Working with heritage regulations
Updated: Jan 21
Municipal regulations are not recent.
As pointed out by the fantastic book about the state of American heritage, The Past and Future City (Stephanie Meeks and Kevin C Murphy, 2016), perhaps the earliest building code is the roughly five millennia-old declaration of King Sennacherib of Assyria:
If ever any person living in the city pulls down his old house and builds a new and the foundations of that house encroaches on the royal processional way, they shall hang that man upon a stake over his own house.
Such a proclamation puts into perspective some meetings with Council. At least no one is at risk of being impaled.
Development in and around heritage places has become heavily regulated in NSW, which is often good and necessary. Free reign at important places within the historic and cultural environment have rarely supported informed, sensitive or been of benefit for the public. Our urban and rural landscapes are rife with cautionary tales of an unthinking approach to new design within heritage contexts.
Sensible and site-responsive regulation should not be burdensome (with the right advice); however, in the decades since the Heritage Act 1977, conservation has become undeniably more complex.
In NSW, property owners—who undertake the majority of work at heritage identified sites—can face a complicated suite of conservation principles, rules and guidelines. And despite a decade of academic review that has expanded our understanding of the concept of ‘heritage’, this framework is still underlaid by a near dogmatic faith in the primacy of original fabric and an overwrought curatorial intention. Such an insistence on sympathy, compatibility and integrity can suggest to the layperson that style and form are all that which concerns heritage management.
These objectives can become ends in themselves and disengaged from the far more meaningful task of engaging the public in deliberation on change and continuity as well as keeping places alive, in active use and relevant to the needs of the increasingly diverse peoples and communities that surround and interact with them.
Instead of an overt focus on timber vs timber-look window frames or other minutiae we should be devoting more energy to communicating why a place matters. If we can be more articulate on this front—both applicant and assessors—then we can aim to establish a performance-based system of evaluating new work. The question then becomes: Do the changes under scrutiny make this place better and sustainable without undermining its broad significance?
We would do far better by the remnants of the past in the present if we expunged personal aesthetic taste or predilections.
When managing places embodied with meaning, we need to embrace thinking and considerations beyond the confines of the Local Environmental Plan or Development Control Plan.