is listed, visit  – you can zoom in on the map, tick the ‘Cadw Listed Buildings’ button and then click on individual buildings to see the details of each listing.   

Matt talked about how to navigate the consent process, and how proposed work is assessed. Communication with planning and conservation officers is key, and the impact of changes needs to be understood: they should add value, be sympathetic, justifiable and, ideally, reversible.  Solutions, in terms of materials, should generally be viable for at least 50 to 100 years in the future, and the key words are conservation and rehabilitation rather than restoration – which is considered a ‘dirty word’ at the moment in the UK, though not in Italy.

At this point there were some questions and lively debate, including about the problems of what is perceived to be an understaffed and constrained planning department, and the economic effects of new developments in historic areas.  After refreshments, Matt continued the talk, focusing on case studies within Wales.

Castell Dinas Bran, above Llangollen, posed the problem of how to conserve a ruin, making it secure without adding or taking away anything. A particular problem was posed by a section of stone cantilevering out from the remaining part of an arch.  Matt’s solution was for holes to be drilled through it and carbon fibre rods inserted, which were pinned to the bedrock.  The drilling caused some anxious moments, but resulted in an almost invisible repair, securing the ruin for future generations.

The new entrance at Harlech Castle – not one of DIA’s projects – is a bold feature, making the best use of current technology to minimise the density of the bridge.  It is unapologetically modern, and has a positive impact by delivering the visitor straight across to the castle, rather than the previous steps up from below, which distorted the original impact of seeing the full military might of the castle head-on.  However, due to the bright white colour of the bridge, it doesn’t pass what Matt called ‘the squinty-eye test’ – if you blur your eyes, it stands out and can be seen from a distance. 

Matt was the project manager for Caernarfon Castle’s new entrance pavilion ­– the old ticket booth has been replaced with a glass structure which definitely passes the squinty-eye test! This was very carefully detailed, with the new elements corresponding with the vaulted arches above, encouraging people to look upwards, and with gutters and lighting concealed within the stainless steel sections.  It was designed so as not to touch the historic fabric of the castle at all, apart from the floor slabs, which were laid after a careful archaeological examination (yielding 2 clay pipes, some mussel shells and half a cannonball!). The new design allows the castle to be interpreted more easily, and to be open for longer, including for moonlit cinema events.

Matt then explained how DIA had devised schemes to turn listed buildings into residential units, including a derelict Georgian building near Wrexham and a dilapidated barn with many interesting features such as daisy wheels (ritual marks to ward off evil spirits).  He stressed the need to retain significant architectural features – the Georgian house was converted into 6 one-bed flats, and whilst there were some internal compromises, the bays at the front and magnificent staircase were maintained.

Other recent projects by DIA include work at Beaumaris Castle, medieval churches on Anglesey (St Padraig’s, St Fflewin’s and St Maethlu’s), Gwrych Castle and the Conway Centre at Plas Newydd.  The Conway Centre was built as a dual-purpose building during the Cold War, as a potential hospital in the case of an escalation of hostilities – as was Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones in Amlwch, where the classrooms could have been used as operating theatres, and the corridors are wide enough for two hospital beds to pass!

Over the course of a very enjoyable evening, Matt educated us about the regulations around listed buildings, illuminated the interesting debate between the commercial and statutory sides of groups like Cadw, and, most importantly, showed us how modern architecture can also be a celebration of historical architecture. 


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