There is nothing we like more than the thrill of excavating the history of any building we are working on. Part of the charm is the hope of finding something unexpected, some fresh insight that makes sense of its form and its origins. We have many tools in our bag to help us on the way. The first of course is to look hard at what is there. But it is looking with an intention to unravel the complexities of the built form - how was it made, how is it working, or not, which is often the case? Sometimes we look with machines that open up the fabric to get under the skin, at other times we try and look from where you can't normally go - through walls with infra-red, down drains with cameras or into the sky with cherry pickers.
The second is to search for papers, drawings or digital records that highlight or document the process of making, geometry or philosophy. There is an abundance of sources, some of which forming this extensive list are RCAHMS, National Archives, National Library, university libraries, town and city planning archives, specialist archives and collections such as the GSA Archives. Many are digital now including the Oxford biographies online, Scottish Architects Papers, Pro quest, 19th century British Library Newspapers, Dictionary of Scottish Archives and Scotland's Places.
What the physical and documented searches allow us to do is build a rounded picture of the value of the heritage. The origin of the ideas that shaped it, the tangible shaping of its construction and the tale of its performance in use. These three qualities - inception, making and story become the foundation for future action.
Historic fabric, unless particularly special, needs to adapt to contemporary needs. Society as a whole cannot afford to cumulatively keep adding to its list of unusable monuments. Our heritage needs to work for its upkeep.
Critically that foundation of physical and documentary evidence allows us to look for the space the opportunities to embrace new need, without fundamentally damaging the past legacy. Without that surveyed understanding we are in danger of acting irresponsibly as a result of ignorance. Indeed some of our best projects have arisen out of the need to reconcile the irreconcilable contemporary need, through the eyehole of the needle of opportunity discovered through exhaustive survey.