Caring for our historic buildings: a collaboration between Oxford researchers and English Heritage

English Heritage and the Oxford Resilient Buildings and Landscapes Laboratory (OxRBL) have been working together to support a new strategy to maintain and conserve English Heritage’s 400+ historic buildings, monuments and sites.

The Oxford team couldn't have been more enthusiastic and welcoming about the idea of doing some work together.
Rob Woodside, Estates Director, English Heritage

The OxRBL team was approached by Rob Woodside (Estates Director, English Heritage) with the hope of working together to support English Heritage’s shift to sustainable conservation – a long-term strategy that aims to more effectively conserve and build the resilience of the National Heritage Collection to external environmental impacts.

“We needed some help developing a more structured research framework for building conservation,” says Rob. “We were particularly interested in how we deal with things like long-term maintenance repair, the impacts of climate change, vegetation, and how we integrate wildlife. The Oxford team couldn't have been more enthusiastic and welcoming about the idea of doing some work together.”

Professor Heather Viles

Professor Heather Viles

Professor Heather Viles (School of Geography and the Environment) leads OxRBL, which has a particular focus on improving the resilience of historic buildings and sites by building stronger relationships with nature and people. “It was very exciting to be connecting our research directly to English Heritage policy,” she says. “Generally we work on a specific project with an organisation to provide evidence for a particular problem they have, but this was something much bigger.”

Bringing the organisation together

Dr Martin Michette is pictured with a river and green field in the background

Dr Martin Michette

Through a series of knowledge exchange workshops organised as part of his Social Sciences Engagement Fellowship, Dr Martin Michette (School of Geography and the Environment) worked with key stakeholders from English Heritage to identify priority areas and develop a research framework to underpin and support the organisation’s Sustainable Conservation Asset Management Plan (SCAMP).

“Rob did an amazing job of bringing all of these people at English Heritage together – including eight different heads of department, who obviously have incredibly busy jobs as well,” Martin reflects. “And they really participated in the sessions and said how enjoyable and useful they had been. There was a sense that we were really connecting and moving forwards together.”

“We brought together building conservation people, historians, landscape managers and gardeners,” says Rob. “I wasn’t sure how people would react but they were really up for it. We had some really good debate and involvement.”

Delivering engaging workshops online

An Engagement Fellow would normally collaborate by being embedded within the partner organisation’s physical workspaces for part of the working week, but, due to covid restrictions the team had to make other plans. Martin says that switching the workshops online gave him a good chance to test out new engagement tools and methods – and the format turned out to work very well.

“The virtual workshop setup had some cons, certainly, but it also had some big advantages,” he says. “We made good use of some online tools, in particular interactive presentation software called Mentimeter, which worked really well in engaging the participants. We used the online format as an opportunity to develop new ideas which we’ve since used in other workshops.”

Based on the discussion and findings from the workshops, Martin developed a diagrammatic model of the factors affecting sustainable building maintenance – from external factors like climate change and skills shortages to internal factors such as vegetation growth and masonry fall. This has gone on to be used by English Heritage to illustrate the various challenges they need to face, and how they intersect.

Laying the foundations for future collaboration

As well as establishing a shared understanding of these challenges and the language used to describe them – defining the term ‘vulnerability’ formed a key part of the workshops – the partnership has produced a roadmap for future research collaboration.

Plans are underway to secure funding for further projects to continue the collaboration between the partners and carry the work forwards. “The aim is to move towards a longer research project with surveys being done at the sites, and visitor engagement,” Martin says. “We’ve designed this high level framework together, now it’s time to put it into practice.”