Historic Buildings Surveys

Various types of surveys are used for the purposes of identifying and determining whether a building should be listed. The area-based Second Survey, Thematic surveys and ad-hoc surveys are all used by Historic Environment Division to undertake this work.

Second Survey

The List of buildings is a register recording all types of structures, ranging from grand houses and cathedrals to warehouses and the smallest buildings. Statutory listing of buildings began in Northern Ireland in 1974 and the first survey took over 20 years to complete.

We are currently engaged in a Second Survey of all of Northern Ireland's building stock to update and improve on the first 'List of buildings of special architectural or historic interest'.

Ashby Building, Belfast
Ashby Building, Belfast

Surveyors undertake the Second Survey fieldwork and accompanying historical research. Records are more detailed than those of the First Survey and as comprehensive as possible within the survey timetable. They include a description of the whole building, inside as well as out, and of its setting. Once all the relevant information has been gathered, the buildings are evaluated relative to published criteria.

The Historic Buildings Council and District Councils are then consulted on any amendments (additions and deletions) to the List and owners informed. Their comments are considered. After a final evaluation, the owners and District Council are notified of buildings being added to or removed from the list. Surveys of buildings that do not end up as listed are kept so that the widest pool of information is available to inform and educate about the historic environment. Our paper entitled The Listing Process explains this in more detail, whilst our leaflet on the Listed Historic Buildings of Northern Ireland explains the history of and criteria for the Second Survey. Please also see the Historic Environment Map Viewer for further information on the buildings in your area.

Records, with the exception of internal information are publically available and can be accessed in the Northern Ireland Buildings Database on this website.

Thematic surveys of historic buildings

Cowtail pump, Edenderry
Cowtail pump, Edenderry

A thematic survey is a survey which looks at one building type or theme. It normally involves detailed research on the subject area backed up by the recording of as many examples of the type as possible. This allows for greater objectivity in deciding which are the best examples, and worthy of protection.

The approach has disadvantages in that it can concentrate on the primary focus of a theme and down play other considerations (such as historical associations or group value) which may also be important. For this reason the area based approach of the Second Survey is the main route followed in recording historic buildings.

One advantage is that it can highlight considerations sometimes overlooked in general surveys. We have carried out a number of surveys which concentrated on themes which benefited from detailed investigation.

These are listed on the page, Thematic Surveys.

Ad hoc surveys of historic buildings

East Lighthouse, Rathlin Island
East Lighthouse, Rathlin Island

One-off surveys of historic buildings are more expensive than area surveys such as the Second Survey or Thematic Surveys as they require similar research for one building to that required for group surveys. They can also be less comprehensive because a surveyor will not be as immersed in the general history of an area as he would when considering a number of buildings. For these reasons we try to keep the number of such surveys to a minimum.

Surveys are however useful in response to an emergency situation where a building is under threat or is likely to become so.

Often these surveys result from listing requests from the public, from other Departmental Officers, or from members of the statutory advisory councils. 

Following initial research and a risk assessment an average of 30 such cases per year are recorded in detail. The approach taken is detailed in our guide, The Listing Process.

Suggesting a building for survey

Early 20th Century House, Belfast
Early 20th Century House, Belfast

If you want us to consider a building for listing please contact us explaining the reasons for your request, any perceived threat, and providing as much historical and other supporting information as you can. We will then acknowledge your request and send an architect to investigate.

Please see our page ‘Nominating a building for Listing in Northern Ireland’ for full information.

Photographing Historic Buildings

Recording buildings in increasing detail has evolved alongside the survey of historic buildings.  Having started in the First Survey with a single slide, buildings and monuments are now recorded for the Historic Environment Record of Northern Ireland (HERoNI) archive using high definition digital images. Sometimes drones are used to explore and record inaccessible sites or landscapes which can only be ‘read’ from above.

Historic Environment Division has created a short guide to photographing historic buildings during a survey:

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