Why we need to protect old buildings

April 26, 2022

In a world where youth is celebrated and old age is regarded as past it, there’s an ongoing debate as to who matters most. The same could be said of 21st century architecture and historical buildings. The emphasis is on the new and, in some circles, the practice of preserving our heritage is regarded as simply not worth the trouble.

But while we innovate and experiment with construction, there’s nothing to stop us from preserving old buildings for future generations. And we should save them. After all, what is a community, a city or a country without its past? How do we learn without looking at what has gone before?

Preserving the past

Restoring and renovating historic buildings is crucial if we want to retain our nation’s history and heritage – and celebrate the architectural achievements of previous generations. Thankfully, there are various organisations working to do just this.

Founded by textile designer William Morris in 1877, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was established in response to Victorian architects whose enthusiasm for harmful restoration caused irreparable damage. The society believes that old buildings have a future and its goal is to ensure that they are understood, cared for and appreciated today, and protected for the next generation.

One of SPAB’s current projects centres on the Old House, a Grade II* listed 'building at risk’ near Maidstone in Kent. Then there are the myriad of buildings which have been saved by other charities and groups including the National Trust, Historic England, the Ancient Monuments Society, The Victorian Society, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage, and the National Churches Trust. If you’re a fan of period drama, then you’ll have seen something on the screen that is still standing thanks to the support of one of these bodies.

It’s practical, too

Then there’s the fact that the most sustainable thing is not to build new stuff. The preservation of old houses, churches and castles is environmentally friendly; essentially recycling on a huge scale. Demolition costs are avoided and there’s no need to make new materials.  

When properly restored, old buildings are likely to consume less energy than shiny new structures replete with substantial amounts of glazing, ventilation fans and blazing lights. And buildings of a certain era, particularly pre-World War Two, tended to be put together with higher-grade materials such as wood from ancient forests and stone from local quarries. It may not seem like it, but older buildings may be a better bet than newer builds.

Safe guarding beautiful structures

Of course, there’s another simple reason to keep banging the drum for architectural preservation: beauty. There are some sensational buildings out there, from cottages, chapels and cathedrals to stately homes, pubs and former mills. They’re fascinating too, with their gothic domes, stained glass and winding paths.  

Many conceal hidden gems such as drop ceilings, stone hearths, and wooden beams. Destroying ancient buildings means we will never find these treasure troves and they will be gone forever. And who knows what will be valued in the years to come?

We need to respect our history, now more than ever. The first legislation on the preservation of archaeological and historic sites in Britain was the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882, but that didn’t stop town planners in the 50s and 60s from taking a sledgehammer to the past. This must never be allowed to happen again.

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