Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

Harry Wardill, 2011 Scholar and structural engineer, writes about the cultural preservation charity he set up in Myanmar. This article first appeared in The SPAB Magazine, autumn 2016. The SPAB Magazine is a benefit of SPAB membership.

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Harry Wardill (left) with Philip Gaches, a UK-based master plasterer

The city of Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma) is an enchanting place – whether it’s the smiling faces, tropical climate, bustling street life, gilded temples or crumbling British colonial architecture that appeal, it seems to be a place that captivates many. For me it is the perfect mix of all of these things, united to create something even greater than the sum of its parts. I came here at the end of 2014 to set up the cultural preservation charity Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar, one of the initial aims being to support the local Yangon Heritage Trust by delivering an exemplar renovation project – focusing on aforementioned ‘crumbling British colonial architecture’.

I arrived at a key moment in Myanmar’s history – what we now know to be on the path to democracy led by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Oxford resident Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – but then it was a much less certain time still under the former quasi military government. With this opening up of the country comes the desire, and increasing economic means, to develop. And it is this rapid and unregulated growth that poses a threat to the unique heritage and character of the city.

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491-501 Merchant Street before repairwork

Work began on site at our first project, 491-501 Merchant Street, in July 2015 and was completed in April of this year. This building was chosen because it embodies so many of the qualities and challenges of properties in the Downtown. It is a prominently placed, elegant colonial building with grand internal spaces and vibrant life in and around it, but it was in a very poor state, and littered with unsympathetic additions. The residents originally approached the Yangon Heritage Trust because the building was under threat of demolition – and they didn’t want this despite promises of space within a shiny new building proposed by an opportunistic landowner keen to realise monetary value from his site.

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Hand-drawn survey drawing of the front elevation of 491-501 Merchant Street by local architect Hla Thaung

The community, like the Downtown, is a real mix – from a Hindu teashop to a Muslim photocopier stall, from a spacious apartment with a family of 4 to a more compact place, home to an extended family of 20! To add to the excitement, everyone stayed in residence throughout the renovation works – even when the roof was stripped back to the original iron wood trusses. There were weekly community meetings, and as you can imagine, never a dull moment, but everything skilfully and diplomatically overseen by the ever-smiling Ko Ko, my dependable site engineer.

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Carpenters installing decorative eavesboard

To address the skills and knowledge shortage in relation to building conservation, a programme of training was delivered throughout the build – both day-to-day on site, and at special workshops open to the wider building community. The standard of these was set when master plasterer Philip Gaches was flown in from the UK for the first two-week workshop, which covered the relevant skills needed to repair the flat and decorative lime based plasterwork. Given this was the first time this kind of training was delivered in Yangon it was difficult to predict how it might go. Thanks to Philip’s mix of skill, rigour, adaptability, and sense of humour, in conjunction with great local support and the willingness to learn, a huge amount was achieved in a relatively short time, and it provided the model for future workshops. Most importantly, it meant that the craftsmen had the skills and knowledge they needed to get started on repairing the internal and external plaster elements – from in situ running of mouldings to hand modelling the acanthus leaves of Corinthian capitals.

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Repairing the roof

Future workshops covered topics such as conservative repair of architectural timberwork, clay tile roofing, and brickwork conservation to name a few. The base skill level of the best craftsman is very high- often issues exist around methodology, inappropriate materials, a tendency to over-restore or simply just not getting the right people for the job.
The rich living heritage within the building was recorded through photo portraits, oral histories and a documentary made entitled ‘Under One Roof’, which gives fascinating snapshots of Myanmar’s torrid history over the last decades, told through the voices of the residents. All this culminated in an exhibition that was held in part of the building, and a three-month programme of events aimed at getting as many different audience to engage with the project as possible – from traditional puppet shows for school children to a lively two day heritage themed debate in partnership with the Yangon Debate League.

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The oldest and youngest residents in the building

The project has gained the attention of the new democratically elected government and the public, secured the building, and laid the foundations for a local skilled conservation construction industry. In very simple terms, it has shown people that, with a little effort, Yangon’s historic buildings can be made fit for modern living – and what’s more, they have a beating heart.

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491-501 Merchant Street after repairwork

Watch the documentary ‘Under One Roof’ on Vimeo
Follow Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar on Facebook

Could you be a SPAB Scholar or Fellow?

We’re now searching for SPAB Scholars and Fellows for 2017. Apply for the Scholarship programme and the Fellowship programme by 1 December.

We welcome Fellowship applications from craftspeople employed in the repair of historic buildings on site or in workshops and studios. Candidates must have completed their apprenticeship and demonstrate a high degree of competence, as well as an enthusiasm to engage with other trades and disciplines. Past Fellows have been stonemasons, stained glass conservators, blacksmiths, carpenters/joiners, bricklayers, leadworker and plasterers.

Our Scholars are architects, surveyors and engineers who have completed their college-based training (e.g. RIBA Parts I & II for architects), ideally with a few years experience in their field. Applicants must be enthusiastic about old buildings and willing to travel the country for this nine-month countrywide conservation tour.

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A word from this year’s Scholars and Fellows:

Triona Byrne, structural engineer
We’re over halfway through the scholarship at this stage and some of the highlights for me have been the traditional practical skills we have been given the opportunity to try. Thatching, earth building and dry stone walling were among my favourites – it’s been brilliant to have the opportunity to learn about things I’ve always admired from afar without a clear idea of how they are actually done. The different approaches to conservation we’ve come across have been really interesting to dissect and debate. They are helping me to shape my own conservation philosophy.

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Triona mixing lime mortars at Duart Castle

Dec Cahill, building surveyor
As we fly into the fifth month of the Scholarship we’ve been to all sides of the country, as well as a great trip to Italy with the Landmark Trust to study Palladio’s Renaissance revival of classical architecture. Along with the various working parties at Great Croxley, Balmerino and Greatham, I have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Cumbria drystone walling and visiting my hometown of Manchester!

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At Winchester Cathedral

Thom Evans, stonemason
It is the overwhelming kindnesses shown to us by the hosts that has really amazed me. The educational value of the fellowship is well known within the industry but the friends you make, and the fun you have is difficult to explain to outsiders.
Whether you’re being welcomed by a host for a week – Marianne Suhr, Douglas Kent- or just for a few hours we’ve been made to feel at home. It’s this attitude that has allowed us to ask questions freely and not to feel foolish when we don’t know certain things. A big thanks to anyone who has already helped, or hopes to in the future.

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Constructing a newbuild clay dabbin structure in Cumbria

Lizzy Hippisley-Cox, stained glass conservator
Although we are only seven weeks in, the Fellowship has already had an enormous impact on the way I see building conservation, and the way my work fits into the grand scheme. I am getting a much better understanding of other traditional techniques and materials, and the skills involved in mastering them.

The highlights for me have been instances where we have walked around churches (large and small), taking in the detail. There is so much to be said for taking time to look at the historic fabric together, and then talking about what we see from each of our different professional perspectives. It is the process of discussing what has happened to a building, and what the potential outcomes will be over time that has taught me the most so far.

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Declan and Gethin trying fresco painting

Stone in Wales

by Thom Evans

Something I often hear is that Wales is a country full of hidden gems; I was born and raised in Cardigan Bay, and still live and work there as a stonemason, and cannot argue with this description. I can honestly say that rarely do a few months pass without me stumbling upon a little-known historic building full of delightfully untouched charm. However during my Fellowship year I am coming to realise it may not just be the buildings themselves whose fantastic value is underappreciated but also the people who serve them.
I began the third block of the Fellowship (a time of study away from the other Fellows to pursue our individual interests) by meeting with Dr Tim Palmer a retired senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University whose current charges include being a consultant in Architectural Geology, ex-secretary of the Welsh Stone Forum and enthusiast/font of knowledge on all things stone. The extent of the knowledge Tim was able to impart is far too large to do justice in this blog but I would like to concentrate on one revelation that has caused me to re-evaluate my thinking.

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Strata Florida

Many surviving medieval buildings, whether fortified or ecclesiastical, along the south and west coast of Wales (as well as the east coast of Ireland) appear to contain a certain amount of Jurassic limestone that to the untrained eye could be described as Bath stone. I have encountered this stone, often used for carved detailing, and it had left me somewhat perplexed. Whilst I was often able to discount it as being Bath stone, I had regularly considered it to be Doulting- a hardier more crystalline limestone from Somerset still used today. I often questioned whether this out of place limestone was contemporary to the original medieval fabric, as it appeared not to have weathered as much as one might expect after the ravages of time in excess of 600 years. I suppose, also, I associated the widespread use of the Jurassic limestone in Wales with the Georgian and Victorian era and wondered whether these apparent anachronisms were interventions at this stage. The work of Tim and the Welsh Stone Forum has however been able to settle this little riddle for me.
They have identified this esoteric stone as being Dundry. A non-oolitic Jurassic limestone quarried from Dundry-Hill, just south of Bristol. Whilst it shares many similarities with Doulting such as its age and non-oolitic formation it appears to be significantly more durable. The geological reason for this is explained in detail by Dr Palmer in various papers, but in simple terms the sea lilies whose decaying matter make up the sediment of this stone are Echinoderms and define the dense granular quality of the stone.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

It is believed that quarrying for Dundry had reached natural conclusion around 1540 when the supply of the best quality beds was exhausted, although a brief revival between 1850-1910 yielded some inferior quality stone. As well as being used extensively for external masonry it was used for numerous fonts, which were often carved in a generic style and shipped across the south west.
So it is easy to understand why this durable freestone which was close to the river Avon, and therefore the Channel, coastline and trade routes achieved ubiquity in its heyday and can still be found now at sites such as Llandaff Cathedral, Chepstow and Newport castles, round to the Bishops Palace in St David’s and as far north as Strata Florida and Aberystwyth Castle. The extensive research and investigation that Dr Palmer and his colleagues at the Welsh Stone Forum have undertaken to highlight the importance of Dundry to medieval masonry should be lauded.

Strata Florida

Strata Florida

The Fellowship has really made me realise that conservation is a collaborative effort. Whether it’s the communities that campaign for funding to protect their beloved landmark, the volunteers that brave the elements to maintain their churches, or the enthusiasts who help us better understand the materials we use.  Many people work away at their own personal interest or profession and rarely get the recognition they deserve. Without them the work we practitioners carry out on site lacks cohesion, and we should be thankful.

Building Limes Forum

By Declan Cahill
Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on the wonders of lime which outlined a period on the Scholarship where we were beginning to understand the historic use of lime. Since writing that post, we have travelled across most of the UK and met a wide range of people who are involved in the repair and conservation of historic buildings. On saying our thanks and goodbyes, a common question was repeated: “Are you attending the Building Limes Forum in September?” As the conference has now become a well-integrated part of the Fellows’ and Scholars’ programme we were pleased to hear that we would get the chance to catch up with so many people we have met along the way.

BLF Delegates at St. Georges Hall

BLF Delegates at St. Georges Hall

The Building Limes Forum (BLF) is held annually in September and brings together a variety of people from across the UK and further afield for a three day conference on the use of lime in it’s different variations. The conference was held in Liverpool this year and included a programme of presentations, demonstrations and site visits, as well as the annual general meeting of the BLF. I was particularly interested in two topics that were discussed throughout the presentations and demonstrations: hot lime and how our use of naturally hydraulic limes needs to be questioned.

The conference was opened by Stafford Holmes, who presented a talk on “The Delight of Diversity”, giving everyone a reminder of the different geological limestone strata across the UK, and how both earth and lime have played an integral part in the construction of our historic buildings. The first talk on hot lime was given by Roger Curtis, technical research manager at Historic Environment Scotland (HES). He gave an insight into the research being lead by HES into hot lime mortars. I think it is important here to include Roger’s definition of hot lime in their research, that is “quicklime, being mixed on site with aggregates, often gauged. Using a traditional additive (or pozzolan) where necessary, using the material warm, cool or mature and for building, pointing or harling purposes.” Roger gave an overview of the past and current research being undertaken and the four studies that are due to be published in Spring 2017, these being:

Historic Examples of Hot Lime – Tom Addyman
Recent Examples – Craig Frew and Bill Revie
Historic text Extraction – Nigel Copsey
Consideration in the specification of Hot Mixed Mortars – Ros Artis

There is also going to be a database set up for the analysis of lime mortars. This was fully introduced by Anne Schmidt later in the conference. Roger also highlighted that there will be a hot mixed lime mortars seminar in December 2016

Triona mixing lime mortars at Duart Castle

Triona mixing lime mortars at Duart Castle

Roger’s talk lead nicely into a presentation by Nigel Copsey on his research of old texts on lime mortars. His research has highlighted how earth and lime have historically been used in tandem with one another, and how historically mortars would be mixed hot, most commonly using the common or ordinary method of mixing. Roger’s analysis has covered the continent and has included texts from France and Spain that had never previously been translated.

On the Saturday, the conference covered current research into hot lime by Alison Henry of Historic England and the development of mixes for exposed historic buildings by Lucie Fusade at the University of Bath. Cristiano Figueiredo, also of the University of Bath, presented his analysis on how fit for purpose BS – 459-1:2015 is in a conservation context. Sarah Scammel, another speaker from University of Bath, presented her research into the impact of calcite aggregates on the properties of air lime mortars. All of the talks were deeply insightful but have pointed towards how we are under-using quicklime and overusing natural hydraulic limes without really understanding their strengths and properties, and what boundaries the British Standard gives. This research will hopefully further our understanding of lime mortars in their different states and how they act with historic building fabric.

Mixing quicklime using the common or ordinary method

Mixing quicklime using the common or ordinary method

Sunday morning of the conference gave an overview of the various activities of building limes forums around the globe, as well as introducing next years location for the conference, Trondheim Cathedral, Norway between 7-10 September 2017.

The presentations of the conference were closed by David Wiggins, a structural engineer who has researched into lime mortar and sacrificial weathering. David covered the primary decay drivers of lime mortar, frost attack and salt crystallisation, and how the pointing mortar is a functioning aspect of solid masonry construction, actively removing moisture and salts from the wall. Crucial to the pointing mortar’s function is the free lime content that makes the mortars sacrificial. This is something that natural hydraulic limes do not have but a hot mix produces a mortar with a high free lime content.

The conference was a great weekend to learn about the current research and practise that is ongoing and being applied in the effort to repair and conserve our historic buildings. On behalf of the Scholars and Fellows, I would like to thank the Rathbone Foundation for funding the bursary that allowed us to attend the conference and hope that they will continue to support the Scholarship and Fellowship programmes in the future.

More information about the BLF, the 2017 conference and the upcoming Hot Mixed Lime Mortars Seminar & Workshop on 20 October.

Building conservation in Ireland – an Irish Scholar’s perspective

By Triona Byrne

For two countries so close to each other geographically, Ireland and England have very different attitudes to building conservation. We spent two weeks in Ireland recently as part of the Scholarship, and after living in the UK for 6 months, it was eye-opening to see the contrast in built heritage first-hand, and explore the socio-economic reasons that have led to this.

There are myriad explanations for the obvious contrast, not least that the two countries have had mightily different histories – while England has a history of colonisation, Ireland’s past is brimming with invasions and conflict, up until very recently. Economic reasons also play a huge role. Ireland’s economic cycles tend to fluctuate wildly, with drastic cycles of ‘boom and bust’, whereas Britain’s economy has smaller cycles of recession and prosperity. This has a huge impact on the construction industry and the finance available for conservation projects, which also impacts the lure of construction or an apprenticeship/trade as an attractive career path for young people.

Ireland’s building stock includes several structures surviving from prehistoric times – places like Newgrange, a stone age passage tomb, along with many ring forts, dolmens and burial tombs. However these are not as easy to spot as the early medieval round tower, a common sight on the skyline. Although these are not uniquely Irish, a vast number were built around the country from 500 to 700 AD when Ireland was made up of many monastic settlements. Ireland became known as ‘The Land of Saints and Scholars’ due to the flourishing arts and learning of this time, when the rest of Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages. The round towers built at this time were defensive structures, with tiny windows and doorways several metres above the ground, accessed by a retractable rope ladder. Irish round towers are unique in that they have a stone cap, unlike similar round towers built elsewhere in Europe at this time.

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Irish round tower

More common again are ruined structures from the time of Norman and Anglo-Norman invasions, dotted around the countryside. The tower house, the ubiquitous building of this era, was a tall, defensive, stone structure, designed to keep out invaders and provide a good vantage point around the surrounding land. These structures had thick walls, narrow windows (or none at all) and defensive features such as machicolations. These were clearly not ideal living conditions, and so it is not surprising that they were abandoned and let fall to ruin as the Middle Ages drew to a close. However it is interesting to contrast the buildings of this time with those being built in England, where a typical village was comprised of a church, a manor house and timber framed cottages. This village structure was not possible in Ireland, where attacks and invasions were a regular occurrence and a strong defensive building was the optimal home. Peasants of this time lived in small mud huts with a roof of organic matter, none of which survive to this day.

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Ruins of an Irish tower

Between the 12th and the 20th century, the Irish and English fought bitterly for control over Ireland. During this time, the English were generally the stronger side and under their reign, much of Ireland’s culture was suppressed, including the Irish language, traditions and religion. This influenced the building of churches – the Penal Laws stated that “when allowed, new Catholic Churches were to built of wood, not stone, and away from main roads”. Hence the majority of Catholic churches in Ireland today were built in Victorian times.

Probably the most famous Irish building is the traditional Irish cottage. These cottages were built by and for farming families, usually with a stone plinth, earth/cob walls and thatched roofs. Windows were very small, due to the cost of glass (particularly while there was a window tax) and the cottages were one-room deep. This one-room depth was most likely due to the length of timbers available to form the typically A-framed roof.

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A sketch of a thatched cottage near Portlaoise

There were predominantly two types of cottage layout – one where the front door opened directly into a parlour (where the hearth was located) and with bedrooms at either end of the house. The second type had a front door opening in to a small lobby, which was created by a jamb wall standing perpendicular to the hearth. Some jamb walls had a “spy window” that allowed a person sitting at the hearth to see anyone entering the house.

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Typical cottage layouts

For me, these buildings define the Irish countryside and its history. They are part of our heritage and represent the industrious farming people who built them. Unfortunately, my views do not seem to be shared by the mainstream Irish public. The majority of these cottages are being left to fall into ruin.

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Ruined cottage

As people today generally want houses with large, open-plan spaces and modern conveniences, they abandon the humble cottage and build new, contemporary buildings on the same plot of land. This results in the high number of ruined cottages that are all over the countryside. This is a sad state of affairs, and is in contrast to the UK where old buildings will usually be adapted for modern use. However the British approach can also be to the detriment of the building, as original walls are ripped out to create “bright, open living spaces”, which historic buildings are not famous for, and inappropriate materials are used. Neither the British or Irish approach is ideal, and it should be applauded when an old building is accepted for what it is and carefully conserved using traditional methods. We saw an excellent example of this in Stansfield, Suffolk recently where we spent a day with Bill Sargent limewashing an old thatched wattle-and-daub cottage that is being sympathetically repaired.

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Rose Cottage, Stansfield, Suffolk

Since Ireland achieved independence nearly 100 years ago (excluding Northern Ireland), Irish people have taken strides to distance themselves from the poverty and oppression that maintained a stronghold on the country for so long. This sadly includes many of the beautiful buildings that were built by British landlords and landowners from the 17th to the 19th century, many of which were destroyed or else let fall to ruin. It also includes the humble cottages and farm buildings that are a reminder of the poverty of the past. Ireland’s lack of a large public funding body for built heritage like the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK, and organisations like the National Trust and the SPAB, all contribute to this lack of appreciation for building conservation. However, I believe the attitude of the general public is slowly changing and Irish people are beginning to realise that our rich built heritage is a valuable and unique asset that must be protected. I am hopeful that the philosophies of the SPAB can spread to Ireland and that there can be a shift in the public perception of our past and the beautiful buildings that connect us to it.

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Lismore Castle in Ireland where the Scholars stayed for a week

Cathedral Week

By Gethin Harvey

The cathedral week provides Scholars with an insight into the organisational structures associated with the running of cathedrals, and philosophies relating to their care, maintenance and repair. It is made possible through partnership with the Cathedral Architects Association and this year was organised by Nick Cox Architects at Winchester Cathedral.

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Winchester Cathedral

With the majority of my practical experience being with parish churches I’ve seen how dwindling congregations can lead to reduced usage of the buildings, shortage of funds for essential repairs and eventual redundancy. It was therefore of particular interest, to visit Winchester Cathedral to see how the balance is struck between liturgical function and financial responsibilities without compromising the sanctity of the place with overwhelming numbers of tourists. To aid our understanding we met with the receiver general, operations manager, enterprise manager, director of learning, head of marketing and communications as well as the head verger to discuss their individual roles and responsibilities.

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Scholars observing the paint conservation work at Winchester Cathedral

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Paint conservation on the bosses at Winchester Cathedral

Famously underpinned by the diver William Walker after the beech log raft foundations rotted causing the south transept to subside, the cathedral and its subsidiary buildings host a diverse range of conservation issues. These range from large scale structural works through to the conservation of rare decorative features such as the medieval encaustic tiles in the retrochoir. The cathedral currently has a £24.5 million conservation deficit on top of the £4 million a year required to keep it open; a vast amount of work, made more complicated by the logistics required to carry out the extensive programme of repairs without the disruption of services and events.

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Winchester Cathedral choir stalls

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Encaustic tiles

We were also able to meet the craftspeople to discuss the multiple repair projects which are progressing simultaneously, including:

– The meticulous work by Ruth McNeilage to remove the cream coloured, 20th century paint from the foliate bosses and conserve the historic paintwork beneath.

– Works to the windows by Steve Clare, to re-lead and replace missing glass where required, as well as introducing conservation glazing to stained glass panels.

Masonry repairs and repointing is being undertaken by the in-house stonemasons. Discussing the works with them highlighted the benefits of having a continuity of craftspeople and accumulated knowledge of the building. This level of knowledge is to be developed through detailed recording and documentation being carried out by Jon Crook and Peter Ferguson to provide a database of information on the cathedral’s construction which will prove invaluable for future projects.

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Stone letter carving by Scholars

Part of the new The Kings and Scribes project is to create new interpretation and exhibitions around the 12th century illuminated Winchester Bible; it will be at the centre of new exhibitions in the south transept. The proposal includes the installation of a lift which will puncture through an existing groin vault to provide access to the triforium. Whilst the impetus to make historical assets accessible to all is a laudable approach, the level of intervention required to make this a reality could result in disproportionate loss of the historic fabric we are trying to conserve and in this scenario we’d have preferred seeing something less intrusive.

We would like to thank all those involved for a great week and the CAA for their generous contributions to make it possible.

Protect our vernacular buildings

by Declan Cahill

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Stone cottage in the Peak District

Over the past five months we have travelled across most parts of England and have ventured into Wales and Scotland, which has shown me the variety of the vernacular buildings we have been lucky enough to inherit. As my favourite type of building, I love to see how these buildings vary from each other, how little details have been ingeniously introduced, how the building has developed with time and how the building sits within a landscape.

Vernacular buildings are those that are typical to a locality, that are made from local materials and by local craftspeople (and sometimes even just local people without a craft) and usually have no input from a surveyor, architect or engineer. After reading the various studies by Clifton-Taylor, Brunskill, John and Jane Penoyre and the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working group I have started to feel that the gap between traditional construction and modern construction is ever-increasing.

Criss-crossing the country, we have been able to visit and see how buildings change in their form and materials. From the use of different stones, timber, brick, earth, lime, metal and glass on a building to the different forms of the timber frame, the stone farmsteads of Wales, Cumbria and Scotland, to the brick buildings in Cheshire and Shropshire and the earth buildings of the Solway Plain to suggest just a few. The variety of buildings that we have encountered has been truly remarkable.

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Field barn of the Peak District

However, one thing has become apparent to me over the last couple of months, our vernacular buildings and culture of building vernacularly is under threat. If we are going to save our traditions and our vernacular buildings we need to look into why they are at risk.

The knowledge and skill of the local craftspeople is being lost. This is partly due to the generation of local craftspeople retiring and their knowledge not being passed on. The current education system is also partly to blame for not providing opportunities to learn traditional building methods and only teaching modern construction skills. Modern cavity-based construction has become the norm whilst solid wall construction a rarity.

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Clay dabbin of the Solway Plain

In some respects the demand for traditionally built buildings has decreased. This is due to previous generations growing up in these vernacular buildings that weren’t properly maintained and stigmatising them as cold and drafty places to live. Those that take on our vernacular buildings do not always fully understand the materials and requirements of the building. The ventilation and breathability that are fundamental to a traditionally constructed building mean they are often mislabelled as drafty and inefficient. The movement of moisture through solid wall construction is perceived as a damp wall and inappropriate materials are used.

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Clay tile and lime render of Essex

The building regulations and our current standards of construction have been built on modern building methods, completely dismissing traditional construction. This has lead to unbefitting extensions to our historic buildings that aren’t constructed traditionally and use inappropriate materials. Modern buildings built in the countryside are often constructed and designed inappropriately. These buildings are being classed as vernacular when all they really do is use a local material for one aspect of the building.

We have become detached from the materials within our local geography and geology. The importation of materials from further afield is apparent on the majority of construction sites today. Recently at the annual Building Limes Forum conference Ben Bosence talked of the use of local aggregates and how he had researched what aggregates were available 100m, 1Km, 5Km, 10Km and 20Km from his house. The presentation was a timely reminder of how we need to reconnect with our locality.

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Timber frame and thatch in Oxfordshire

On our travels we have seen signs of hope for our ability to conserve our vernacular buildings and hopefully construct traditionally. From Richard Jordan teaching traditional construction skills in Derbyshire, to the projects we have visited in North Wales, the Peak District, Cumbria and Scotland. I can only hope that the meticulous attention given to our cathedrals and country houses is applied to the vernacular buildings that make our countryside so rich and unique.

The philosophy of repair

by Declan Cahill

Over the past couple of weeks we have visited sites where we have been told about various approaches to the treatment of historic stonework. This has got us debating, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing about which approach would be the best one in each situation. As someone who believes that not one rule can be applied to all situations, I have found it very interesting to look at these approaches and to think if I would do the same, and if not what the alternatives might be. Since 1887 the Society and its members have been fighting for the timeless beauty of historic buildings that comes naturally with age. But what is important and sets each approach apart is what level of intervention is required to stave off decay, and that we do not lose this beauty by being too heavy handed in our intervention.

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Villa Saraceno

Recently we were very lucky to be invited to Villa Saraceno with the Landmark Trust. You can read more about our trip in a forthcoming blog post. Here I am going to touch on the approach they are taking towards the preservation of the stonework at the villa. The villa is predominantly brick built and rendered, with stone detailing to the windows and doors. The stone is a white limestone that was used in most of Palladio’s buildings. During our visit we got the chance to learn from Serse and Katrin from PT Color, who explained the methods they were using to preserve the stone and minimize the loss of flaking stone from a door jamb.

The conservators were using lime-based consolidants for flakes with larger openings and an acrylic resin on the finer flakes. The edges of the flakes were then closed using a lime-based mortar. On an annual basis the conservators visit the site and try to prolong the life of the worst delaminating stone. This painstaking process is very admirable, but on further discussion it’s important to think about the other factors that inform this decision.

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Stone consolidation at Villa Saraceno

Firstly the significance of the villa, it is an early incomplete example of Palladio’s design that incorporated the functionality of the farmstead with the grandeur and geometry of the country retreat. The white limestone of the area is inherently a softer limestone and the jamb that was being worked on faced the north west, thus exposing the stone to the worst weather conditions. The conservators’ argument against using shelter coats was that you would not see the original stone face. Do we let the stone age and decay, accepting that the stone will one day need replacing, or do we do our utmost to prolong the life of the stone? Are we preventing the stone from gracefully aging? And if we are to intervene at what stage do we begin this intervention?

Just seven days after standing in front of the door jamb at Villa Saraceno, we were back on English soil and visiting St. Leonard’s Middleton Parish Church to look at the south porch of this medieval church that has had minimum intervention since its conception in 1412. The parish’s website describes the porch as ‘romantically crumbling away’ and it is exactly this romanticism that the church is at risk of losing.

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‘Romantic’ south porch at St Leonard’s church

The parish has decided that now is the time for intervention, and the church architect’s proposal is to de-frass the stonework to give it a ‘carved’ face again. We were able to see a test panel that had been produced by a stonemason for discussion.

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Examples panels of de-frassed stonework

It is important to add that the present stonework is laminating but there isn’t any excessive loss of stone; it is in a state that is beautiful to look at due to the natural patina of age. By taking this approach the church’s aesthetic will be altered forever and layers will be lost from its history. We can only hope that the parish see what they will be losing and that a more respectful approach will be chosen.

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Natural patina to the south porch stonework

The case at Middleton reminded me of the origins of the SPAB when the Society was also known as the ‘Anti Scrape Society’. The Society was founded on a belief that we should approach the repair of historic fabric with minimum intervention and only act to prevent future damage. We must respect the original craftsperson’s work; that is currently in danger of being forgotten at Middleton but is being championed at Saraceno.

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Paint and plaster conservation at Gorton Monastery

Another site visit has taken us to Gorton Monastery, where Alan Gardener is applying these meticulous preservation and consolidation techniques to the consolidation of Victorian (and later) wall paintings, plaster and stone. Seeing similar techniques to those at Villa Saraceno being applied at Gorton is a timely reminder that we need to approach our work with respect and that historic fabric, no matter how old, has significance.

Scholars head north

by Gethin Harvey

Vernacular Buildings
Since the last post, the Scholars have headed north to Cumbria and into Scotland to study the effect of changing geology and wetter climates on vernacular buildings and the accompanying variations in construction techniques.

Solid earth wall construction

In such areas the detrimental effects of water ingress and damp can be exacerbated if not addressed; with increases in average annual rainfall over recent years, it also poses questions on how well equipped historic buildings are to deal with the amount of rainfall seen today and associated repair philosophies.

One vernacular tradition is the construction of buildings with solid earth wall structures which go by different names dependent on the regional variations in construction and local dialect. These are known locally in Cumbria as ‘clay dabbins’ and following a guided tour of Burgh by Sands by 2014 fellow Alex Gibbons it became apparent that they are often difficult to spot, hidden behind protective lime renders.

This not only leads to uncertainty in the exact amount surviving in the UK it also means that they may often not have the statutory protection they deserve. We subsequently joined local craftspeople and volunteers to progress the construction of a newbuild clay dabbin building in the RSPB sanctuary on the Solway Plain. The experience of working with the material revealed the practicalities which determine the methodology of construction; the walls are formed of lifts only a few inches in height, contrasting with, for instance, cob buildings in Devon where the drier material allows lifts of up to 2 ft. It was a great example of how traditional crafts may be used to provide sustainable opportunities for building using nothing outside the immediate context of a site. Surviving examples serve as great precedents for this and their maintenance is crucial, one of many topics which will be covered at Clay Fest 2016 which will provide opportunities for further explanation and hands-on experience at the RSPB Campfield Marsh Reserve in Bowness-on-Solway, Cumbria on 18 – 23 July 2016.

For more information please see the Earth Buildings UK website.

Scottish Working Party

Balmerino Abbey, Scotland Working Party

Despite predictions of thunderstorms, the weather was glorious (with a minor exception – the typically soggy British BBQ on the final evening).

The weather enabled the volunteers to throw themselves into the work at Balmerino Abbey, a ruinous masonry structure in Fife. This included raking out cement pointing in a boundary wall and repointing with lime mortar; soft capping trials and preparing the materials for repointing and soft capping.

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Lime has been a constant theme throughout our visits and it was a great asset to have Bill Revie, Andy Bradley and Duncan Strachan from the British Limes Forum to guide us. For the lime pointing a hybrid mix of quicklime gauged with NHL 5 was used with local sharp sand. This was a combination we had not previously seen and was designed to provide an initial chemical set to prevent the mortar being damaged by frost and/or wind before carbonation. Their interactive demonstration of the lime cycle and the ‘3-minute kiln’ (for construction, not burning!) was of great benefit to all present and provided us with a better understanding of its use in more severe climates.

Kiln at Scottish Working Party

With a similar range of repair methods as those proposed for the SPAB England Working Party which will be held at Greatham, Hampshire on 3 – 9 July 2016, it was great to have the experience of Alison Davie Construction Ltd to supervise the works. Aside from the practical experience it was a brilliant social meeting with many partaking in their first official ceilidh and we would like to convey our thanks to Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust for Scotland and all others involved in an incredible few days.

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The wonders of lime

By Declan Cahill

Since the last blog post the Scholars have spent two weeks in North Wales, a week on the SPAB’s bi-annual repair of old buildings course and a week in Somerset, the last four weeks have seen a focus on lime, both intentionally and unintentionally. Prior to the Scholarship, my involvement with the use of lime was project based, and my understanding of the historic use and characteristics of the material was fairly rudimentary. I thought I had a grasp on the different types of lime, however I still found myself questioning what I was specifying, the worry that seemed to hang over me was whether I was going to cause more damage through specifying a lime mortar that wasn’t cohesive with the existing building. After the last four weeks, I believe my apprehension was totally justified.

Plas Tirion, North Wales

Plas Tirion

Plas Tirion sits in the Conwy valley, and is home to the Natural Building Centre (NBC), we spent the day with Ned Scharer (owner of the NBC), who showed us how his use of lime to repair Plas Tirion underlies their philosophy of specifying the appropriate material for the location and the part of the building it is being used on. Therefore an understanding of the history of the building and its materials as well as an appreciation of the impact the weather has on these materials needs to sit at the beginning of the discussion regarding which is the correct lime to use when carrying out repair works. Knowing of our forthcoming trip to Italy, Ned was also able to introduce us to the art of fresco painting and gave us the opportunity to have a go ourselves.

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Declan and Gethin trying fresco painting

The rest of this week was spent with Elgan Jones, an architect of Purcell and 2014 Scholar, and Elinor Gray Williams of Donald Insall Associates, a Scholar from 2006. Site visits over the three days included both the grandness of castles of North Wales as well as more modest vernacular buildings and churches. We visited St. Cwyfan Church which was repaired in 2005 by Ned Scharer and included the use of broken shells and saltwater in the mortar mix and limewashes respectively. Read more about the limework at St Cwyfan’s Church-in-the-sea.

In the heart of the Brecon Beacons, the historic farm of Ty Mawr is the home of Nigel and Joyce Gervis, and Ty Mawr Lime Ltd. The visit to Ty Mawr helped us understand their involvement in the resurrection of the use of lime in historic buildings since the company was founded in 1995.

Scholars and fellows with Stafford Holmes and the line kiln at CAT

Scholars and Fellows with Stafford Holmes and the lime kiln CAT

We then met up with the Fellows and Stafford Holmes to spend five days at the Centre of Alternative Technology (CAT) at Machlynlleth. The aim of our time at CAT was to carry out some maintenance works to the lime kiln, further our knowledge of lime and its uses, and to finally fire up the lime kiln to burn and slake lime. Our time with Stafford gave an insight into the wide range of uses of lime, and started to decipher how to approach the use of lime in conjunction with historic buildings. Stafford was able to teach us about the different types of lime and their appropriateness in different contexts, and by getting first hand experience of what is required in order to burn and slake lime has really helped me to understand the extensive and traditional use of lime in historic buildings. We also made a site visit to Portmeirion, which sparked interesting debate regarding pastiche and the relocation of historic buildings.

Scholars and fellows at Portmeirion

Scholars and Fellows in Portmeirion

The five day repair of old buildings course consists of three days of lectures and two days of site visits. I cannot start to communicate the amount of information that is gained through attending the course, but I can say that it is an extremely useful starting point for those involved in conservation of historic buildings. The lectures on the various aspects of historic building fabric are given by experts in their individual field, and the two days of site visits allow you to see how this is put into practice. The spring course this year included site visits to the Queens House at Greenwich, the longest medieval barn at Frindsbury, Knole House in Kent and St. Mary’s Church and Hadlow Tower at Hadlow.

During National Mills Weekend I volunteered at Bradwell Mill just north of Milton Keynes. National Mills weekend is arranged every year to open up the windmills and watermills of the country to the general public. This year the William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust led a weekend of demonstrations and fundraising at Charlecote Mill. This helped raise £930 for the Trust.

We then headed down to Somerset where we spent time with Jo Hibbert, Scholar from 2002, who showed us a variety of projects she has been working on, including defence posts in Plymouth. We were also lucky enough to visit Carpentry Oak in Totnes and try our hand at stone carving with Westcountry Stonemasons in Ivybridge. Following our time with Jo we then spent a great day with Shaun from Somerset Stone Conservation, this allowed us to get some more hands on experience through helping to consolidate and re-point a railing plinth. An information-packed day was then spent with Philip Hughes, who was the first building surveyor scholar and is the current chairman of the SPAB technical panel. We visited projects at St. Lukes Pastoral Church in Wincanton, as well as the ongoing works at Wimborne St. Giles, which has been praised for its various approaches to conservation.

We finished the week and the last four weeks of the Scholarship at Woburn Abbey, where we were given a tour of the abbey by the curator, Matthew Hirst, and were able to have a look at the works being administered by Nick Cox Associates. The visit was also used to discuss our ideas for the Plunkett part of the Scholarship where we will spend the last three months of the programme visiting country houses to study a research topic of our choice.