Eleanor Jolliffe extols the value of hands-on heritage experience and an opportunity for young architects

Eleanor Jolliffe

Lately these columns have been oscillating between cladding and craftsmanship; these are, in my mind, entirely interconnected and at the forefront of what will shape the immediate future of our profession. Some fascinating people have got in touch in response, one of whom is Ali McClary from the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). She told me about the SPAB’s Lethaby scholarship, which seeks to teach young or early-career architects building conservation skills through an immersive, hands-on, nine-month tour of the country working alongside craftspeople and conservation specialists. The only downside I could see was that, as scholars are hosted by a network of SPAB volunteers, some camping was involved.

The fellowship began in 1930, and the only missed years since then have been for the Second World War and then for covid in 2020. It offers fully funded places to three or four scholars a year and colloquially is considered to give knowledge and experience equivalent to about eight to 10 years of specialist architectural conservation practice. McClary believes there isn’t a cathedral in the country that hasn’t been worked on by one of the scholarship alumni.

One of these alumni, Kristian Foster, was kind enough to chat with me about his experience. It sounded almost unbelievable. He described the flexibility of the course, the dedication of the volunteers and the overwhelming enthusiasm of all the specialists they met en route to learn their craft or specialism. He described a comprehensive nine months covering not only crafts and building skills but also the funding, programming, budgeting and contracts involved as well. He said it was an unequalled opportunity to get away from screens and get perspective on the work – and on the trajectory of his career.

The craft and care inherent in ancient buildings are the reason they have survived

Over a long and fascinating conversation, one of the most notable points he raised was his lasting remembrance of the craftspeople’s love of the material and the collaborative nature of the work. He describes the whole project team observing, recording, tentatively repairing and rebuilding; sharing and testing ideas and all focused on what outcome was best for the building. It struck him as so different from his experiences prior to the scholarship, in what he called “contemporary practice”. As he pointed out, a mistake in a new building doesn’t potentially damage hundreds of years of history; people just don’t get so invested. The scholarship also seems to create a sense of belonging: SPAB scholar alumni sound like a close-knit and helpful network and try to keep in touch and meet up annually.

There are so many talking points over the treatment of heritage buildings and the approach both McClary and Foster describe – of respect for the old but celebration of the new where it is required; of being able to read the change on the building while maintaining respect for the existing fabric – this sounded like something I could sign up to wholeheartedly.

One of the issues with heritage skills, which both SPAB and the Prince’s Foundation are attempting to address, is the finite number of those skilled enough to either specify or carry out work of this type. Kristian Foster, now working in a specialist conservation practice, says one of the main challenges he now faces in practice is finding the right people to carry out the work. He may not know enough to do the work himself, but the scholarship has taught him enough to know when the “heritage specialist” bidding for work doesn’t actually have the level of skill claimed. Furthermore, he is now more aware of when he is specifying a repair or intervention that is going to be difficult to realise, and knows to allow more time and money – or to redraw it in another way.

As ever when I have these sorts of conversations, my thoughts drift to the impact of these ideas on my own practice of architecture. I rarely work with heritage buildings; in fact the last few years I have exclusively worked on the delivery of vast mixed-use schemes. But my belief that the craftmanship of architecture and of building should remain central is only growing in strength with the increasing scale of my projects. The craft and care inherent in ancient buildings are the reason they have survived. The more I consider this, the more I aspire to work to deliver buildings that still radiate craft and care in centuries to come.

Applications for the 2022 scholarship are open until 12 October.