Bennet House has sat unoccupied for around 20 years and the damaging effects of Scottish weather, combined with a lack of regular maintenance, have taken their toll on the building. Slipped and missing tiles, vegetation growth, water penetration, decaying wood and broken windows together with structural problems mean that the Bennet House is an a sorry state. In common with many important old buildings across Scotland this Building at Risk needs considerable investment of time, money and skill to bring it back to a condition where it can be occupied and used once more.
Fortunately the Little Houses Improvement Scheme, NTS’ in-house building preservation trust, was able to purchase Bennet House in order to safeguard its future. The National Trust for Scotland and the LHIS have played a key role in the conservation of the historic burgh of Culross since the 1930s and Bennet House provides a wonderful opportunity to revisit the activities of this period through the restoration of another little house in the heart of the burgh.
The idea behind our Study House project is to integrate this building restoration work with the visitor experience at The Palace, providing the opportunity for visitors to see and take part in “Conservation in Action”. From preliminary research to project completion the public will be invited to participate in a number of workshops on topics spanning the investigation of the structure through buildings archaeology to more practical activities such as repointing in lime and the repair of traditional sash and case windows. It is our aim that the Study House is delivered as a model for conservation in the community, and that Bennet House is given a viable new use which will ensure its preservation for future generations.
NTS and the Little Houses Improvement Scheme
The Little Houses Improvement Scheme (LHIS) is the NTS’ in-house building preservation trust, and part of the Buildings Team. It works to save, restore and regenerate historic and vernacular domestic buildings throughout Scotland.
The LHIS was launched in 1960 with the guiding principle ‘to restore houses of character for re-sale' across Scotland. The scheme was established to address the threats posed to buildings on a smaller scale compared to the Trust's more well-known castles and country houses, but no less important to the architectural and cultural heritage of Scotland. LHIS projects are usually undertaken where such smaller buildings of importance are under threat of decay and dereliction.
The buildings are often in historic townscapes, where run-down and abandoned buildings of any period contribute to a general air of neglect and degeneration. Essentially, the LHIS buys dilapidated historic buildings, restores them to a high standard and sells them on in order to promote their regeneration and renewal, and that of the communities in which they are situated.
The establishment of the scheme was an evolution of pioneering restoration projects undertaken by NTS in several of Scotland’s historic burghs since the early 1930s. Beginning in 1932 with a flagship project in Culross the original Little Houses programme would go on to restore innumerable vernacular dwellings across the coastal villages of Fife, and in Dunkeld in Perthshire. The pattern at this time was to acquire a significant number of properties which formed a streetscape or significant group which were then repaired and offered to the local community at affordable rents in partnership with the local authority. Spearheading conservation in this manner not only provided much needed homes, it also served to inspire the larger community to invest in the protection of their own heritage.
By the 1950’s there had been changes both to funding and regulations, and the NTS was no longer in a position to undertake large scale burgh rescue projects. The solution was the creation of the LHIS which continues to serve as the nation’s first revolving fund preservation trust. This funding model enables the LHIS to acquire individual properties, restore them, and sell them upon completion with proceeds returning to the revolving fund for the next project.
Without the intervention of the LHIS, many beautiful small historic dwellings, as well as the character of many historic burghs, would not have survived the modernisations of the 20th century. The list of restorations and developments that have been part of the LHIS since 1960 is a long one, and continues to grow with projects like the restoration of Bennet House. Since the creation of the scheme, the LHIS has been internationally recognised as a pioneer and inspiration to comparable building preservation initiatives across the UK.
An exhibition about the LHIS is in development and will be on display in Culross Town House during 2016.
To find out more about the LHIS and its history, click here to buy a copy of Little Houses: the National Trust for Scotland's Improvement Scheme for Small Historic Homes by Diane Watters and Miles Glendinning.
Bennet House sits in the West Green / Sandhaven area of Culross, opposite the National Trust for Scotland’s visited property of The Palace at Culross. It had been of interest to the organisation for many years as its condition progressively deteriorated to the point where it posed a significant risk to adjacent properties through collapsing stonework.
In 2014 the Trust was able to locate the building’s owner who agreed to work with the NTS to find a workable solution for the building’s future. The Little Houses Improvement Scheme examined the property and determined that the best way to secure its conservation would be to acquire the property and repair it in a manner which would restore its historic fabric and benefit the needs of the community.
The LHIS has a mandate to protect and promote Scottish vernacular architecture, particularly smaller historic buildings. It uses its revolving fund to acquire buildings of significance which are at risk and repairs them to a high standard. Once restored, properties are sold and proceeds from the sale are returned to the revolving fund to support future projects. Repair costs to buildings at risk are generally high and the LHIS operates on a break-even basis. This philosophy enables it to restore buildings which would otherwise be unattractive to a commercial developer, who would be likely to want to make a profit on building projects of this type.
Years of neglect, combined with the vagaries of the Scottish weather have taken their toll on Bennet House and significant repairs are now required. An Options Appraisal prepared by the LHIS concluded that the only viable solution for the property, given the repair costs, was to subdivide the building to form a pair of two-bedroom flats. As a legacy of its historic alterations the property lends itself to this function having separate entrances at ground floor level and a plan which is readily divisible.
The bulk of internal alteration will be restricted to the ground floor and the north wing of the property which have been heavily compromised by twentieth century alterations. In the remainder of the property the internal fabric will be retained wherever possible. External alterations will be minimal and will consist of conversion of the fore-stair door, at the side of the building, into a window and the provision of new timber doors to the main elevation. Otherwise, external works will consist of repairs to turn back years of neglect and protect the historic building fabric. This will include carefully rebuilding the northeast gable of the property which is at risk of collapse and repairing the roof and its abutments which have failed and have been allowing water to seep into the building. All the existing timber windows and doors will be refurbished as will all the cast iron gutters and downpipes. External walls will have localised repairs in stonework to match the existing building fabric and pointing will be refreshed in lime where required. As the stone of the rear (east) elevation is somewhat poor this will be provided with a protective lime harl.
The Study House
The acquisition of Bennet House by the LHIS ensures the building’s rescue and re-use, but it also offers an unequalled opportunity to increase our understanding of the historical development of the burgh of Culross and to promote the conservation and repair of historic buildings.
As a LHIS project the Bennet House restoration has a more flexible timetable than most NTS Buildings Team projects, and this provides the opportunity for a learning programme to be run in tandem with the building work. The Bennet House project will act as a ‘Study House’, an idea which originates in the US where historic buildings are used as case studies in architectural history, conservation and buildings archaeology. We are borrowing the idea to learn about and explore the conservation and restoration of this historic building. Our Study House will promote the Trust’s work in the regeneration of historic burghs and enabling visitors to follow the conservation process over a period of 12-18 months.
The Study House will:
• Follow a building project from start to finish, showcasing Conservation in Action on a large scale
• Provide a showcase for building conservation and traditional skills in the Trust
• Provide a showcase for the Trust’s long history of urban regeneration
• Offer an extension to The Palace and Culross visitor experience, with the main contract and the majority of outreach events coinciding with the property’s opening season, March - October
• Be a place for partnership events with stakeholders from across the country
Over the course of the year there will be:
• An exhibition on Culross ‘Little Houses’ (1930s to present day) on public display in the Town House
• Fortnightly ‘hard hat’ tours of Bennet House to allow visitors, the local community and professionals to see the project in action
• A school project with Culross Primary School
• An extensive and exciting programme of themed events and hands-on activities throughout the season, aimed at a broad range of groups
• Regular updates on project progress through this website and Twitter. Follow us @StudyHouseNTS.