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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

The Do's and Don'ts of Conserving Old Buildings

In today's world, old buildings are ignored and neglected and thus, not given the due nurture they need. Most owners regard them as a burden and carry out no maintenance at all. Some of them, which are qualitatively better than the protected monuments, are being demolished at regular intervals. This article attempts to provide a coherent list of suggestions to all those who are interested in preserving the aesthetic qualities of aged buildings and in adaptively reusing them. Some of the principles of adaptive reuse that we follow are covered here.


“ It has been most truly said at our meetings that these old buildings do not belong to us only; that they have belonged to our forefathers, and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those that come after us.”

- William Morris, (Speech at Annual Meeting of SPAB, 1889 Report.)


"Is it not better to add to the sum total of the record of human creativity than to subtract from it? Is it not better to allow people to be enriched by the products of all ages rather than just our own?" - Randolph Langenbach (in 'A Future from the Past' 1978).


List of Contents



Paliam Palace Before Restoration
Paliam Palace Before Restoration
Paliam Palace After Restoration
Paliam Palace After Restoration

Click to know more about the restoration of Paliam Palace


The irony of our architectural training is that it is based on the study of old buildings but seldom teaches us to respect them. Given a choice between conserving the old buildings and new construction, most architects would choose the latter. But, bringing forth the adaptive reuse and restoration of heritage buildings is essential to pass on heritage to future generations. If the rehabilitation of these old buildings is not sensitively undertaken, the qualities that gave them their character and cultural heritage will go into oblivion.


The Before and After Images of Kottapuram Market
The Before and After Images of Kottapuram Market

Click to know more about Kottapuram Market


1. General Guideline to Be Followed for Restoration of Old Buildings


If the structure is to be brought into adaptive reuse, the building services will also have to be taken into account primarily. Naturally, the care that has to be exercised in the case of old buildings is much higher if the building is ancient or if its quality is poor. The physical comforts need not be compromised in the choices of toilets, floor finishes etc. For example, in conserving an ancient roof, the object is to preserve or retain the maximum amount of the original timber. However, the repaired roof should be able to bear the load of the tiles or stones that cover it. Similarly, the floors should be able to support the weight of people walking on it, and the windows must keep the rain out.


Interior View of Paliam Nalukettu Conserved as a part of the Muziris Heritage Project
Interior View of Paliam Nalukettu Conserved as a part of the Muziris Heritage Project

Click to know more about Paliam Nalukettu


Do’s

  • Do keep an open mind. Be ready to accept and accommodate some irregularities like minor leanings and a certain amount of impractical things.

  • Do use the same materials and methods as done originally.

  • Do use natural materials rather than synthetic ones and match them in texture, quality and colour.

  • Do replace irrelevant additions and embellishments with more authentic designs from its origin era.


Cheraman Juma Masjid Before Conservation
Cheraman Juma Masjid Before Conservation
Cheraman Juma Masjid After Conservation
Cheraman Juma Masjid After Conservation

Don’ts

  • Don't try fancy new methods, which are developed for modern constructions.

  • Don't imitate arches, cornices, architraves and other details unless you can do them correctly. Nothing looks worse than a thoroughly vulgar pastiche.

  • Don't overdo the restoration. It should be resisted at any cost.

  • Don’t bring in unconnected features and finishes for beautifying the building.


Saukar Masjid Before Conservation
Saukar Masjid Before Conservation
Saukar Masjid After Conservation
Saukar Masjid After Conservation

Click to know more about Saukar Masjid


2. While Repairing or Replacing Elements in Vernacular Architecture


Do’s

  • Do retain every original feature that can be saved.

  • Do keep all repairs to a minimum.

Don’ts

  • Don't repair anything that is in order, and don't replace anything that can be repaired.


Interior of Holy Cross Church Before Conservation
Interior of Holy Cross Church Before Conservation
Interior of Holy Cross Church After Conservation
Interior of Holy Cross Church After Conservation

3. Documentation of Cultural Heritage


Do’s

  • Do record the condition of the building, before any intervention. All methods and materials used during treatment should be documented.

  • Do measure and record before removing any significant feature from the building, if the repairs demand it. It is important that everything goes back to its original place, in its original form.

  • Do incorporate the date if any old materials get replaced with new ones. It is of great use to future conservators who may otherwise misjudge it to be as old as the building itself.

  • Do photograph all the elements of a timber roof like rafter, wall plates, trusses and others before dismantling it.


A View of the Altar at the Paravur Jew Synagogue
A View of the Altar at the Paravur Jew Synagogue

Click to know more about the conservation of the Paravur Synagogue


4. Archaeological Features to Be Preserved


Do’s

  • Do preserve all historic evidence and archaeological buildings.

  • Do consult an expert, if you think you have found something interesting, such as a mural, painting, etc.

  • Do take proper care in investigating for the possible presence of blocked up doors and windows, reused timber members etc. This evidence can tell us a great deal about the building's history. The remains may be fragmentary, but from slight traces, such as a springer indicating a vault here or a window there; the picture of the original building can be formed in the mind's eye.

  • Do take special care in revealing early features of interest and expose it, for the discerning eye to see.

Don’ts

  • Don't remove inscriptions, signs, boards, date plaques, carvings, niches and statues which form an integral part of the history of the building. If the restoration calls for the removal of an interesting feature, then it is desirable for it to be re-set in an appropriate position.


New Model Coir Society Building in Alappuzha After Conservation
New Model Coir Society Building in Alappuzha After Conservation

Click to know more about New Model Coir Society


5. Building and Its Setting


Do’s

  • Do exercise the same care and attention to detail for repairing or replacing the elements of the front elevation, the sides and the back of the building. Each of these contributes to the character of the building in its own way.

Don’ts

  • Don't cut down trees, which form an essential part of the setting of the building. If it is absolutely necessary for the most urgent reasons of safety, trees may be cut.

  • Don't use concrete and other modern paving materials. Use gravel, stones, bricks, beaten earth, or others that are traditional to the setting.


Exterior View of the Coirfed Building After Conservation Along With the Canal
Exterior View of the Coirfed Building After Conservation Along With the Canal

6. Exterior Features While Modifying


Do’s

  • Do use colours and other treatments that blend well with both the past and present of the neighbourhood while painting the facades in a terraced house.

Don'ts

  • Don't enclose the verandahs and porches with walls or glazing.

  • Don't disturb or break features for services. They should remain concealed and kept to a minimum on the front façade. For instance, drain pipes are usually best painted in unobtrusive colours.

  • Don't paint stones or brickwork using contrasting colours.


Paravur Jew Synagogue After Restoration
Paravur Jew Synagogue After Restoration

Click to know more about the conservation of the Paravur Synagogue


7. Restoring Traditional Roofs


Do’s

  • Do retain the shape and pitch of the roof.

Don’ts

  • Don't replace a nice old roof unless it is structurally necessary.


8. Walls


Do’s

  • Do integrate any new work or repair of the walls with the existing coursing.

  • Do keep the texture of the walls exactly as it was before.

  • Do retain or copy any mouldings, decorative features, however simple, on original plaster elevations, when repairs are necessary.

  • Do choose to use sand of the right colour and grain size. Brush the pointing to texture it before it sets, to match with the original.

Don’ts

  • Don't use strong cement mortars for pointing brickwork or stones. Use weak cement/lime/sand mixes to do it.

  • Don't insert exposed concrete lintels over windows in old walls.

  • Don't demolish old walls and rebuild them unless it is structurally necessary.


A View of the Corridor at the Paravur Jew Synagogue After Restoration
A View of the Corridor at the Paravur Jew Synagogue After Restoration

Click to know more about the conservation of the Paravur Synagogue


9. Doors and Windows of Old Buildings


Do’s

  • Do use doors, which are in character with the building.

  • Do observe the symmetry and traditional divisions of the elevations.

  • Doors and windows that are no longer required can sometimes be blocked from inside, leaving a dummy or blind feature to the exterior.

Don’ts

  • Don't widen or heighten existing openings out of proportion to the elevations.

  • Don't use large sheets of glass for the doors and windows. They can ruin the appearance of an old building. Panelled windows and small glass panes can be used if they are traditional.

  • Don't remove metal work such as handles or bars from old shutters.

  • Don't use any form of modern flush doors in an aged building.


A View of the Alappuzha Heritage Building After Conservation
A View of the Alappuzha Heritage Building After Conservation

Click to know more about New Model Coir Society


10. While Conserving Interiors


Do’s

  • Do preserve interior elements such as staircases, panelling, shutters, mouldings, wall paintings, wooden carvings, etc. These form an integral part of the character of the building.

  • Do lay floors in a traditional fashion.


Don’ts

  • Don't use fluorescent lighting in an old building unless it is totally hidden from the view. They dampen the atmosphere of the rooms.

  • Don't demolish internal walls, unless required. For example, in small houses, two rooms can be combined to form a large room. In that case, make sure that the mouldings are continued along the new partition walls.

  • Don't erect internal walls with modern and unsympathetic materials which do not blend with the original design of the rooms. Don't use wallpapers with modern looking designs.

  • Don't remove ceiling cornices.

  • Don't provide any modern ceiling board finishes.

  • Don't remove old staircases unless they are beyond repair. The features of old staircases should not be altered by replacing handrails, balusters, newels etc.

  • Don't lay modern synthetic floor tiles in the more important rooms like halls or passages. They can be used in utility areas such as laundries, bathrooms and lavatories, or occasionally kitchens.


11. Extensions to the Original Building


Do’s

  • Do extend your building only after you have used it entirely.

  • Do make sure that the extension is harmonious in colour, tone, texture, form and scale. Extensions can have unique identities, but they shouldn’t overpower the existing structure.


Don’ts

  • Do avoid a porch unless you can get it exactly right in character with the already existing building.

  • Don’t add flat roof extensions to buildings with sloping roofs. Flat roofs should be avoided if you are faithfully restoring a period design. They stand out and do not harmonize with the original design.


Port Museum After Restoration
Port Museum After Restoration

Click to know more about the conservation of the Port Musuem


12. To Conclude


Finally, maybe we should stop once in a while and think, “What are we leaving for our kids?” We need to learn to use the tools we have today to adaptively reuse buildings. Restoration and revival of the old heritage is a necessity for preserving culture and heritage. The benefits of adaptive reuse are many, be it to protect heritage or to bring in tourism for the economic sector. The adaptive reuse or conservation of buildings make way for more original designs that would be unique to that region. The future generation can look back with pride on how their ancestors adapted to the changing times.

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