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Condition surveys of historic buildings and sites often present the surveyor with challenges

Condition surveys of historic buildings and sites often present the surveyor with different challenges to those experienced at other building types.  Sometimes these revolve around problems with physical access to conduct the survey, but often the surveyor is confronted with materials, building elements and components which are in some way or another unusual or unexpected.
Using a range of case studies, this session will look in a practical way at some of the potential pitfalls that may be encountered and seek to develop an appreciation of the art (and science) of surveying historic structures.  Inevitably, the coverage given in the session has to be extremely selective.  The following notes provide some general advice on the conduct of condition surveys of historic buildings, including issues that cannot be aired in the presentation itself.  These are written from the perspective of the professional consultant, but they can be interpreted to give assistance to the client or in-house professional in commissioning or undertaking a condition survey. 

What is a survey?

‘A survey is the inspection and investigation of the construction and services of a property in sufficient detail to enable a surveyor to advise what impact the condition and the circumstances of that property will have upon the client.’  Malcolm Hollis – Surveying Buildings (2005).
In the case of historic buildings in particular, the definition of ‘the property’ should be a holistic one to include the surroundings and setting of the building.  The survey should also address the impact that the condition and circumstances have upon the historic interest and significance of the building.

Where do you start?

Avoid rushing in.  Ensure that the purpose, objectives, limitations and format of the condition survey are agreed and understood by all relevant parties.  Establish the context of the building to be appraised.  For instance, it may lie within an historic estate or listed park/garden.  What are the client’s motives, to whom will your report be presented and how might it be interpreted?
Research at an early stage is essential.  Ideally, preparatory research should be undertaken before you provide any advice to the client or before you quote for the commission.  Further background research will almost certainly be needed before site survey commences.
Spend time talking to the client.  Find out what about the site is already held and whether you will have access to it.  Is your report to form part of a larger project, such as a feasibility study, and, if so, will you be given the opportunity or required to ‘integrate’ your report in to the larger scheme or comment on issues that arise after you have submitted your written report?
Visit the property if you can before you are appointed for the survey.  Meet the client or his/her other professional advisors.  Remember you can’t give best advice, if you don’t understand all the facts.
For larger properties, how long will the survey take and how many staff will you need in the team?

Why might a condition survey be required?

Pre-purchase (including vendor’s surveys)
Quinquennial inspections
Specific condition problems/issues
Feasibility studies
Dilapidations or Schedule of Condition (the latter at the commencement of a lease)
Pre- repair, conversion or maintenance schemes
Asset valuation

Things to think about when tendering for a survey

Accurate and detailed information will help you tender for the job, or ensure (if you are the client) that surveyors have confidence in providing you with a firm, unqualified tender.
As a minimum, the information needed on an historic building will include:
Age, size, use (present, past and proposed) and details of any unusual construction;
Accurate site and floor plans;
Details of the tenure;
Access arrangements/limitations.  Is the property vacant, furnished, occupied?;
Will there be access to examine all of the building/site.  Will you need access on to neighbouring land or special access, such as tower scaffold or a cherry picker?
Is opening up expected/needed on the day and will attendance by a contractor be required?  Are specialist investigations needed – structural engineer, M & E engineer, architectural paint analysis, non-destructive survey techniques, drains survey?
Will copies of earlier reports be available, such as the previous quinquennial survey, access audit, and maintenance register or asbestos survey?
What alterations have been made or are planned?
Should samples (mortar, stone etc) be taken for analysis?
What are the health & safety issues?
Are there wildlife considerations?
What is the timetable for inspection and reporting?
Before the survey day(s)
Aim to get the client’s instructions confirmed in writing.
Agree terms and conditions of engagement (appointment agreement).  Follow RICS/RIBA recommendations.
Make a clear record of the appointment.  Specify the complaints procedure and PII cover.
How is the survey data to be presented?
Full text version
Abbreviated text and schedule of works
Spreadsheet version
Budget costs
Photographs and plans
What equipment will you need?
What is a defect?
Generally considered to be a failing or shortcoming.
This needs to be benchmarked against the expected performance standard for a building or structure of this type, age and construction.  Severity can be gauged by the extent of the shortfall.
Other considerations will be the client’s expectations and lack of health & safety compliance.
Any threat to the building should be considered a potential defect.


Good background information is essential at a very early stage, both about the building and the client’s requirements/agenda.
Think carefully (before agreement of the instruction/fee) about what you will need in order to carry out the survey, what you can do and what you can’t.  Think for the client as well.
Confirm everything in writing and set out an appointment agreement.  This is an important stage of the survey, so spend a bit of time on it.  If anything goes wrong, the appointment agreement will be the starting point for adjudication.
Think about how the survey data will be presented.
Think carefully about health & safety issues.
On the day, go well prepared and spend enough time on site.  Get in to a routine when looking at buildings.  As well as taking notes, draw plans/sketches and take lots of photos.
Consider what a defect is in relation to the type, age and construction of the building.
Prepare your summary and advice very carefully.  You may have to say things which your client doesn’t want to hear!  Look after your client’s interests, but think about what is right for the building and its significance.

Stephen Bond
TFT Cultural Heritage,
211 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HF.  Tel: 020 7917 9590
Bridge House, 14 Bridge Street, Taunton TA1 1UB.  Tel: 01823 283 611 Mob: 07860 522045

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