Heritage Forum: Clara Willet interview

Clara Willet: "I’ve been so impressed by the creativity in design and high standard of craftsmanship that is represented by the Natural Stone Awards."

Heritage Forum is one of Stone Federation Great Britain’s sector focus groups. Here the group talks to Clara Willet, Architectural Conservator at Historic England and a judge of the Federation’s Natural Stone Awards.

HF: You were a judge for the Natural Stone Awards. What impressed you most about the successful projects?

Clara: I’ve been so impressed by the creativity in design and high standard of craftsmanship that is represented by the Natural Stone Awards. The skills of those involved in designing, cutting and carving the stone is so inspiring. The Awards really celebrate and champion the excellent quality of stone as a building material for both traditional and modern buildings, which create beautiful places for people to enjoy, live and work in.

HF: Conservation is obviously a professional passion of yours, why do you think the correct conservation of stone buildings is so vital in today’s built environment?

Clara: Conservation offers a new life to existing buildings – it isn’t about barriers to change (which is inevitable) but allows adaptation that enhances a building’s performance, aesthetics and longevity.

HF: What part do you think conserving our natural stone buildings has to play in reducing the UK’s carbon footprint?

Clara: The most sustainable building is one that already exists. The embodied energy that has gone into constructing it is already contained within it. Furthermore, it is usually the good designs and durable materials which have contributed to the building’s endurance. Natural stone (if treated appropriately) is incredibly durable and straight forward to maintain and repair. Adaptation of these buildings is a lower-energy activity than building new. Conservation is often more about doing less than more.

HF: What advice would you give both commercial and domestic historic property owners when it comes to correct conservation?

Clara: Be an informed client, so you understand what the building needs in terms of maintenance and care. There is a lot of information available not only from Historic England but from the SPAB and the Listed Properties Owners Club. In that way you can find experienced practitioners who can design, plan and execute the work to a good standard, using appropriate materials and techniques.

HF: Which is your favourite stone building?

Clara: This is a really hard question! Stone is so diverse that it creates very different effects and atmospheres. In my work I visit a lot of ruins and I really enjoy walking around observing the ‘bones’ of these once magnificent buildings and trying to imagine their previous glory and the life within them. I also like an old church because you can usually still see some original masonry and carvings – another direct contact with the past.

But if I have to choose just one stone building then it would be Manchester Town Hall (completed in 1877). It has it all. Not only is the exterior an imposing landmark of fine carving and masonry, but the inte-rior is a jewellery box of stone features – sculpture, mosaics, fireplaces and other decorative fittings. The Victorian neo-gothic design is certainly maximalist and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it shows that the architect, Alfred Waterhouse, and the other commissioned craftspeople involved took exceptional care to ensure the design and execution was of the highest standard.