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Here’s the right way to ‘alter’ a Heritage home

18th century cape dutch house resize

Buyers who are interested in purchasing in a proclaimed Heritage suburb need to know what they may and may not alter or renovate. They should also know what is expected of them as set out by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999). Heritage consultant of Ditsong Museums of South Africa, Mauritz Naude, lays the groundwork.

Q How old does an area or suburb need to be before it receives general heritage status?

A The conditions and criteria regarding when a Heritage Impact Assessment needs to be done are set out in the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) and have nothing to do with the age of the site or the heritage status of the site. The act states that if the development “…will alter the existing character of the site…” a heritage impact assessment is compulsory – without exceptions or exemption.

According to the National Heritage Resources Act the word “place” (the term place is defined in the act) is used when referring to a feature of heritage significance. The concept “cultural significance” or “heritage significance” is used when referring to the status of a feature. There are several criteria to determine cultural significance of a place. These criteria are also supported by several “values” that are set out in the act. Age is one of the criteria used to determine the significance of a place but is not the single and most significant aspect to determine significance.

According to Section 34 of the National Heritage Act all man-made structures older than 60 years are protected by the act. Such a feature is then classified as part of the National Estate and belongs to everyone in the country. The landowner has an obligation to curate and protect heritage on such a site. This is a blanket protection and not the single criterion to determine “significance”. All other criteria as set out in the act need to be applied to determine cultural significance.

If a site is older than 100 years it is classified as a site of archaeological significance and also needs to be assessed by an archaeologist during a Heritage Impact Assessment.

Another category refers to sites and features older than 75 years. This age threshold applies only to sites and features that have a military association.   

These age criteria apply to all man-made features and would mainly imply to anything non-natural, meaning farmsteads, urban areas of any type, size and function (and so on). The only tricky features are vegetation as they can also have “cultural significance” irrespective of whether they were planted or not.

Do you know the pros and cons of buying a heritage home?

Q Do all properties that fall within the proposed development area receive the same status, even those that may have already been refurbished or modernised?

A The act is clear that when a Heritage Impact Assessment is done, such an assessment must include ALL heritage features irrespective of the 60 years age threshold. The heritage consultants must be able to determine the cultural significance of every feature in the area proposed for development (type of development is defined in Section 38 (3) of the act). No two sites or two features have the same cultural significance and this level of significance needs to be identified and assessed individually but also collectively to determine the heritage status of such a feature and the spatial context where they occur.

Few man-made features in the world exist in their original form. Buildings and structures must be assessed according to their current condition including later accretions (extensions and alterations). The heritage expert must have the ability to determine what the cultural significance of each feature is according to its current condition and character. Later extensions, alterations (term defined by the act) do not disqualify a building or structure of its cultural significance.  

historical house in kimberley

Q What are the fundamental requirements when buying a house that has heritage status? Such as, how much of the outside and inside may be changed; what to do when upgrading damaged or worn materials such as roofs, walls and doors?

A If a “place” has been proclaimed officially as a site of Provincial or National Heritage status, this will be indicated on the title deed of the property – also indicating the extent of the proclaimed area. Such proclamation is done via publication in the Government Gazette and reference to this publication and date will also appear in the title deed documents. Any work (demolitions, alterations and new work) on such a property must be submitted to the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) in Cape Town for approval.

If a building or structure is older than 60 years, and it is not recorded in anyway in any of the legal documents of the property it will only be able to determine the age when investigating the architectural drawings or if these do not exist the relative dating will be done by an architectural historian. Such an assessment needs to be executed by using the criteria for such an assessment set out in the act (the same as for a Heritage Impact Assessment).

When acquiring a building or structure older than 60 years the act defines what is meant by “alter” and “alterations”. If the property and buildings are older than 60 years a so-called Section 34 investigation is required prior to applying for a permit to demolish or “alter” the buildings or structures. The criteria for such an assessment are exactly the same as for Heritage Impact Assessment. This implies that the appointed architectural expert has the right to make recommendations regarding demolitions and any alterations to the building – interior and exterior. Such a person also has the right to criticise proposed designs and design proposals. All proposed alterations must be indicated as a colour overlay on top of the original and “as-built” floor plans and elevations of such a structure as part of the submission to the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency (PHRA).      

The scale and degree of renovations and modernisation are determined by the unique qualities of each building and site. The act does not provide guidelines or hard regulations regarding this aspect of “protection and reuse”. A strong set of ethics guide heritage architects and conservationists in this decision and they rely on the guidelines and principles of the ICOMOS Burra Charter to do so. SAHRA is signatory to the Burra Charter and also uses this charter in its decision making and assessments.

battlefield significance

Q Does each municipality apply different rules with regard to heritage status as well as what can and cannot be done without approval?

A By law each municipality must comply with the acts of the country and the National Heritage Resources Act applies everywhere in the country, even at National Key Point sites. No municipality can override the obligations of the National Heritage Resources Act, except for the Cape Town Municipality. It has the capacity and competence to do as it pleases, as its municipal by-laws regarding heritage management are tighter and more refined than the specifications of the National Heritage Resources Act.

The effectiveness of the application and interpretation of the obligations in the act depend on the officials at each municipality – with the resultant loss and damage of many heritage sites, buildings and structures since 2000.

To backtrack slightly, the meaning and definition of “place” needs to be checked against the definition in the act. In practical terms immovable heritage include the following (not set out like this in the act):

  1. Buildings – all man-made construction works with a roof

  2. Structures – all man-made construction works other than buildings

  3. Infra structural elements – roads, water furrows, canals, railway lines, pipelines, telephone lines, electricity lines and fences.

  4. Activity areas – all open areas considered to be of cultural significance to a group of people (excluding battle fields and cemeteries).

  5. Vegetation – all planted or natural vegetation that are considered of cultural significance to a group of people.

eastern cape rural huts

Q What are the consequences of not adhering to the requirements of a heritage property?

A It is not the requirements of a heritage property but the requirements of the National Heritage Resources Act that comes into play. Even a site younger than 60 years may have “cultural significance”. It is for this reason why a heritage specialist must be appointed to assess the property or properties prior to planning and designing on the site.

Non-compliance with the requirements of the act involves a legal process, usually starting by stopping the development and removal of the contractors from the site until the full Heritage Impact Assessment process is completed, the proposed development is approved and the necessary permits have been issued. The extent of the impact assessment process is defined and set out in Section 38(3) of the act and includes a public participation process.  

If a building of cultural significance is demolished without any HIA process, the principal agent (usually the architect, engineer or any other professional person by agreement) is the responsible person for such actions. A fine or jail sentence is usually applicable.

A significant aspect to remember is “deliberate decay”, or “deliberate neglect” when a developer or landowner allows a site and buildings to be vandalised and demolished in order to degrade the property to such a degree that nothing is left or becomes so structurally unsound that buildings need to be demolished for health and safety reasons.

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David A Steynberg, managing editor and director of HomeTimes, has more than 10 years of experience as both a journalist and editor, having headed up Business Day’s HomeFront supplement, SAPOA’s range of four printed titles, digimags Asset in Africa and the South African Planning Institute’s official title, Planning Africa, as well as B2B titles, Building Africa and Water, Sewage & Effluent magazines. He began his career at Farmer’s Weekly magazine before moving on to People Magazine where he was awarded two Excellence Awards for Best Real Life feature as well as Writer of the Year runner-up. He is also a past fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Review overview
  • George Kymdell 26th August 2016

    What a fantastic informative well written, understandable document. Looking for something like this for years. Many thanks indeed.

    Devdyl Properties, Johannesburg