Conservation and Protecting Edinburgh's Historic Buildings

Edinburgh is a tale of two cities – the Old Town and the New, each vastly different to the other in terms of construction and layout, but both enjoying UNESCO World Heritage Site status. However, according to Edinburgh World Heritage, over-tourism, the rise in short-term holiday lets by absentee landlords, shared ownership of tenements and a lack of preventative conservation mean our historic buildings are under threat. It would seem however, that Edinburgh is not alone as other European World Heritage Sites – Florence, Bordeaux, Porto and Santiago De Compostela – face similar challenges. It makes sense therefore, to share ideas and best practice to try to solve these issues. This is the aim of the Atlas Project and you can read more about it on the Edinburgh World Heritage website by clicking here.

However, the preservation of our historic buildings will rely on more than organisational involvement. As the owner or potential buyer of a property within an Edinburgh listed building, there are steps you can take to ensure your property serves its purpose as a residential or rental property while conserving the fabric of the building for future generations. Here are some recommendations from Edinburgh period property restoration specialists, Mackenzie Hughes to help you.

Edinburgh 2021 – the old meets the new

Listed Buildings

Edinburgh may be a historic city with a unique topography, but it is not a museum. As the fourth largest financial centre in Europe (behind London, Zurich and Luxembourg respectively) and home to over 500,000 people, Edinburgh must move with the times. But, as 75% of the buildings in the city centre are listed, understanding the rules on what you can and cannot do is essential when looking at the balance between conservation and where your property fits into the modern world.

A good place to start is to read the Edinburgh Council guide to listed buildings and conservation areas which covers everything from repointing stonework to adding a new en-suite bathroom. The information however, is wide and varied and can be open to interpretation. So, if you are planning improvements to modernise your property within a listed building, speak to a builder with a successful track record in restoration who can help you make sense of it.    

Conserving Your Listed Building Exterior

There are three categories of listed buildings – A, B or C (which also covers walls and bridges) depending on whether your building is of international, national, regional or local importance either architecturally or historically. Of the three categories, A listed buildings (of international or national importance) will very rarely be given consent for any external alterations that are deemed not in keeping with their original structure. For example, in Edinburgh New Town Georgian buildings, this can include such simple alterations as changing the colour of the front door or banning the use of weatherproofing exterior walls with silene and silicone as it will inhibit the free movement of air and natural release of water vapour through the lime mortar.

There may be scope however to make certain alterations to Category B or C listed buildings without such rigid specifications (including adding an extension), but it is best to speak to a specialist builder for advice before applying for building consent or undertaking any work.

Mackenzie Hughes custom-made extension

Fully refurbished staircase and bannister

Restored stone steps and handrail

Interior Conservation

The rules governing listed building status do not only apply to the exterior of your property. Conserving certain aspects of the interior may be equally as important. This can include plasterwork (such as cornices), chimneypieces and staircases which will require listed building consent (but not planning permission) if you wish to alter or remove them.

The same rules apply to the subdivision of rooms in that principal rooms or entrance halls should not be subdivided but it may be possible to subdivide secondary rooms. Again, it is best to seek specialist advice at the exploration stage.

Modern interior in a Regency property

Available Grants

Grants are available through Edinburgh World Heritage (subject to certain criteria and stipulations) for eligible private homeowners or certain commercial properties. The purpose behind the support is to help conserve or restore the exterior structure in line with its original form; for example repointing stonework, repairing roofing slates or repairing original windows. Funding has already been allocated for this year but information on grant applications and future funding will be made available in early 2022. See the Edinburgh World Heritage website for further details.

Edinburgh Old Town close – where neighbours lived on top of each other

Your community

The heart of any city lies in its community. For centuries Edinburgh’s Old Town was a vertical village hemmed in by the Flodden Wall with nowhere to grow but up. People from all socio-economic groups lived together in the ‘lands’ (Europe’s first skyscrapers) and while they may not have socialised, neighbours would certainly know each other – and each other’s personal business too! As the New Town grew with its wide streets and brighter aspect, the community demographic changed to a more affluent homeowner, but neighbours would meet regularly in the George Street Assembly Rooms for costume balls and other social get-togethers.

George Street Assembly Rooms – designed for social occasions

The challenge today is that many Edinburgh city centre homeowners, especially in the tenements, have little contact with their neighbours. This is no one’s fault but rather a sign of the times, as people’s lifestyles become increasingly hectic and becoming successful in today’s business world often demands round the clock commitment. Absentee landlords renting out properties can also be hard to get in touch with which makes it difficult to achieve a consensus on common repairs. However, owning an Edinburgh period property is a significant investment and a well-maintained building will pay dividends in the long run. So, it is definitely worthwhile making an extra effort to get to know your neighbours. For advice on shared repairs click on this City of Edinburgh Council link and for more details on listed building or other period property restoration or conservation repairs contact Mackenzie Hughes.       

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