What is restoration?

In light of the debate stirred by the BBC’s Restoration Home, this seems a good time to think about some of the vocabulary used to describe what we do to old buildings.

The general approach to their conservation was established in 1877 when William Morris founded The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). In its manifesto he set out a philosophy of ‘repair’ rather than ‘restoration’ which guides the Society’s work to this day.

To quote from my own Old House Handbook: “Repair is based on the principle of mending buildings with the minimum loss of fabric and, in so doing, keeping their character and authenticity. Contrary to this, ‘restoration’ means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. In other words, putting things back to how they were, or how we think they were, rather than preserving them as they are now with all their wonderful scars of time and history. Restoration is generally highly destructive and, as Morris states in the manifesto, ‘a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour’.”

Putting the philosophy of repair into practice means, for example, repairing only the decayed bottom rail of an original sash window rather than the whole sash. To understand this better it’s worth thinking about how we treat antique furniture: it’s unlikely that you’d discard a two hundred year old table just because it has a damaged leg.

Taking on a non domestic building and turning it into a home nearly always stretches the philosophy or repair and minimum intervention. There are many practical issues to think about: the proportions and loss of volume within the building’s interior in order to create rooms, providing services, dealing with window and door openings, the treatment of surfaces, access.

This also means that, when changing the use of a building, it’s unlikely to be a restoration as such because it’s necessary to make it different in order to suit its new use. What we’re really talking about is a ‘conversion’. Even with a conversion, conservation principles of repair should be intrinsic to the scheme but, for this to happen, it’s essential that the building is understood and that the conversion is carefully considered.

It doesn’t stop there, within this debate there is a place for thinking about good new design. When creating new work within an old building it’s generally beneficial to embrace the very best of 21st design rather than to create a poor pastiche of the past. But this doesn’t mean disregarding the building’s subtleties, origins or fragile patina of age; it’s about drawing all the strands together and achieving ‘revitalization’ within the historic context. It will be interesting to see where the next episode of Restoration Home takes us in the debate.

Image credit: Nic Bailey – more of his images of Nutbourne pumping station, the subject of episode 2 of BBC2’s Restoration Home, are here.


  1. Lee Meadowcroft on July 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I would say the works carried out on the Restoration Home show should actually be classified as refurbishment. A useful definition of which is given below:

    “The extensive repair, renewal and modification of a building to meet economic and/or functional criteria equivalent to those required of a new building for the same purpose. May involve the installation of current standards of building services, access, natural lighting, equipment and finishes, using the historic fabric as the carcass of what is, effectively, a new building.” (College of Estate Management, 2011)

  2. Mikael Schilling on August 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    I got angry watching that beautiful and amazing space with so much history and character being transformed into (very sadly) an ‘off the shelf’ standard high ceilings modern house with a few free standing concrete columns. What a shame… It would have been interesting to hear what a value of the house would have been if restored AND refurbished into a modern house in a pumping station. It raised the question: What did they like about the building before they (in my view) trashed it? Where’s the soul of the building…? At the scrap yard unfortunately…

  3. Anthony goff on August 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Just reading last comment, how do you live in house that is a restored pumping station? I think they bought the property with a view to turn it into a large living space for their family , and achieved this. What they didn’t show on tv was that their is a working pumping station still attached to the side of the property! Nutbourne studio as it’s now called also has 3 bathrooms 3 bedrooms 2 studies 2 basements 1 of which is the kids playroom, I don’t think the program showed enough of the property or explained exactly what is left of the former pump station – far more than was shown!!! The sweets also made use of the 100m deep 1 metre round bore holes to heat there property , they should have gone into this more – what a great use of disused holes that were down to be filled in!! Out of the whole series it’s the only building that was finished and actually being properly lived in . They could have knocked the place down and put up a modern building but chose to refurb/rebuild or restore how ever you wish to discribe!!