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.

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Scholars and Fellows hit the conservation trail

by Triona Byrne

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Scholars and Fellows at SPAB HQ

It’s been an eventful first fortnight for the Scholars and Fellows as we hit the conservation trail, starting from SPAB HQ in Spital Square.

During the first two weeks, we spent time with SPAB Guardians Stephen Bull and Conor Meehan, learning about their careful repairs and conservation work at a Georgian building on Kennington Road, and the Union Chapel building in Islington. At Kennington Road, we learned how they are tackling the problem of differential settlement (up to 4 inches) across the building which makes for interesting sensations as one walks from one side of a room to another.

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Scholars and Fellows visit a repair project on Kennington Road, London

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Differential settlement at 285 Kennington Road

As well as visiting Kenwood House with Ian Angus, we travelled to Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, where Tom Massey, 2014 Fellow, has carried out expert repairs to the castle gates (c. 1910) using a local English oak which will weather over time to seamlessly match the existing timber.

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Herstmonceux Castle gate repair by 2014 SPAB Fellow, Tom Massey

The Scholars were kindly invited to the V&A Museum to view a selection of architectural drawings in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. Along with drawings by Palladio, Sir John Soane and Eileen Gray, we got to look at original drawings and notes by Philip Webb, co-founder of the SPAB. These included his early drafts for text to be engraved on tombstones – like this one below for poor Charles who “fell asleep” on Good Friday 1879. We also viewed the free Philip Webb exhibition (ends 24 April 2016), which gives an interesting insight into his work with William Morris and his involvement in establishing the SPAB.

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Tombstone text by Phillip Webb, part of the V&A Museum’s collection

Finally we spent a day learning the secrets of sketching with architect Mark Power. We wandered around the Southwark area, learning about light, shade, negative space and proportion. It concluded a very interesting and educational first fortnight.

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A sketch focussing on negative space by SPAB Fellow Heather Griffith

 

Could you be a 2016 SPAB Scholar or Fellow?

The SPAB Scholarship and Fellowship programmes offer the very best in hands-on, conservation-focussed training. Every year our Scholars and Fellows embark on a country-wide conservation tour of the UK and further afield. These unique schemes offer access to some of the country’s most important historic sites and workshops. Scholars and Fellows travel together, learning from the leading experts on historic building conservation and vernacular crafts.

Scholarship
‘The Scholarship has been an amazing opportunity to learn about our built heritage and how we maintain it for future generations.’ – 2015 Scholar Joanna Daykin

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The 2015 SPAB Scholars proudly leaning against a section of drystone wall we spent building in Yorkshire.

The search is on for up to four architects, building surveyors or engineers to become part of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship 2016. This is a training opportunity like no other. After completing the nine-month programme, previous SPAB Scholars have gone on to become experts in their field – some are cathedral architects, some look after palaces and National Trust houses.

The Scholarship is open to architects, building surveyors and structural engineers who have completed the college-based part of their courses (e.g. RIBA Parts I & II for architects), ideally with two or three years work experience. The programme is organised and administered by the SPAB and will be of particular interest to early career professionals with a passion for historic building conservation.

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2013 Scholar, Conor Meeham, and 2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark in 2013 in Transylvania, Romania for a workshop on sustainable building

Successful applicants will visit some of the country’s most fascinating built heritage projects to deepen their knowledge of historic buildings and explore the challenges surrounding their conservation. We aim to give our Scholars first-hand experience of conservative repair in action. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

 

Fellowship
“The unique opportunity to travel as a Fellow means I can learn from talented craftspeople and professionals with a diverse range of skills” – 2015 Fellow Ben Hornberger

Up to four successful candidates will travel together across the country to learn more about traditional building crafts from masters of the trades. We’re looking for craftspeople with a passion for old buildings and conservative repair. Applicants must have completed their apprenticeship and demonstrate a high level of competence.

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

2013 Fellow Johnnie Clark demonstrates stone carving

The Fellowship is an advanced training programme, devised to encourage and nurture craftspeople at the beginning of their careers, who are employed in any trade relating to the repair of historic buildings. The programme is now more relevant than ever given the lack of skilled people needed to care for Britain’s historic buildings and structures. The six-month practical training is divided into three blocks of two months, enabling the Fellows to return to their employment between each block. During the first two blocks they travel as a group, making daily site visits, studying repair projects, and meeting professionals, contractors and craftsmen. The final block is devoted to the individual needs and interests of each Fellow in consultation with their employers. For more information please visit the SPAB website.

Celebrating Craftsmanship

It’s all over for another year. The 2013 Fellowship programme, that is. We celebrated this year’s Fellows’ craftsmanship and enthusiasm for the SPAB philosophy with an award ceremony in November. The touring Fellows made a stop in London so they could be presented with their William Morris Craft Fellowship certificates in the impressive surroundings of Ironmongers’ Hall.

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Nearly 100 guests were welcomed with a speech from Lord Cormack, Chairman of William Morris Craft Fellowship Founding Committee. Lord Cormack remarked that “without craftspeople the grand designs of architects cannot be realised” – a theme that was echoed throughout the day. SPAB Director, Matthew Slocombe, introduced each Fellow, commending them individually for their dedication to their craft and the Fellowship.

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When SPAB Scholar Martin Ashley (of Martin Ashley Architects) addressed the room he spoke of the enduring nature of craftsmanship, “crafts have existed forever and will exist forever; the William Morris Craft Fellowship ensures this”.

Dorian Crone, SPAB Scholar founding and current member of the Dance Scholarship Trust, closed the event. He drew parallels to the Lethaby Scholarship, which runs parallel to the Fellowship programme, and spoke of the great things that can happen when architects and craftspeople pool their knowledge.
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Here’s what this year’s Fellows had to say about their experiences over the last 6 months:

Johnnie Clark, stonemason Fellow from Glasgow

“The appreciation and understanding I have gained of all the different crafts involved in the field of conservation has allowed me to approach my own work with greater confidence. I am involved in apprentice training, which is major focus at the Cathedral and I can pass all that I have learnt onto the trainee stonemasons. In terms of my own craft, I have been able to move out of my comfort zone and understand the regional differences in materials, adapting to the many types of stone and tools used.”

Jamie Miles, plasterer Fellow from Chesterfield

“Personal highlights have been the 2 weeks spent at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales where I had the opportunity to repair an old lime kiln and build a slaking tank before firing up the kiln and seeing the whole process involved in producing quicklime. I feel the knowledge and confidence gained from my time on the Fellowship will be invaluable to me and my company in the future.”

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Tyrone Oakley, leadworker Fellow from Dundee

“The SPAB Fellowship has been a very edifying experience for me. The first thing I learnt was just how little I knew about anything whatsoever! The variety on the course has filled me with a great appreciation for historical architecture. I’ve been given a good understanding of our national crafts, both ancient and contemporary. But most of all my love of my own craft, leadwork, has reached a new level of obsession.”

The SPAB Fellowship is supported by English Heritage, Historic Scotland, The Monument Trust, William Morris Craft Fellowship Trust and William Morris Society. If you would like talk about how you can support the Fellowship get in touch with our Development Manager development@spab.org.uk.

2013 Scholars and Fellows hit the road

Stay tuned for on the road, hands-on updates from our new batch of Scholars and Fellows. The group have set off on a journey of discovery that will take them the length and breadth of the country as they gain first-hand experience in conservation skills and building crafts. For the next six months they will travel together, meeting fellow architects, building specialists and craftspeople working on historic sites and in workshops and studios throughout the British Isles. Learn more about this year’s Scholars and Fellows.

2012 Scholars and Fellows set off

This week the SPAB welcomed its new Scholars and Fellows. This bright-eyed troop set off to start nine months of travel up and down the country, visiting historic properties and construction sites, learning directly from skilled craftsmen and architects. This blog will be charting their progress through personal reports and photographs, the occasional sketchbook. All at the SPAB HQ wish them luck!