Notre Dame and the economics of investing in heritage

The Notre Dame fire has strengthened the argument in both economic and environmental terms of investing and looking after heritage buildings both here and abroad, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

Not since the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York have we been treated to such chilling images.

The sight of Notre Dame cathedral ablaze and at risk of complete collapse will surely haunt us for many years — if not decades.

Neglect of security threats paved the way for the events on 9/11. Neglect, pure and simple — the lamentable failure to spend decent money on the ongoing maintenance of the cathedral resulted in a conflagration. We can only mop our brows in relief that the Parisian fire service managed just in time to save Paris’s own beloved twin stone towers from total collapse.

Now, billions of euros will no doubt be lavished on the building — the danger is that resources will now be diverted from equally urgent restoration projects elsewhere as the cathedral sucks in cash and expertise in equal measure. Conservationists suggest that some of the vast sums committed to a restoration of the cathedral should be devoted to the training of a new generation of people with craft and other specialist building skills in perilously short supply.

The whole manner in which builders go about sensitive restoration projects will also have to be reassessed in the light of this catastrophe and others, such as the fire at the Mackintosh- designed school of art in Glasgow.

Europe contains the world’s greatest store of priceless heritage buildings many of which are complemented by largely intact surroundings.

Many have cashed in on the resulting tourist gold rush one that grows exponentially — regardless of economic cycles — as the number of educated people interested in overseas travel grows. Notre Dame alone attracted, an estimated 12 million visitors a year, yet mere peanuts were allocated towards maintenance work.

Its church custodians sought around €130m for renovation works. The French state — which until this week had other priorities — offered little over €4m for the current works which culminated in last Monday’s conflagration.

The long recession has emptied state coffers and altered priorities. The emphasis is on meeting demands for day to day consumption. Italy’s patrimony is viewed as being at particular risk.

Municipal authorities now debate whether — as in Venice — visitors should be charged for entry to historic centres which groan under the weight of migratory selfie takers. Closer to home, there are few grounds for complacency. True, we do now value our heritage. Developers no longer take pride in the destruction of buildings that bore the imprint of ‘the belted earls’ — to use a phrase coined around 1969 by a former minister of local government, Kevin Boland.

Back in the 1960s, historic centres were routinely levelled. Out went beautiful rail stations, Georgian squares and cottages. In came a depressing wave of brutalist and dreary brick office buildings, multi-storey car parks and shopping centres — dreary imitations of car-driven North American towns.

Bureaucrats and politicians have tended to lag behind in both awareness and commitment with honourable exceptions such as a number of outstanding city managers and architects.

The Irish heritage group, An Taisce, produces the Buildings at Risk register which it updates regularly. It makes for a depressing read.

One of Dublin’s finest Georgian buildings, Aldborough House, near Connolly station is in an advanced state of dereliction. It was completed in 1795 for the second Earl of Aldborough and is second in size only to Leinster House. It has been vacant for a number of years. 

It was vacated in 2000 by the State. Ten years later, it suffered major water damage. Permission has been granted for its conversion to offices, but the plan comes with strings attached in the form of two proposed five-story “office wings”.

Overlooking Cork city is Atkin’s Hall, the former hospital. One half was converted to apartments. The remainder has been left empty, suffering serious fire damage in 2010.

Declining congregations put churches and religious houses at risk while the market for large country homes has remained depressed, deterring badly needed investment.

There is a strong argument in both economic and environmental terms for investing in our existing building stock instead of always opting for new build.

Traditional buildings represent one-sixth of the total housing stock, here. Many are constructed with solid masonry walls and were built to last if properly cared for.

The Heritage Council and the Sustainable Energy Authority have produced a report, Deep Energy Renovation of Traditional Buildings.

It calls for building regulations to be revised to provide improved technical guidance for those engaged in renewal work. It is stressed that big improvements can be made to the fabric of buildings without sacrificing heritage value. The basic conservation principle is as follows: “Do as little as possible and as much as necessary.”

New digital technology is increasingly being used along with new techniques for the restoration of facades, roofs, and walls.

The goals of building and energy conservation run side by side. The EU has estimated that the heating of buildings is responsible for 40% of total energy use and 36% of carbon emissions.

Three-quarters of Europe’s building currently use energy inefficiently — it is estimated 200 million buildings are in need of energy renovation.

The residential sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after transport.

One estimate is that it could cost over €35bn to convert Irish buildings for energy conservation purposes by 2050.

It makes sense to join conservation with the goal of curbing climate change. It is also essential to switch away from the current excessive reliance on new build. Sadly, thinking in official Ireland lags behind this emerging consensus.

The State is helping to fund a €300m Saudi-backed office, retail and apartment complex in Waterford though some people fear it will merely suck trade out of the traditional city centre.

Backing for conservation projects remains modest.

Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan recently announced a €4.3m fund aimed at providing grants towards work on over 500 historic buildings. While such subventions are welcome, they represent a drop in the ocean.

In the US, the authorities have provided much more generous backing over the past four decades. A transformation in attitudes was driven by people such as Jackie Kennedy following the demolition of New York’s historic Penn Station in the 1960s.

The conservation centrepiece is the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, in force since the 1980s. The tax reforms of President Donald Trump changed this. The rebate is now staggered over five years. The tax gain is also greatly reduced due to the reduction in the main tax rate from 35% to 21%.

Last Monday’s catastrophic event alerted people to the vulnerable nature of our architectural patrimony. It coincides with the spread of street demonstrations by climate activists concerned about our increasingly stressed planet.

These two are rhyming concerns and measures to tackle them imply a fundamental overhaul in the way we go about the human activities that combine to produce the economic output we so keenly yet heedlessly measure.

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