Steward of heritage places: Spotlight on architect Bruce Pettman and his passion for conservation

Bruce in Bali with one of his team members, an engineer and nephew of the King of Karngasem. Photo taken at the Karngasem Water Palace (one of 24 projects undertaken).

From conserving major buildings in South Australia and New South Wales to restoring historic buildings in South Asia and South East Asia, architect Bruce Pettman has had a vast and varied career. He is the Director of Heritage, Planning and Environment at NSW Public Works, where he has worked for nearly 21 years. Bruce has held senior roles at SA Public Works, the NSW Government Architect’s Office and as a member of the NSW Heritage Council, Approvals Committee and other advisory panels. His hard work and efforts have earned him several major awards, including the 2022 National Trust Heritage Lifetime Award. We spoke with Bruce to hear about his career highlights, the industry changes he has witnessed, and his advice for early career professionals.

Why is heritage work important?

Heritage-focused work enables government agencies to manage and maintain their heritage-listed assets. This needs to be undertaken in an informed and empathetic way that effectively manages risks in line with the state government’s asset management requirements, our obligations under the NSW Heritage Act and using the principles of good conservation.

The NSW Public Works heritage team often acts as responsible stewards for many government assets on an ongoing basis. Our heritage assets are tangible links to our past and our local identity and help us measure how far we have progressed over time. They are also key players in our cultural tourism destinations and continue to serve as sustainable assets.

You have worked in heritage for more than 45 years. How did you get started in the field?

I graduated as an architect in 1975 in Western Australia and then joined the South Australian Public Works architecture office in my hometown of Adelaide. I had already established an interest in heritage conservation during my architecture studies. For my final-year thesis, I investigated the adaptive reuse of a group of historic buildings in old Fremantle in WA.

As a regional architect in Public Works in Adelaide, I was responsible for upgrades and conservation works on all the major public buildings including Parliament House, Government House, the State Library, museum, art gallery, courthouses and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens Palm House, as well as regional buildings spanning from the city of Adelaide to the Victorian border. In 1985, I started the heritage team in SA Public Works and ran the Historic Buildings Conservation program until 1995.

Suffolk House Penang Before and After
Suffolk House, Penang, Before and After

You have been involved with conservation work overseas. Can you tell us about that?

In the late 1980s and 1990s, as part of an initiative by the SA Government in response to the global financial crisis, I undertook some projects in South Asia and South East Asia with some of my colleagues, local heritage consultants and specialist tradespeople. We did a range of work, such as restoring a historic synagogue in Hong Kong; restoring the huge copper dome of a mosque and researching the restoration of an Anglo-Indian garden houses in Penang, Malaysia; and facilitating heritage capacity building workshops in Jakarta, Indonesia, for UNESCO.

What have been some of the proudest moments of your career?

I have had several proud moments, including receiving the Centenary Medal for conservation works in 2002 from the Governor General, receiving the 2022 Lifetime Achievement award from the National Trust of Australia, and being introduced by the SA Premier to HM The Queen in 1986 when she opened one of my projects, the restoration of the historic Carrick Hill grand estate. I am also very proud seeing the great NSW Public Works heritage team win various heritage awards for projects over many years.

What has been some of your most memorable projects at Public Works?

Some of the most memorable projects have been the adaptive reuse and upgrade of the Chief Secretary’s Building in 2005 and the careful adaptation and upgrade of the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park in 2009. The latter was a profound transformation of a relatively unknown memorial standing in plain sight of the public. This work led to our extensive lobbying and heritage briefing for the extension of the Memorial complex, with the new underground Hall of Service and the above civic space completed nine years later.

The Historic Carrick Hill Mansion
The Queen opening the house and gardens in March 1986.

What are the greatest changes you have seen in the heritage field over your career?

There have been substantial developments in technology to assist the traditional trades to deliver conservation works and record heritage places. There has also been an attitude shift among heritage advocates and approval authorities—from early resistance to change anything regarding heritage listed buildings, to a more flexible approach and greater tolerance to change for well-considered adaptive reuse and infill development with minimal interventions. This has occurred through exemplar projects being recognised over the previous 40+ years. However, there is still the need for diligence and rigor to overcome the potential for cumulative effects of change on heritage places, which could substantially diminish their heritage values and community significance context.

How is technology helping with the way we conserve heritage assets?

Technology is enhancing the heritage field in many positive ways, including:

  • testing the performance of stone before extracting and selecting the right blocks
  • testing mortar to determine the original mixes
  • more discrete fire monitoring and suppression methods
  • providing equitable access to old buildings through innovation and new technologies
  • quick access to original government drawings for reference in conservation works
  • low impact/no impact cleaning and desalination systems for stone
  • using drones to record and document buildings and sites
  • ground scanning for archaeology investigations
  • low impact/no impact paint removal systems.

You received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 National Trust Heritage Awards. What does this award win mean for you?

It recognises the substantial body and diversity of work that my teams and I have done over the years to conserve and protect our built heritage. To me, it acknowledges that we have been doing the right thing and it is appreciated by the community and our peers.

Bruce Pettman Lifetime Achievement Award and Heritage Team
Bruce Pettman Receives Lifetime Achievement Award (left) and the Heritage Team in 2021 (right)

What advice do you have for early career professionals looking to join the heritage field?

Get a good grounding first on general architectural design and understand old and new building construction techniques and how building tradespeople work. Be prepared to make critical decisions about cultural heritage matters, considering the tangible and intangible values attached to heritage places. Work with and get advice from others with specific experience and expertise beyond your own. Be prepared to act as the responsible steward of heritage places and speak for them when no-one else wants to.

It is difficult to do this type of work unless you have an empathy for our cultural heritage and an appreciation of the potential of heritage places. Being able to look beyond the dilapidation, which may seem to present overwhelming obstacles, is an important skill. There are good postgraduate courses in heritage conservation to understand the principles and processes involved in this work.

Thanks, Bruce.

The Heritage, Planning and Environment unit at NSW Public Works provides diverse professional services to Public Works staff and across government agencies.

The heritage team investigates, assesses, documents and supervises heritage repair, restoration and adaptive reuse of historic public buildings in NSW. It manages the Minister’s Stonework Program, which has been ongoing for more than 30 years. The team provides advice on any matters to do with government agencies’ compliance obligations under the NSW Heritage Act. It provides early advice in the concept and design stages to guide proponents of work about their intentions and the likely heritage impacts on heritage places or spaces and the means to mitigate them where possible. The team is composed of heritage architects, materials specialists, experts in heritage conservation and construction methods, an archaeologist and an information and archival retrieval expert.

The environment and planning team provides advice and services on the environmental conditions of sites regarding natural flora and fauna, contamination, sustainability, the likely environmental impacts/effects of proposed developments, mitigation, protection and compliance processes. They also create relevant documents for approval processes for urban and regional planning pathways for legislation compliance. The team is comprised of a principal environmental scientist, environmental planners and urban planning specialists.