Flexibility urged over historic buildings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2008, 12:00am

Exemptions from strict standards recommended

Guidelines exempting private owners of historic buildings from some of the most stringent building standards should be established immediately to remove stumbling blocks to their preservation, a government-commissioned consultancy study says.

The study also urges the government to set up heritage conservation areas and revamp the grading system for historic buildings. It comes amid calls from conservation and heritage groups for an easing of the rules which pose an almost insurmountable cost barrier to owners struggling to bring old buildings up to modern standards and adapt them to new uses.

Heritage buildings affected include the historic Woo Cheong Pawnshop in Wan Chai and the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum in Central.

The study was commissioned by the Development Bureau last year to review the regulations and to study overseas examples and is now in its final stages, sources close to the study said, adding that a report would be submitted to the government this month.

It is understood that the study recommends short-term and long-term solutions and urges the government to follow practices adopted in Shanghai and Singapore.

Under present practice, an advisory committee is formed to examine proposals submitted by non-profit organisations to revitalise historic buildings selected by the bureau. While there are no building regulations specifically for heritage structures, the director of the Buildings Department does not have authority to grant exemptions for the purpose of conservation, the study says. Advice from the Antiquities and Monuments Office is not legally binding.

Apart from the Buildings Department, authorities like the Fire Services Department, Planning Department and Lands Department are also criticised for having different priorities for conservation projects.

To align the departments' priorities, the study recommends the establishment of criteria with clear exemptions to help private owners renovate and reuse historic buildings.

For example, flexibility could be allowed in determining the height of staircase railings, use of fireproof materials and structural loadings to avoid destroying the buildings' architectural values.

A vetting committee is also recommended to grant exemptions and modifications on a case-by-case basis.

'Private owners like those of King Yin Lei mansion and Jessville would also want a set of objective guidelines as reference to restore and reuse their old properties,' a source close to the study said, adding that alternative solutions should be allowed if they achieved the same safety standards.

Long term, the study recommends enhancing outline zoning plans by designating heritage conservation areas and incorporating all graded historic buildings into the plans. The practice is widely adopted in Shanghai, Singapore and Britain. In Hong Kong, Wan Chai, Mong Kok, Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei are recognised as potential heritage conservation areas where old streetscapes like shop-houses and small lanes are still found. The study also urges the government to make the three-tiered grading criteria for historic buildings more transparent.

The criteria should be free from political or economic considerations and focused on evaluating cultural and heritage values, the study says.

The chairman of the local affairs board of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, Wong Kam-sing, welcomed the recommendations but said talks should be held on how to achieve a balance of granting exemptions and maintaining safety.

A spokeswoman for the Development Bureau said the bureau and relevant parties would respond after the study was submitted to the government. Relevant stakeholders would be consulted if necessary, she said.

Standard issue

Some of the constraints posed by building codes when revitalising historic buildings:

There is not enough space for firemen?s lifts, toilets for the disabled and a refuse collection chamber

The obligatory exit signs impair the appearance of the building

Buildings, such as prisons, might not have enough windows, natural lighting and ventilation to be converted into offices or hotels

Over-street mouldings, eaves, balconies and verandahs do not comply with the bar on projections of more than 50cm

The loading capacity must be upgraded if the use of a building is changed. It is difficult to make timber roofs and floors comply with new requirements

No guideline figures are provided for developers to use to prove timber is fireresistant Headroom should not be less than 2.5 metres

Doors not on the fire escape route cannot fulfil fire safety standards

No clear guideline is provided on the submission of a Heritage Impact Assessment and Conservation Plan