For years, we’ve been told that the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way we live. But, as we’ve been discovering at Kenwood, a grand Georgian country house in north London, it’s also changing the way we care for our nation’s heritage.
Kenwood basks in grassy parkland on the leafy northern fringe of Hampstead Heath. Given to the nation in the early 20th century by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, the house contains stunning Robert Adam interiors and an internationally renowned collection of fine art, including works by Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Rembrandt. In normal times, it’s open to the public throughout the year – and remains entirely free to enter under the terms of the Iveagh Bequest.
English Heritage is the national charity tasked with caring for Kenwood and hundreds of other historic sites. As a Senior Estates Manager, my role is to make sure that our maintenance programme is as effective and efficient as possible.
Sustainability is a vital part of our work – in both senses of the word. On the one hand, as a charity with limited funds, we need to make sure that the money we spend is used as effectively as possible, and that we can continue to fund vital conservation work well into the future. On the other, like everyone, we are facing up to the urgent threats posed by the climate crisis. We need to minimise our impact and energy usage, and find ways to respond to a changing environment.
Historic buildings like Kenwood present enormous challenges. Their age, size, complexity and historic significance mean that they require expert care and meticulous maintenance. In fact, our annual budget for maintaining the buildings in our care runs to about £15 million. It’s vital that we monitor the condition of our historic places and keep a close eye on the efficiency of our lighting and heating systems. Of course, we also have a responsibility to do this without damaging their historic fabric.
Until recently, this has been a labour-intensive task, and because of this, the balance of our maintenance work is more reactive than we’d like. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, and it’s as true in the world of maintenance as it is in health and wellbeing. That’s why, in partnership with Ecclesiastical Insurance and Shepherd, we’ve installed dozens of IoT remote sensors inside the house capable of discreet, continuous, real-time monitoring. These sensors capture data on energy use, but also on environmental factors like temperature and humidity, which are critical when it comes to conserving our collections.
While sophisticated monitoring services are often installed in modern buildings, this is the first time this technology has been piloted within an 18th-century heritage property of this scale, complexity and national significance. The sensors don’t rely on wobbly wifi connections and can cope with thick walls, and long battery life means they’ll continue to function during power cuts. Indeed, it’s exactly that kind of incident they’ll help to monitor – along with boiler breakdowns, electrical fires and water leaks. They’ll alert our estates team to any critical issues as soon as they emerge – meaning we’ll have a much better chance of protecting the house and its priceless treasures in the event of an emergency.
Real time, round-the-clock monitoring will make sure we’re better informed when it comes to prioritising our preventative maintenance programme. For instance, we’re now able to identify performance issues in our mechanical and electrical plant, or catch minor leaks before they cause major problems.
The monitors can help us minimise our energy usage. The sensors can identify when lights are accidentally left on in rooms, and our teams are now able to draw on real data to optimise boiler control systems – so there’s no more guessing about when to turn the heating on.
This analytical insight is assisting us in our objective to achieve a 25% reduction in operating costs, and all the money we’re saving is being ploughed straight back into our conservation and operational budgets. Thanks to the success of the project we’re now rolling out the energy monitoring technology to ten of our most energy-intensive historic sites across the country, from country houses to medieval castles. We’re excited to be part of this quiet revolution in heritage management as we embrace new technology to protect the best of the past.
Charles Stanley is a proud Corporate Guardian of English Heritage. The charity relies on support from the public to carry out our vital conservation work. If you’d like to find out more about how you can support our efforts to keep England’s story alive for future generations to enjoy, please visit English Heritage website.
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Kenwood: How modern tech is helping English Heritage in this much-loved corner of Hampstead Heath
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