Back to life

Luke Czerpak explains the challenges involved in working on historical renovation projects

Restoring and renovating older properties often presents a series of significant challenges for all the professionals involved; from architect to engineer. Apart from all the red tape that surrounds historic and listed buildings, the fabric of the building itself can present a whole range of problems.

Electrical refits are commonly an important part of most renovation projects and often require a different approach to working on a new or modern build. The issues range from ensuring that wiring is sympathetic and unobtrusive, to installing heating systems appropriate for the preservation of historical artefacts.

Safety first
But the most important factor in any electrical installation will always be safety. With electrical faults reported to be one of the major causes of fire, this is crucial in any project, but becomes even more pertinent when working in older buildings where wiring may be outdated or hazardous.

The impact of fire in properties of historical or cultural significance can be costly and culturally disastrous. For example, the 1992 fire at Windsor Castle resulted in a £36.5 million repair bill. More recently, last year’s fire at stately home Clandon Park destroyed several Victoria Cross medals plus valuable 18th century porcelain, furniture and textiles. Investigators have concluded that the probable cause was a defect in an electrical distribution board in the basement. So, ensuring the safety of electrics in older properties has to be a priority.

Meeting a range of demands
Having worked on a range of heritage projects from museums to Landmark Trust properties, in our experience, each project will have a set of strict installation and renovation guidelines, increasingly including stipulations regarding sustainable practice. Many projects also involve the added challenge of liaising with a wide variety of organisations, some with differing agendas: local heritage officers, charitable trusts, local authorities, building services engineers and architects – in addition to the usual health and safety certification bodies.

Back to life 2Apart from safety, the main objective of any electrical work within a restoration project is to be sympathetic to the original character of the building. Whilst the technology involved is 21st century, the electrics have to complement their surroundings, ideally being hidden from view if possible. This can often be difficult to achieve as most older buildings originally accommodated limited services. This means that electrical systems have to be incorporated into structures that simply weren’t designed for them.

So, system design in heritage properties often involves minimising the physical and visual impact on the building. This can be achieved by concealing electrical equipment in ancillary rooms such as cellars or storerooms. One advantage of an older property is that they tend to have many void spaces. Roof areas, floor cavities, redundant chimneys, gaps behind skirting boards, panelling or architraves and the insides of disused gas and heating pipes can often be suitable sites. For example, in a recent project at Miranda House (the Embassy of Venezuela), the original gas lamps were converted to LED lights and heaters were hidden beneath floors. Reusing any previous holes, notches and cable routes can also minimise disruption.

Reuse, replace or replicate?
Most projects will entail retaining the original fixtures and fittings – or at least the appearance of them. This means that are fittings may often be replicated or renovated. Existing fittings and fixtures can be adapted to provide modern services e.g. gas lamps can be converted to modern light fittings. However, it’s a demanding process, which may require the use of specialist craftsmen to undertake building work, carpentry, decorating and plastering. It is also important to future proof the property by incorporating spare capacity to avoid frequent re-wiring and associated damage.

Fortunately the technology we have available in the electrical and construction industry can help to minimise any invasion. The use of radio frequency control may avoid unnecessary cabling, whilst the installation of specialist containment systems and cabling (including steel conduit, micro bore tubing and MICC cabling) can reduce the potential for invasion and damage.

Creating the right climate
However, challenges aren’t restricted to the fabric of the buildings themselves. Many heritage properties house precious artefacts, requiring careful storage and climate control and so many of these installations are highly specialised. For example, a recent project at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London required some delicate work on conversion, lighting and climate control. As the home of a world famous collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art works, the project involved the conversion of a picture store into a gallery area. A key part of the project’s brief was to install a BMS system, allowing the gallery to control the humidity and temperature in order to meet stringent guidelines set by Art Council England – and to protect some great works of art.

Combining the elements of history and technology in a successful heritage renovation requires cross-organisational planning, a clear understanding of the project, attention to detail and high levels of skill. It’s certainly a challenge – but that’s also what makes such projects so interesting. After all, what could be more rewarding than preserving our past for future generations to enjoy?

Luke Czerpak is the Compliance Manager at Eaton Electrical and has been involved in many heritage projects including museums and art galleries, as well as National Trust and Landmark Trust properties. Eaton Electrical has been providing electrical contracting and building maintenance services throughout the UK for over 20 years. The company offers complete turnkey solutions, including design, installation and maintenance, as well as a free energy audit service.

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