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Preserving our built heritage

Preserving our built heritage is a responsibility that falls to us architects, and one that leads us to a very special line of thought.

Built heritage is not just about historic buildings, but also about all kinds of heritage that allow us to relive a certain era or moment in our cities.

In Portugal we have many buildings that we consider to have heritage value, not because they are part of our history, but because they allow us to reconstruct, either through their uniqueness, degree of preservation or the built ensemble, how people lived, and how man took over part of our cities, towns or even the rural world. 

What makes a Root Architecture project different from a rehabilitation project? 

In my way of thinking about architecture, I always prioritise function; the space has to serve a purpose and its user. 

When we work with built heritage we work with a structure that already has its DNA and its essence. 

The word rehabilitate anticipates the concept. Re+enable, in other words, to enable again. And rehabilitating means returning a house or building to the function for which it was designed, which often means adapting it and modernising the way it is lived in. 

But should we think that the building will remain intact just by cleaning the walls and checking that the infrastructure works? 

Not from my point of view. The problem is actually much deeper. It requires experience, know-how, knowledge and the application of strategies that you don't learn at university and that are the result of practising as an architect in buildings with these particularities with a lot of experimentation. Let's look at the problem in a practical way. 

Taking a Pombaline building*, rehabilitating it and returning it to the market involves a process in which we have to divide what we consider to be its heritage essence and genesis and its spatial essence and genesis. 

What is this?

It's simple. The building was designed to respond to the way people lived in the 18th century. Its entire spatial genesis respects the Modus Vivendi of the time, which differed according to the target public for whom the building was constructed. The higher the social class for whom the building was constructed, the larger the useful areas of the social zones and the service areas that the building had. 

The question is? Does it make sense today to preserve the way we lived in the 18th century? 

The answer is clear: of course not. We have to transform our houses in such a way as to guarantee an up-to-date and functional way of using space. 

In other words, the spatial genesis must be readjusted and adapted. 

However, while it is clear that the building or flat can and should be adapted in terms of how it receives its programme, it should also be clear to us architects that this can't just happen. 

And here we come to what I call heritage genesis. 

And what is heritage genesis? 

Heritage genesis is everything that gives a building its historical authenticity, what makes it unique and what allows the essence of the built heritage to be maintained. 

That's why the Directorate General for Heritage and Culture in Portugal is so demanding with the preservation of construction systems, stucco, carpentry and everything that characterises each building, such as ornamentation. These elements, when well preserved, allow us to locate the building in history and time. It reminds us of our heritage. For example, a well-preserved tile panel gives us a lot of information about the property or the space. A monochrome blue and white tile panel in contrast to a coloured tile panel can indicate that the first space was a secondary space or that the user of the first space was less noble than the user of the second. It gives us information about the time the building was built and often about who lived in the building. 


The same goes for stucco. In this chapter we have magnificent ceilings with highly ornate stucco mouldings of incalculable heritage value or stucco mouldings on the walls whose preservation allows a perfect framing of the socio-cultural context in which the building was constructed. 

The maintenance of building systems is also very important, and in this field not just for the sake of heritage preservation, but above all to preserve the safety of the property in the event of an earthquake. 

A building that is regular in terms of its construction systems allows it to react in a controllable way in the event of an earthquake, but a building that is essentially made of wood and that over the years has undergone changes using concrete, steel and/or iron reinforcements indiscriminately throughout its floors and depending on the time of its adaptation becomes a dangerous building because at the time of the earthquake it will react differently and will have a more severe and uncontrolled structural rupture. 

MBM Company is currently working on a number of refurbishment projects in Portugal and our concern is precisely to ensure that the way we live inside these buildings is in keeping with the way we use space nowadays, but that this operation allows us to maintain what is the essence of our heritage. 

What skills change when compared to an architect who only works on new buildings? 

What changes is simple: we have to have a deep knowledge of the building systems that have developed in Portugal, and a historical knowledge that allows us to guarantee that what is in the property is essential for maintaining its heritage value. 

Many houses have been intervened on over time and therefore have dissonant elements that don't contribute to the truth of the property. We have to distinguish whether elements are dissonant and should be eliminated or whether they should be kept because they are part of the building's history and that difference makes them more unique. 

Then our challenge begins, because we have to know and assess our clients' way of living very well so that we can start to build an intervention plan that is based on respect for heritage and that combines it efficiently and effectively with the way of living of those who will be inhabiting the space. 

If you ask me if the heritage base is a condition in a yes or no question, my answer has to be yes, but the question is very reductive, because our experience allows us to look at the heritage piece as a basis for work, not as a final result. Architecture is a living heritage, it must evolve over time and there are strategies that we develop over time that allow us to take advantage of the heritage piece, giving it a new life. 

And here we come to what amuses us and what motivates us in this type of intervention. The art of making the old cohabit with the new. 

The introduction of new and modern materials is not forbidden in rehabilitation. On the contrary, the introduction of new materials helps to guarantee the historical authenticity of the intervention. It creates a clear line between what has been safeguarded as heritage and what has been intervened upon, as well as improving the experience of living today. In other words, in 50 years' time, if someone decided to study the building, it would be easy to place each moment of its intervention in each of its eras. 

Building on what has been built is a challenge. What may seem like a heavy exercise due to the number of constraints it presents, becomes a dazzling exercise if viewed seriously and using the experience acquired over the years. 

If you want to rehabilitate a property in Portugal or worldwide, with the experience and expertise of MBM company & HBL will partner at your disposal. 


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