Managing risks during building works in Historic Houses

Activities such as the introduction or upgrading of fire detection and security systems, re-wiring and replacement of old wiring, installation or upgrading of heating systems and structural building works all put collections and historic surfaces potentially at risk. Actions must be taken to minimise these risks if damage is to be avoided. In order to do this as much information about the proposed works should be obtained from the architect, specialist contractors, and building managers.

Once the specific risks have been identified measures can be put in place to minimise the risks. There are conservator-restorers who have experience of working with historic properties and museums who have undergone building works. A number of these conservator-restorers can be found using the Conservation Register.

Building works can create a lot of dust, physical damage, are times of increased security risks and a time when a number of major disasters have occurred in historic houses. It is therefore important to minimise the risks.

Minimising the Risks: The Principal Steps

  1. Obtain as much information as possible about the proposed works.
  2. Identify the collections and historic surfaces which are likely to be affected by the works. Remember that in order to gain access to wiring in the ceiling floorboards in the room above may need to be lifted. Consider the risks to rooms adjacent to those in which the work is going to take place.
  3. Ask for site meetings with the architect/contractors/ building manager and discuss the proposals on site.
  4. If collections are to be moved assess the volume of storage space that will be required to accommodate the items. If the works are not too extensive or are to be phased it may be possible to store the items elsewhere within the building. If the collections cannot be stored on site obtain costs for transport and storage from a company used to storing such collections.
  5. Revise the emergency plan to reflect the new location of priority items if they are moved for the works.
  6. Identify those items which may be at risk but will be too large/fragile or impossible to move for any other reason. These items will require in-situ protection. Consider whether you have the expertise in house to do this, whether you would like it to be done by a local contractor before the main contractor is on site, or whether you would like it to be part of the main contractor’s contract. 
  7. Identify and establish the costs for in-situ protection.
  8. Identify any historic surfaces which will require protection. Consider the rooms where the work is to take place and the contractors’ route into the building.
  9. When considering in-situ protection avoid methods which may in themselves cause damage to surfaces, for example protection should be push fit or braced where ever possible and adhesive tapes should not be used on historic surfaces or in contact with collections.
  10. Establish safe working practices for contractors on your site. 
  11. Consider employing a project conservator-restorer whose role it can be to maintain a watching brief to ensure that contractors are complying with any pre-agreed practices and procedures; to ensure that protection is being maintained; to help with planning and moving collections in advance of works taking place and to help oversee re-instatement of the collections at the end of the project.


Many working in the building industry are very used to the need to install protection but methods are used are not always suitable for fragile interiors and often rely on adhesive backings, tapes and low tack materials. All of which may damage historic surfaces. Clear guidance is given in The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping. See reference below. Where protection is installed along fire exit routes the protection must be flame retardant.

Storage of Collections

It will be necessary to determine whether the collection can be stored on site, in a secure  part of the building(s) which will not be affected by the works or whether it will be simpler to store the collection in secure storage off site. It is often best to keep collections on site if possible, limiting the risks in terms of handling and storage. Alternatively it may be possible to phase the works or to erect temporary secure container storage on site, with environmental control where collections are vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity.

Safe working practices for Contractors

Understandably contractors will be focussing on getting their work done and may not be used to working in historic surroundings and fragile interiors. Setting ground rules and safe working practices for working in the house can help to limit the potential for damage.

The following are examples:

  1. Method statements to be provided in advance for aspects of work which may cause damage to collections/historic fabric, for example lifting floorboards.
  2. Equipment and materials to be put down on protective matting and not directly onto historic surfaces.
  3. Contractors to use agreed access routes.
  4. Safe systems of work to be agreed in advance if there is the need for hot works, such as re-leading roofs.
  5. No radios to be used in the house/on site and eating and drinking to be carried out only in agreed areas.

Planning and Programming: The Principal Steps

  1. Estimate how long it will take to move and protect the collection.
  2. Estimate how long it will take for protection to be installed.
  3. Obtain information about how long the works will take and ensure that enough time is provided in the programme to allow collections to be moved and protected safely before any works commence.
  4. Ensure that protection for historic surfaces and elements is in place before the works start.
  5. Ensure that sufficient time is allowed in the programme for all aspects of the building works.
  6. Ensure that there is an element for contingency.
  7. Ensure that time is allowed for commissioning new systems to ensure that they are working as they should before collections are moved back in.
  8. Ensure that time has been allowed for a very thorough clean of the affected areas before collections are returned.
  9. Estimate how long it will take to re-instate the collection.
  10. Draw up final programme allowing sufficient and realistic times for the tasks identified above.
  11. Attend planning and progress meetings during the works.
  12. Monitor progress carefully and accurately during the works.


Lithgow, K. “Building Works.” In The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, Butterworth-Heinemann, (2005), 711-721.

This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator-restorer. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.