The Emergence of the Conservation Accredited Engineer By James Miller MA CEng FICE FIStructE
Posted on 18th November 2021
A specialism acknowledged
When does a specialism become advanced? What makes it come of age? I recall a conversation about five years ago with another Engineer that, paraphrased, ran along the lines: ‘Historic buildings? Anyone can do them!’. Disagreeing fundamentally, I afterwards asked myself – what is the true value of Accreditation? When was is it that building conservation gave itself over to those with proven ability?
No doubt this is a question that we are all asked. Why can’t anyone do it, any architect, any engineer? In recent years, Conservation Accredited Engineers have found themselves thrust into the limelight, partly because the register has grown to the point where there are enough Accredited engineers for most other professionals to know one, which was not previously the case. Another reason is that, having hit something of a critical mass, Conservation Officers have increasingly asked for reviews or statements by such Engineers in their award of Listed Building Consent. This has all been helpful for the reputation of the Register. No, any engineer can’t do exactly what we do.
Image 1 - Inspection and diagnosis of failure mechanism: The President's House, Trinidad, following collapse of the ballroom wing
Image 2 - Inspection and specification of repairs of the Grade II* listed Tynemouth Station
What makes a Conservation Accredited Engineer?
I must thank Simon Malam, co-chair of the AABC and a colleague from a couple of fascinating historic projects in the Arabian Desert, for asking me to write this piece. It often feels like Engineers are relatively new to the Accreditation party, with the Register being founded in 2003, 15 years after the AABC . However, its history goes back to the mid 1990s, when then chief engineer at English Heritage, Ian Hume, was dismayed to see that the skills being sought to lead the restoration of the Grade I listed Anderton Boat Lift were those of surveyor, not engineer. His concern led him to found the Register. Today there are about sixty Registrants, a list of which can be found at https://www.ice.org.uk/careers-and-training/careers-advice-for-civil-engineers/specialist-professional-registers
Image 3 - Stabilization of the fragile mudstone fabric to historic watchtower, Abu Dhabi
The official post-nominals are the title ‘Conservation Accredited Engineer’, although many of the registrants often use the informal words ‘CARE Registered’. Accreditation is, of course, a serious business: it is a mark of competence and one that some may not achieve. Assessment follows a very similar and equally stringent process to the AABC, ARB and RICS, with candidates submitting case studies, CV, relevant CPD and a statement of conservation philosophy, these being judged against five key attributes that are based on ICOMOS principles and aligned between professional bodies. There is an interview. Candidates have three assessors – two accredited engineers and a third who is an architect or surveyor. Each year we have candidates who both pass and fail, and we probably learn as much about the value of the register from the failures as we do from those who pass.
The Value of Accredited Engineers
I’d like to return to the particular value that an Accredited Engineer can bring. It seems that in the minds of clients and other professionals, Engineers – Accredited or not – are the custodians of the lifeblood of the building, which is the flow of force. Structural or Civil Engineering is understood to be the profession to which is given the knowledge of whether an old piece of ironwork, timber or masonry will stand up or not. If an engineer says a building is near to collapse, then surely it must be. It must be taken down.
This is a very important matter indeed to those on the Register. There is no doubt that at some stage in the life of most Engineers who carry out inspections, the client phrase ‘write me a report that says…’ will have come up. Someone wants strong emphasis, to permit change. It is essential that the Engineer answering this question has a thorough understanding of how uncodified historic structural fabric carries load. It is not acceptable for us to say ‘it will not comply with…’ and require change simply to confirm to twenty-first century standards. At best, a poorly informed professional may write an overly conservative report; at worst, it may mean death for the structure.
Image 4 - Condition appraisal of stonework and iron cores to the minarets, Royal Pavilion, Brighton
Of course, Conservation Engineers are engaged for much more than an initial report. The need to consider options and the ways in which sensitivity is achieved in the result – these are all skills for which those on the Register are sought. Conservation Principles, the Burra Charter and that forgotten friend BS7913 are all part of the Conservation Engineer’s education.
Our work is ongoing. A couple of years ago, we had to restructure the assessment process to deal with increasing numbers. As we grow, our panel needs to remain in touch with the local concerns of practitioners. In 2019 we hope to provide a few more open lectures up and down the UK.
Thank you for welcoming Conservation Accredited Engineers to the fraternity. We enjoy working with you very much and look forward to yet more growth, to better serve the field of conservation.
James Miller MA CEng FICE FIStructE Conservation Accredited Engineer
Chair of the Conservation Accreditation Register of Engineers