Breathing new life into old buildings


Installing electrical services into historic buildings requires specialist knowledge and skills. Daniel West, Project Director at West & West, explains the key considerations and the importance of a collaborative approach.

Working in historic buildings can result in some of the most rewarding and challenging projects for electrical contractors. There is no one-size-fits-all approach with each project requiring a bespoke design that often evolves as the work progresses. Although every heritage scheme will be different, there are a number of key factors that will need to be considered for every job and to ensure a successful solution.

Building structures
Before starting work on a design, electrical contractors need to gain a thorough understanding of the building’s structure and any possible constraints. This involves detailed surveys and extensive planning in close consultation with a number of key stakeholders such as the architect and conservation officer.

Often the planning and subsequent design for the electrical work is done on a room-by-room basis to ensure specific requirements are met. This can take several weeks or even months depending on the size and nature of the building, and its future use.

New electrical equipment will need to be discretely positioned and if possible, services completely concealed while avoiding any damage to the property’s fabric and contact with any historical features. This may involve running services through longer routes and using more of the roof and floor space, which will have to be taken into account in the final design.

These challenges were evident when we were appointed to replace and upgrade a lighting system that had served an historic church for 25 years.  Located in the Cotswold village of Burford, St John the Baptist Church is a Grade I listed building that dates back to around 1176.

The installation involved intricate rewiring throughout the church. Our team had to avoid crypts under the church’s floor when carrying out the installation and work at up to eight metres in height while protecting the building’s historic fabric. This meant that any drilling had to be very carefully carried out. As the building had no service voids or risers, a different design approach was adopted for the cabling. This meant locating control equipment in strategic locations and using a maximum of four cables to run to each control panel. We spent a lot of time with the historic fabric committee discussing and trialling different colour pallets to match the cabling into the stonework. We also commissioned Pattresses which were purpose-made from reclaimed oak to match the environment and to which equipment could be secured.

Partnership working
A collaborative approach is essential for all heritage projects. Electrical contractors will work alongside the architect and conservation officer for the duration of the project to ensure the installation meets their strict criteria.

At Eton College for example, we were appointed to design and install electrical services for a new visitor entrance and the restoration of the college’s listed ‘New Schools’ building. A pared back aesthetic, designed by architects CSK, required the services to be very sensitively installed. We worked closely with the architect from the early planning stages and throughout the installation to meet their strict criteria. Light fittings had to be fitted to an exact specification, including a specific height, and locations agreed for accessories, cables, and conduit.

In addition, electrical contractors will need to forge strong working relationships with the other trades involved in the project’s delivery. That includes building partnerships with specialist carpenters, stone masons and plasterers to develop tailored solutions. In many cases, manufacturers will also need to be sourced that can provide bespoke fittings to work in certain spaces such as lighting in specific lengths colours and shapes or with driver connections that eliminate the need for onsite soldering.

Energy efficiency
Ensuring an historic building is energy efficient is another important consideration. To establish the most appropriate measures, careful planning is needed to assess all factors affecting energy use and the property’s future requirements. The solution will not only have to improve performance and deliver cost savings but ensure there is no harm to the building.

The right lighting design can make a huge difference to efficiencies. For example, the lighting system we have installed for St John the Baptist Church features high quality LED luminaires that will reduce energy use by over 44000 Kwh per year and CO2 reduction by over 4.8m KG wh leading to annual savings of more than £5,000. The installation will also result in much lower maintenance equating to a further saving of over £1,700 per year.

Seamless delivery
Heritage projects go hand in hand with various challenges, but these can all be overcome through the use of specialist contractors and tradespeople. Knowledge and experience of working in historic buildings is essential to ensure the most appropriate electrical design and a seamless installation. From the outset, a collaborative approach with all stakeholders will also pave the way for a successful outcome, ensuring specific requirements are met and buildings that everyone can be proud of.


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