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Building conservation

Opportunities Terry Girdler, chief conservation engineer with English Heritage, on the role of engineers in maintaining the nation's historic buildings.

Structures for which English Heritage is responsible range from World Heritage sites such as Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall and the Iron Bridge in Shropshire to Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner and the Cenotaph - but also relatively modern buildings which are of special interest. We may also be called on to advise on the country's 500,000 listed buildings. My team deals with around 1,000 cases a year.

English Heritage's mission is to maintain sites, buildings and monuments, to promote public access and to raise awareness of our heritage. Our engineers are involved in all parts of this.

The conservation philosophy is to recognise that all historic fabric is precious, and that you should cause minimum intervention when carrying out work. We do use external consultants who specialise in this field - especially for some of our bigger projects.

For instance, we have employed a consultant at the classic motte and bailey Totnes Castle in Devon where a terrace wall collapsed, although we will maintain overall control.

All the engineers in this department have experience in other areas of engineering. I used to work in structural steelwork. You do not need to have spent your career specialising in conservation, and there is no specific training route, but you do need to be a good engineer, capable of applying engineering principles to conservation.

Learning how to do this properly takes a few years: there is no substitute for experience. There may be ten ways to upgrade a timber beam, and someone who has not worked in conservation may know of only two or three. It is our job to be aware of the other seven.

There has been an increase in large conservation projects thanks to Lottery funding. These include a major scheme at the headland occupied by Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire, which involves building a new visitors' centre.

My feeling is that conservation has grown in public appreciation in the last 10-15 years. It is both a challenging and a rewarding job, and real test of ingenuity.

You also get to work on some magnificent buildings. We are now working on the Wellington Arch using traditional repair, cleaning and painting systems but we have also used ultra-sonic scanning and cathodic protection, which shows we have to be aware of the best developments in technology.

Conservation will change as buildings being conserved change - for instance some 1930s reinforced concrete buildings have now been listed. These need repairing but require very different skills to those used with historic masonry.

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