Can you renovate a listed building?

Listed buildings in the UK are buildings of historical or architectural significance that are protected by government and thus require permission before any renovations or even repairs can take place. If you're one of the lucky few who own one of these pieces of British history, this article will shed some light on the do's and don'ts of renovating a listed building.

Panoramic image of listed red brick building in london
ARTICLE: Philip Saich

With the majority of listed buildings dating back to before 1840, there’s no doubt that it can be a real privilege to own a genuine piece of history. Ownership does, however, come with a fair degree of responsibility, especially in terms of upkeep, and if you decide to do any form of renovation there are several restrictions. In short, owning and restoring a listed building can be a delight, but it’s not always for the fainthearted.
The most common criterion for a building to be listed is that it is decreed to be ‘of special architectural or historic interest’ and is listed to protect it from inappropriate development or poor maintenance by current and future owners. Once acquired, the property can be monitored by the local authority, who have the power to enforce repairs at the owner’s expense or even impose a compulsory purchase order if they deem that the building is not being maintained correctly.
Around half a million structures across the UK are listed. Within this total are all buildings that were constructed before 1700 and that survive in anything approaching their original condition. Most buildings built between 1700 and 1840 are also listed, while after 1840 only the best examples of later buildings are listed, with protection being applied to hand-selected buildings since 1914.

In England, 92% of listed buildings are classed as Grade II, which means that they are regarded as being of special interest. A further five per cent have a higher classification as they are considered to be ‘particularly significant buildings of more than special interest’. The remaining three per cent are classed as Grade I, meaning that they are buildings of outstanding national architectural or historic interest.
As Simon Kelliher of Cambridge builders Refresh Renovations explains, his team are passionate about helping clients both to understand the regulations and to abide by them throughout the project. ‘When you’re dealing with a listed property, it’s important to remember that, while listed status is there to protect the building, it doesn’t actually prevent you carrying out alterations and renovations,’ says Simon. ‘On the contrary, it’s our experience that most renovations and alterations are approved eventually. To proceed, you’ll need clear plans and the ability to liaise with the local authority’s planning department and the conservation officer, and that’s where we come in.

‘In general, the requirement will be that any like-for-like repairs match the existing detail and materials which were used in the original build and that any improvements are reversible. It’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that the costs of repairing or renovating a listed building can be higher than for a conventional property, so budgeting is crucial in this area. In addition, it’s fundamental to embrace the idea that consent may even apply to what appear to be routine activities such as cleaning the brickwork, repainting or replacing windows. Overall, we’re here to help our clients navigate through the various stipulations that exist for listed buildings and, ultimately, to help them preserve Britain’s architectural heritage.’
When considering repairs or renovations, it’s helpful to keep in mind a few simple dos and don’ts. The dos include ensuring that your home insurance is appropriate for a listed building by engaging a specialist insurer to provide suitable cover. It’s also helpful to understand how VAT works within the listed arena. If you’re improving the energy performance of a listed building, for example, then VAT is applicable at just 5%. To help the project run smoothly it’s advisable to keep the local conservation officer onside, especially as they will probably have been involved in similar projects with similar challenges in the local area. It’s important to be organised so that you can respond to any queries that may arise. Retain all the plans and permissions after the project is completed as you will need these if you decide to sell the property in the future. And if you’re considering buying a listed building, make sure that any work carried out by a previous owner has been granted the correct building consent as you will be liable for any unapproved work that has been undertaken once you take ownership.

There are several critical don'ts. By far the most important is to avoid combining modern practice with traditional methods. Listed buildings are usually constructed with lime mortar, and modern cement can cause significant damage to older structures. Original features such as doors, stonework, fireplaces or windows are normally central to a listed building’s fabric, so don’t remove them unless the conservation officer confirms it is acceptable to do so. Don’t paint or render the exterior without approval, and avoid knocking anything down until you have confirmation from the conservation officer that it is OK to proceed. When it comes to the garden, don’t make assumptions as trees and walls may also be listed, and boundary walls and gates may be protected. Above all, avoid rushing. Historic buildings have stood for decades, if not centuries, so in the long run a few weeks of planning and seeking advice will be well spent.
Refresh Renovations UK are Cambridge builders offering design and build services. To discuss your home improvement project, please get in touch today using the enquiry form listed alongside, or if you would like to submit a more comprehensive enquiry, you can do so on the Get In Touch page.

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