Heritage homes: easy to love, hard to maintain


While homebuyers can get subsidies to buy historically significant properties, they often have trouble keeping up with the repairs and maintenance required

Preserving heritage one family at a time

Many people aspire to live in a building with some historic character, and Flanders offers plenty of opportunity to do so. It might be a townhouse with ancient timbers, an Art Deco villa or a 19th-century worker’s cottage.

But once you own a historically significant building, you have a legal responsibility to maintain it and preserve the features that make it special. This is not always straightforward, and sometimes necessary work is ignored, delayed or badly carried out.

Finding out why this occurs was one of the aims of a PhD project carried out by Nathalie Van Roy at KU Leuven. In particular, she looked at maintenance work recommended by Monumentenwacht, an association that provides regular condition assessments of historic buildings.

Even though its advice is requested by the owners, Monumentenwacht found that its recommendations were not always implemented. “We wanted to investigate this in more detail and understand more about owners’ behaviour, attitudes and values,” Van Roy explains. “So, what were the owners’ intentions, what maintenance and repairs did they actually carry out, and how was this done.”

Emotional bond

She interviewed owners and held focus groups in two areas: the city of Mechelen, where buildings ranged from 17th- and 18th-century townhouses to modernist buildings from the 1930s; and Riemst, a rural municipality in Limburg where 19th-century worker’s houses are built from locally mined stone. These findings were then validated with an online survey of owners across Flanders.

Some of the owners with whom Van Roy spoke had connections with their buildings going back generations, while others had bought more recently, often with the aim of renovating. Sometimes the buildings were already protected, sometimes protected status and its obligations came later.

While all of the owners had a strong emotional bond with their buildings, this did not always translate into high-quality maintenance. “Their appreciation is strongly related to the use of the building as a home, so for them it has to be a living entity,” Van Roy says. “They can tell lively stories about their building’s history and what it means to them, but that’s not always related to its material authenticity.”

They don’t always ask an expert for help and do things that are not ideal for the historic value of the building

- Nathalie Van Roy

This is where owning an historical building is different. How you make changes and the materials you use have to take the building’s heritage into account. This was not always understood by the owners, according to the research.

For example, in heritage circles there is a distinction between maintenance and repair. Maintenance involves small actions to prevent deterioration, such as regularly cleaning out gutters. Repair is more invasive, such as replacing gutters that have rotted away.

Maintenance can be carried out by any builder, or even the owner. Repair implies the services of a specialised architect or expert contractor, who can make sure the building’s historical value is preserved.

Scaling the walls

“In the interviews, we found that the owners do not make this distinction,” Van Roy says. “For them, something like replacing windows is still maintenance. That means they are not necessarily going to ask an expert to help them and might do things that are not ideal for the historic value of the building.”

Some owners also delayed small pieces of work until several jobs could be done at the same time. For instance, they might put off replacing one or two roof tiles until a larger job came along that required scaffolding.

In this specific case, other techniques might help. “Monumentenwacht uses rope climbing techniques so that it can easily inspect buildings, and we think that contractors could also learn these techniques so that they could carry out small repairs.” Even so, the availability of skilled contractors, particularly those willing to do small jobs, also came up as a problem.

Sometimes they don’t realise that other owners face the same challenges

- Nathalie Van Roy

More broadly, Van Roy’s research suggests that persuading owners to adopt management plans for their buildings would encourage them to carry out timely, good quality maintenance. It would also help to build better links between owners.

“Sometimes they don’t realise that other owners face the same challenges, and it can be useful for them to exchange experiences and work together.”

Yet at the same time, her research found that owners often feel unsupported and unappreciated for their efforts at preserving national heritage. “If we can support them a bit more, then it can also be more satisfying for the owners.”

Photo courtesy Monumentenwacht