Scholars and Fellows in north Wales

by Elgan Jones

Our week in Snowdonia began with a visit to Ned Scharer, a conservator with a strong passion for conservation and sustainable technologies, who set up the Natural Building Centre beside Plas Tirion, a 16th-century manor house in the process of being repaired. We were joined for the day by Maggie Goodall , SPAB education & training manager, and my brother Osian Jones, an architecture student at Manchester University.

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We began the day discussing the latest sustainable building products, which are compatible within the repair and thermal upgrading of historic structures, given their ‘breathability’ qualities. This was followed by a guided tour around Plas Tirion as Ned explained why certain types of plasters, screeds, mortars, natural insulation products and breathable paints were used in particular locations around the building.

For our practical afternoon session we joined Hefin Huws, a master waller who has been working with stone for the last 30 years, to help repair and rebuild a dry stone wall with the garden of Plas Tirion. Hefin explained the process of sorting the stone and techniques for setting out and rebuilding.

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

The hot Welsh weather was only surpassed by the even rarer sight of my brother getting his hands dirty!

For the remainder of the week, we focused on slate and traditional roofing. We were kindly invited to Penrhyn Quarry were we met the team and Terry Hughes, a slate and stone roofing consultant. We were taken on a tour of the quarry to understand how slate was quarried from the mountain and manufactured into roofing slates, architectural products and aggregates.

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

None of us could quite anticipate the sheer scale of the quarry!

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

Cores are drilled at perpendicular angles into the stone before diamond wires are chased through and cut out the slate. This process helps minimise waste by extracting larger sections of stone.

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The slate was then brought down to the quarry where it was cut down using modern machinery before being split and finished by hand

The following day we met Terry and Richard Jordan, a roofer and SPAB Fellow, at Penmaen Cottage near Dolgellau where they were recording and repairing a traditional slate roof. Terry and Richard were working alongside Cadw recording and filming various stages of the project as an exemplar for other contactors undertaking similar types of work. Richard explained that the thickness of the standard roofing slate produced at Penrhyn was much thinner than the historic slates used on the building, therefore he would take off-cuts from the quarry to cut down and split by hand, the slates to the required thickness. Throughout the day we were also given the practical exercises such as cutting down the slates to size and bedding them on the roof.

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

Scholars and Fellows inspecting the stripped roof with Richard Jordan

  Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)


Scholars and Fellows cutting down the slates (with varying success!)

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Glorious Mud!

By Alex Gibbons

I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about my favourite thing…mud! Last week SPAB ran the first ‘Glorious Mud’ courses in Slawston, Leics. The East Midlands has a rich cultural heritage of building with earth, which unfortunately goes relatively unnoticed compared with other clay-rich subsoil regions such as the South West and East Anglia. One reason for this, suggested by Anthony Goode who hosted the event, could be that the residents of the East Midlands continue to proudly refer to their earth building tradition as ‘mud’. Some might say that this is a less appealing name than ‘cob’ or ‘clay lump’, but I think it reflects the beautiful simplicity of the material and technique perfectly. The aim of the week was to get people interested, excited and educated in the mud building tradition of the East Midlands in the hope of bringing sexy back to mud. And I think we did a pretty good job!

After a couple of days setting up with Anthony, we were ahead of the game when the course delegates arrived on the Wednesday. There were about 25 of us in total, including local self builders, architects, conservation officers, Scholars, Fellows and a good group from the SPAB HQ in London.

We opened the bidding with tea (the only way to start any day of mud building) and several very interesting lectures on building with earth regionally and internationally by Jason Mordan and Stafford Holmes, as well as an introduction in the mud building tradition of technique of the East Midlands by Anthony.

After another quick cup of tea, it was time for course delegates to get their hands dirty! Guided by time-served mudman Derek, myself and Anthony, we began to make repairs to the bee damaged wall at Slawston. The wall had been a victim of masonry bees who had made their home in it – an all too common sight in earth buildings across the world. Mud has a great ability to store heat overnight in its thermal mass and is very easy to burrow in to, making it a perfect place for the bees to make their home.

P1110545Although the wall looks in a pretty sad state of repair, it is built so wide that really the bee damage is only superficial. Given enough time the bees will eventually burrow far enough to cause structural damage but with good maintenance this is unlikely to happen. Everyone got stuck in, mixing by foot and applying by hand. Mud building is a very labour intensive process but working together makes it great fun as well!

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Course delegates also had the opportunity to make mud bricks and blocks, as well as a small rammed earth wall. Local school visits were run along side the main course, where participants had the chance to get their hands dirty and take their knowledge of making mud pies to the next level!

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In the evening we were joined by building archaeologist, David Smith who gave an extremely interesting presentation on local mud buildings, rafterless thatch and much more.

The following day the weather was looking a little threatening so we ‘made hay while the sun shone’ and began by finishing the repair of the wall and wrapping up the practical element of the ‘Glorious Mud’ course.

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When the rain started coming down again, we retreated inside for more lectures (and tea!), this time from architect Chris Granger, who had built a community centre in Bolivia with his wife, architect Scholar Chloe, using adobe blocks last year. After this, we handed over to Earth Building UK. I gave a presentation on modern buildings using earth as the main structural element and Dr. Paul Jaquin spoke about rammed earth buildings and the structural performance of earth. Earth Building UK is a not-for-profit organisation that fosters the conservation, understanding and development of building with earth in the UK.

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After this it was back to architect Stafford Holmes, who gave presentation on a project he has lead in Pakistan, using lime to stabilise earth blocks in flood zones, so people can re-house themselves relatively cheaply in buildings that won’t wash away when the next floods come.

All in all, an extremely enjoyable and informative week, and I hope the first of many more to come! I think it really gave everyone a respect for the physical work that’s involved in building with earth, and how much easier they are to repair than to re-build.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Anthony Goode for inspiring and arranging the course, to everyone at SPAB for organising, to all the speakers and to Derek for the practical sessions. May the East Midland mud buildings enjoy a resurgence of interest and sympathetic repair!

If you would like to find out more about building with earth, please visit www.ebuk.uk.com

 

Traditional Transylvania – Scholars and Fellows in Romania

Ulrike Wahl, SPAB Fellow 2006, joined this year’s Scholars and Fellows in Transylvania, Romania for a workshop on sustainable building: ‘Building sustainably by learning from the traditional architecture’. The workshop was organised by Romanian architect, Silvia Demeter-Lowe (SPAB Scholar 2004)

The aim of the workshop was to give participants an understanding of the local identity and culture. Through hands-on work the group contributed to the rehabilitation of a 200 hundred year old farmstead, using traditional techniques and materials.

Funding came from the European Commission’s Youth in Action programme, which brings together young people from different backgrounds from across Romania and Europe, giving them an appreciation of the harmonious relationship that can be created between the built and natural environment. So in addition to the SPAB contingent there was a group from Évora in Portugal as well as architecture students, engineers and people with a general interest in traditional building from Romania.

Traditional Saxon houses in need of repair in Meşendorf

Traditional Saxon houses in need of repair in Meşendorf

The workshop took place at Nr 53, a building that has needed serious structural work in the past. Silvia described how the earthquake of 1977 and subsequent minor landslides had caused the building to move down the hill. She encouraged the group to discuss different solutions to this problem and to consider their practical and financial implications. As Silvia said, to function properly a traditional house needs ‘a good hat and good boots’ – solid foundations and a sturdy roof – and she wanted to make sure this house had both.

DSC_0097The majority of our work took place around a new extension to the house. The original timber from a recently demolished annex in the village had been saved and provided the framework to support the roof. Our cob and straw teacher for the week was János Németh, a builder who works with natural materials. He told us about the different methods of straw bale construction he had come across and the circumstances in which each would be used appropriately. For this project the straw bales were held in place by a timber structure and ‘stitched’ together using hazelnut stakes.

János explained that the south-facing wall was built of cob to absorb and store the warmth of the sun. By contrast, the other two walls were made of strawbales covered with a clay plaster to provide insulation. To protect the straw from rising moisture a rubble wall was built from the local sandstone. Even the stonemasons in the team learned something new here as we didn’t have the range of tools available that we were used to. We had to get back to basics and make do with what we could find – which included anything from a plastic knife to a teapot handle. To enlarge the entrance to the house, Emily (2012 Fellow) spent most of the week extending a brick wall and teaching the group bricklaying.

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In Meşendorf itself we managed to visit the fortified church, which is currently undergoing works and not open to the public. The caretaker, Mrs Scoica, explained some of the architecture and traditions to us and we were even allowed to go up the tower. From there we could really appreciate the defensive layout of the village.

Meşendorf, showing the defensive line of houses at the front and barns at the back

Meşendorf, showing the defensive line of houses at the front and barns at the back

The week came to an end with a party in the yard – with a bonfire, music and dancing (from some), food and drink. And to thank Silvia for her hard work all the workshop attendees presented her with a good hat and good boots. It was a lovely end to a fantastic week. Here is hoping there will be plenty more in the future!

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