‘All is Not Loss’: Change, Narrative and the Community Ownership of Historic Buildings

…or doing a PhD as a mature professional

Congratulations to Nigel Walter, who has become one of the first successful doctoral students to graduate from WRoCAH. Nigel’s thesis, supervised by Dr Gill Chitty and Dr Kate Giles in the Department of Archaeology at York sought to develop new philosophical approaches to the conservation of church buildings, and resulted in the production of a ‘Guide for the Perplexed’, already being used by the Church of England to support parish churches planning changes to their buildings. Nigel is now planning a series of publications from his thesis, while continuing to work as a practising conservation architect, and juggling these commitments with work as a member of the Church Buildings Council and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), where he has just been elected a Fellow.

Nigel adds: “Mid life is commonly portrayed as a time of crisis, in which our horizons shrink as we become increasingly aware of the natural limitations within which life is played out. But it can also be a time of great opportunity, in which formerly disparate interests combine to become more than the sum of their parts, and in which one finds one’s voice, one’s vocation. The PhD has, for me, been a time of opportunity, enabling me to address a glaring need encountered in my professional practice as a conservation architect – the way that (in my view) existing conservation processes all too often mishandle change to old buildings, at great cost to the communities that use them.

I don’t think I could have undertaken this research much earlier without that context of professional experience from which the project developed; it would literally have been unthinkable. Coming to this in mid life has undoubtedly sharpened my focus and has made the research more entrepreneurial and ‘disruptive’, enabling me not only to critique the status quo, but also to propose an alternative theoretical framework for the discipline, and (with the help of Knowledge Exchange funding) to explore its practical application. Keeping one foot in practice and the other in academia has proved hugely productive, and is an arrangement I hope will continue. Life experience has also taught me to be more efficient with the use of my time, and less paralysed by perfectionism, than I would have been earlier in life. As a result I have been able to publish as the research has progressed, and am now hoping to produce a monograph from the thesis itself.

At the same time, other professional opportunities have arisen, in part as a result of the PhD: in the last 18 months I have become a member of the Church Buildings Council, have been appointed an RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) conservation accreditation assessor, and have just been elected an RIBA Fellow. I doubt whether any of this would have happened without the PhD, for which the WroCAH funding was pivotal. I am immensely grateful.”