The Built Heritage Conservation Process

By: F. Leblanc, June 2006


Project Management is a professional discipline. Very early on, Project Managers understood the importance of defining a project management system that could be easily understood by professionals as well as clients to ensure that they knew at all times in which phase of the project they were, what decisions needed to be made and what products or outputs were to be expected. The field of heritage conservation has not yet adopted such a system.

This paper builds on the author’s project management experience and proposes an outline for the built heritage conservation process.

Keywords: Built heritage, conservation process, management

The diagram summarizes the six phases of the built heritage conservation process and their outputs.

1. What is the built heritage conservation process?

  • When and how does a built heritage conservation project begin?
  • When does it end?
  • Are there specific moments along the way when a heritage site manager can make timely decisions to continue, alter or stop a project?
  • Are there phases in this process that the manager can easily understand?

Those are some of the basic questions that all heritage managers and decision makers ask themselves at one time or another when they are faced with the challenge of initiating a conservation project in the built environment.

The built heritage conservation process cannot yet be expressed in terms of an international standard of practice. The international heritage conservation organizations and institutions have not yet agreed on such a standard but there are certainly many points of agreement among them concerning important steps, activities and products or outputs of the conservation process.

In the contemporary project management world, the “project management process” is well understood. It has been defined to ensure that clients and professionals know at all times in which phase of the project they are, what decisions need to be made and what products or outputs are expected. Though the terms may vary somewhat from one professional field to the next, the life cycle of a project generally follows this pattern:

  1. Initiating the Project
  2. Planning the Project and studying options
  3. Selecting an option and preparing contractual documents for execution of the work
  4. Executing and Controlling the work
  5. Commissioning the Project (i.e. passing it on to the client for operation)
  6. Monitoring and evaluating the Project

In the built heritage conservation world, things are a bit different. We have to do all of the above but because we deal with built cultural heritage – archaeological sites, buildings, and city neighborhoods – we need to spend more time and resources to understand what we have and to assess its physical condition. Also, part of our job is to understand and preserve “values”. Values are the positive characteristics attributed to heritage places and objects by legislation, governing authorities, and other stakeholders”. Therefore we need to elucidate and understand values and the physical resources they are associated with if we are going to safeguard them for the benefit of the next generations.

This implies that we need to engage many stakeholders – people, institutions, and government agencies – in the process and work with them to understand why a particular place is important. We also need to identify together what physical resources best represent these values and need to be preserved.

The following text and diagrams explain summarily the various important steps in the built heritage conservation process and the type of information or documents that need to be acquired or produced during each phase. Each phase of the process is complete with a beginning and an end. To move from one phase to the next, a “decision” must be made by a manager or a client. This is the point at which the manager or the client must decide to continue, alter or stop the process.

2. General Principles

There are a few key essential principles that apply not exclusively to any one phase, but instead to all of the phases. Instead of listing them for each step, we describe them here. These essential principles include:

  • Involve stakeholders – One of the first requirements is to define internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders include your project team, local people, researchers, or whomever else you find important to involve at this early stage. External stakeholders include community members, government personnel, donor agencies, international community members, and other individuals and institutions that have some interest in the project. In conducting your project, it is important at every step to make sure that you involve the appropriate internal and external stakeholders in the proper manner.
  • Clearly define your timeline – Each phase of the process requires careful planning and organization. It is thus imperative to make sure that you are clear about how much time and effort a given task will take and communicate this to your internal and external audiences. Of course, especially at the beginning of a planning process, your estimates may not be very accurate.
  • Budget sufficient financial resources and human capacity – In all cases, to develop, implement, and monitor each phase will require some amount of financial resources. You need to budget carefully.
  • Document your decisions – For just about every phase you should write down how you decided to proceed. Of course, this would quickly become repetitive, but we cannot emphasize enough the importance of documenting the reasons for your decisions at each step of the way. Not only does this give you the opportunity to analyze why things worked or did not, but also, it serves as a basis for others to understand the logic of your choices.

The six phases of the built heritage conservation process are:

  6. OPERATION (incl. monitoring & evaluation)

3. What activities take place during each Phase?


Is there a good reason or opportunity to conserve this site?

This is when a project begins. What usually triggers the beginning of this Phase is a need, a problem or an opportunity.

For the heritage site manager or the decision maker, this critical first phase involves understanding the situation in which his project will take place and clearly defining the problem or issue that he is trying to solve and why it is important to do so. The Initiation Phase must take place with his entire team and other important stakeholders to make sure that everyone involved in the project has the same or at least a similar understanding of what needs to happen. Based on this step, the managers will define the goal and objectives of the project and the activities that will be undertaken to reach them. In many cases, organizations invest considerable time and financial resources into research that provides information necessary to carry out this step. In other cases, especially in emergency situations, they do this very quickly.

The “output” or end result of the Initiation Phase is a well-defined project, a clear concept of what you want to do and how you want to go about doing it. This is usually captured in the form of a comprehensive report.

To move to the next phase, a decision must be made to allocate time, money and people to investigate and assess the problems or issues.


What do we really have and what condition is it in?

It is during the Assessment Phase that a Project Manager is assigned and that a team is created to begin the work necessary to understand the heritage place or property and all the related issues. The assessment is usually divided into three major activities:

1. Assessing the significance of the place

2. Assessing the physical condition of the resources

3. Assessing the management system in place

Critical at this stage are the thorough analysis, interpretation and correlation of data coming from a broad range of different research and investigation activities.

The “output” or end result of the Assessment Phase is a good understanding of the significance, the physical condition and the management. It should be a sound knowledge base to help make informed conservation decisions. The result is usually captured in the form of a report or sometimes a site management plan. It contains a statement of significance that explains why the site is important and what is valued by the various stakeholders, the important issues that need to be considered, an assessment or diagnostic of the condition of the physical assets, and an assessment of the management system in place. It makes recommendations for conservation and new development options (roads, services, etc.) that should be considered or studied and describes urgent or longer-term conservation measures that need to be put in place or tested.

To move to the next phase, a decision must be made to allocate time, money and people to study the feasibility and estimate the cost of the various conservation options.

Phase 3: OPTIONS

What fundamental choices do we have?

At this point we all agree on what is important to conserve and why. We also have a clear diagnostic of the physical condition of the place or property and we know how it is being managed. The project team is now asked to determine the fundamental choices we have to conserve it.

Various conservation approaches will be studied during this phase. In the case of an archaeological site, the professional team may recommend the option to rebury it completely because it would be very costly or technically difficult to conserve it; another option could be to partially rebury it, and conserve and interpret a small area. Another option could be to build shelters over parts of it, and so on. On-site and laboratory testing will be conducted to determine what conservation techniques can be used and their efficacy to protect the resources. Visitor’s management and control strategies will be suggested as well as approaches to interpret the heritage and its values to the visitors. Each option will be carefully examined. A cost estimate and work schedule will be prepared for each valid option. The advantages and disadvantages of each option will be argued and recommendations will be made to meet your institutional requirements and constraints.

The “output” or end result of the Options Phase is the recommendation and selection of the best option to implement. This decision is necessary to move to the next phase.


How can we turn the best option into a final project?

The “input” that triggers the beginning of this Phase is the decision to go ahead with one of the options studied in the previous Phase. It must now be turned into a concrete, and clearly defined project.

During this phase, professionals such as architects, engineers, conservators, interpretation and exhibit designers, curators, landscape architects, and quantity surveyors are hired to prepare drawings, specifications, detailed budgets and work schedules, and other legal documents for the conservation project according to the selected option. These documents usually become the contract basis for tendering the work and for borrowing or committing the financial resources necessary.

The “output” or end result of the Project Development Phase is a series of legal and contractual documents that will be used to obtain bids and schedules of work from contractors or specialized firms or companies to execute the work. For small projects, these documents tend to be relatively simple; but in the case of larger projects, they become quite volumnous and complex.


How can we realize this project?

The “input” that triggers the beginning of this Phase is the decision to go ahead with the conservation work. Clearly, this is a critical step in the project cycle. After all, it is the step in which you actually carry out your project activities. Up until this point, the team has been researching, studying, examining, testing, consulting, and planning your activities. Implementation is putting all of the research and planning efforts you conducted in the previous phases into action. During this phase, professionals, contractors and specialized workers undertake the conservation work according to the documents prepared in the previous Phase.

The “output” or end result of the Implementation Phase is a completed project. The next phase begins when the conservation work is complete and staff and financial resources have been allocated to operate the site.


How can we ensure the long-term sustainability of this cultural resource?

At this point, warranties are enforced (such as mechanical systems, roof, windows, specialized equipment etc.) and a life cycle maintenance program is set in place. Maintenance manuals are prepared and maintenance staff is trained. The project records are archived. Management establishes a monitoring program for critical components and the project data is routed to a database for maintenance or re-treatment purposes. An evaluation of the Project is made and the lessons learned are captured in the final Project Report. The final Project Report is prepared and disseminated. The site is open to the public or for its intended use and a site or property manager is assigned the responsibility for its continued use, maintenance and safeguard.

This Phase generates on-going operational, monitoring and maintenance activities. When a new need, problem or opportunity occurs, the cycle will begin all over again.?