Architectural heritage

Published by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage Lag rapport Les på norsk

Norwegian architectural heritage includes many types of buildings from ruins, stave churches and other types of medieval buildings, to very different recent buildings. The architectural heritage is a unique source of knowledge about our past.

Almost 6000 buildings are protected

In Norway, more than 300 000 buildings from before 1900 have been registered. About 6 000 buildings are protected under the Cultural Heritage Act. Spot checks have shown that up to 1 per cent of our old buildings are lost every year.

The built environment makes up a substantial part of Norway's overall real capital. Management of the architectural heritage thus involves making sound use of a large part of society's total investments in both economic and environmental terms.

Studies have shown that by maintaining old buildings instead of demolishing and rebuilding, we can greatly reduce pollution, waste generation and energy use. In other words, by protecting buildings we are making a direct and important contribution to sustainable development.

Valuable skills may be lost and forgotten

The loss of buildings from before 1900 at the present rate of 1 per cent per year, is a dramatic loss of an invaluable historical record.

Old buildings provide unique information on the use of materials

For generations, craftsmen tested different materials and the best ways of treating and using them. A hundred years ago, barely 50 different materials were used by the construction industry. All of them were thoroughly tried and tested, and their strengths and weaknesses were well known. Now, there are at least 40 000 different materials on the market, but in most cases we know little about their durability and how they will function in the long-term.

The loss of old buildings adds to pressure on the environment

Even though new buildings only make up 1-2 per cent of the total, the construction industry is one of the sectors that has most impact on the environment. In all, about 1.5 million tonnes of construction waste is generated every year, and about 1 million of this is generated by demolition and rehabilitation.

Buildings vulnerable to changes in farming practice

Fundamental social trends such as population growth, industrial development and the development of communications put pressure on both the architectural heritage and other cultural monuments and sites.

Since urbanization speeded up at the end of the 1800s, productive agricultural areas around the original town centres have been swallowed up. Towns and urban settlements are spreading across the landscape. Older agricultural buildings may fall into disrepair or be left isolated among newer developments, no longer part of a larger whole.

A great deal of our older architectural heritage is related to agriculture, and is therefore particularly vulnerable to the changes that are taking place in farming practices. In some areas, farms and even whole communities are abandoned, leaving the buildings to sink into decay. Major changes in land use, for example road and railway construction, are other examples of the pressures on the cultural heritage.

Older buildings are often considered inconvenient, and many owners and developers would prefer to replace them with modern buildings. Nevertheless, there is also a growing interest in restoring and repairing old, valuable buildings. For example, many new enterprises have found attractive new premises in converted industrial buildings in recent years.

Accelerating rate of loss

If the development of urban settlements and the modernization of agriculture continue at the present speed, it is unlikely that the demolition rate for old buildings will drop.

In addition, many buildings have been so extensively altered that they are almost unrecognizable.

Incorporating conservation into other activities

If we are to take better care of our architectural heritage, the idea of cultural heritage conservation must be incorporated into all relevant sectors and areas. Easy access to information on historically important buildings and architecture is essential to our success.

Comprehensive register of old buildings

Norway has a comprehensive register of older buildings, which provides a unique record on a global scale. From 2000, this has been made available to local authorities throughout the country in the official register of real estate, addresses and buildings. This is a powerful tool for integrating information on monuments and sites into municipal planning processes.

Municipalities play a key role in the conservation of buildings

Since the municipalities are responsible for dealing with building applications, they play a key role in the conservation of historical buildings. In addition, they can designate specific areas as conservation areas under the Planning and Building Act, thus giving valuable buildings some protection. 

Legal protection under the Cultural Heritage Act

The best way of ensuring that buildings are permanently protected is to give them legal protection under the Cultural Heritage Act. Protection orders are used for buildings and structures of national importance, and to ensure that protected buildings cover the whole range in terms of geography, social class, ethnicity and time periods. Several nationwide conservation plans for different types of historical buildings have been implemented in recent years.

Research is an important priority

An important priority if we are to succeed in protecting buildings permanently is research into natural processes of decay and their causes, and ways of preventing this and keeping the architectural heritage in good repair. Two important fields of research, which were also given a prominent place in the medieval buildings project run by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, are building up knowledge of traditional materials and developing expertise in traditional techniques.

The rapid changes taking place in society today are adding to the pressures on parts of the architectural heritage, for example in urban areas and old industrial sites. The cultural heritage authorities are therefore strongly involved in urban development processes in order to promote the importance of our architectural heritage in giving people a sense of identity and continuity, and thus for their welfare, and to show how conservation and development can be combined.

Research is also being conducted into environmental accounting and the overall economy of older town buildings to show that conservation is often a better alternative than demolition and new construction. These measures help to broaden the basis for cultural conservation and make it more likely that important parts of the cultural heritage will be preserved.