Preserving UK’s national heritage
19 October 2020
Chris Garvey sheds light on the challenges involved in the cleaning and restoration of historic buildings, sites, and monuments, the potential pitfalls of any cleaning and restoration project of this nature, and guidance on how best to ensure project success.
THE PRESERVATION of the country’s historic buildings is a subject that’s close to the hearts of many people in the UK. Our rich, colourful heritage has produced a magnificent legacy of properties that are of ‘significant interest’ not only nationally but around the world.
Historic England estimates there are around 500,000 listed properties in England alone and its ‘Heritage At Risk’ Register documents more than 5000 sites that are under immediate threat – with many at risk of being permanently eradicated due to decay, neglect, or inappropriate development and/or change. Those currently in danger of being lost forever include Grade I and II listed buildings, places of worship, and protected wreck sites.
And, with government policy over the last few years encouraging investment in towns of historic importance and a subsequent increase in retail businesses operating from listed buildings, it’s perhaps no surprise that the repair, restoration, and cleaning of historic property is an industry that has seen substantial growth in recent times.
But the need to safeguard our national heritage presents a significant challenge that demands a specialist solution in order to avoid the work itself causing further damage that may escalate the decay and erosion of the historic fabric.
Dealing with decay
The fabric of most buildings will deteriorate with age, either through simple neglect, wear and tear, climactic conditions or other problems. And it’s inevitable that those of an historic nature will be more susceptible to significant decay, particularly if they’ve not been properly maintained.
The primary objective in the majority of restoration projects is therefore to address those issues without damaging the character of the structure, altering features or disturbing the historic fabric.
There’s no standard specification for the cleaning and restoration of historic buildings, of course. But there is at least one constant: the need for a sensitive approach that embraces the principles of conservative repair.
As the stabilisation and conservation of the structure is often key, it’s important to minimise work as much as possible to ensure its long-term future.
But the sticking plaster approach is never a good idea – that’s just treating the symptoms and neglecting the actual cause.
Unsuitable, unsightly or inappropriate repairs may also cause significant damage over the long term – and affect both the character, value, and future of the property.
Careful and accurate diagnosis is therefore essential and, as every building is unique, it’s crucial that solutions are always site-specific. Expert contractors will take time to identify and understand the issues of every individual project before deciding on the best potential remedy.
They’ll not only look into the type of damage that’s been caused, for example, but they’ll also investigate the causes and processes of decay – issues that often depend on the nature of the building, its location and, indeed, how it was originally built.
Understanding how the building was constructed, as well as the materials and techniques that would have been used, is often a very valuable exercise. For using the same type of products and following the same methods, wherever possible, will ensure they’re compatible in terms of both performance and appearance.
The authenticity of an historic building depends on the integrity of its fabric and design, so it’s obviously crucial to avoid causing damage during restoration work.
And, as non-specialist contractors are liable to make mistakes that could prove costly, the appointment of companies with true expertise and experience often reaps major dividends.
These buildings aren’t multi-storey car parks – so it’s not like a standard cleaning company, for example, can jump from one job to the next with the same equipment on the same settings and expect the same results.
Unexpected issues in historic buildings
Companies that specialise in restoration work will look at the circumstances in isolation and adapt methods to deliver a sympathetic solution – one that’s efficient, cost-effective and, above all, protects the character and integrity of the building for future generations to enjoy. But it’s important, too, that they’re agile and flexible enough to deal with unexpected problems.
Old buildings can hide a variety of issues that don’t become apparent until work has begun, including soft bricks for example, and it’s vital that firms carrying out the project have both the skills and resources to both recognise, and rectify, them.
Cleaning often exposes previous repairs too – and reacting in the right way demands specific expertise and proactive management. Our team has wide-ranging experience of heritage projects and has helped to revive listed buildings and monuments all over the UK.
Recent projects have included an ancient National Trust property in Buckinghamshire, an historic granary building in Shropshire and a follies in Staffordshire.
We’ve also cleaned the deck of the Iron Bridge in Shropshire – the famous cast iron structure regarded as the birthplace of the industrial revolution – using a bespoke solution that recaptured water to prevent potential run-off into the River Severn.
One of our current projects, our biggest to date, is at the Flaxmill Maltings, in Shrewsbury – the first-ever iron-framed building that paved the way for the modern skyscraper.
A major scheme on behalf of Historic England is underway to restore the 18th-century building to its former glory, part-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Around 250 cast iron pillars supporting the five-storey structure were caked in centuries of paint and architects Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios wanted them returned to their original state, both for aesthetic reasons and because the old, lead-based paint would have posed a potential health risk to future visitors and occupants.
The task of removing it carefully and safely, and ensuring the lead was disposed of properly, presented a unique challenge and, as the age and vulnerability of the building was a key consideration, the task demanded a high level of professional expertise.
Main contractors Croft Building and Conservation wanted to ensure both the structure and fittings would be protected throughout so we made significant investment in hi-tech equipment and adapted it specifically for this project.
The unique blast recovery process, based on a Venturi system, was able to remove the paint sympathetically but also capture and extract all waste lead particles which were disposed of safely via a two-stage process.
The initial stages of the work exposed historic damage including craves up to an inch deep. And though such work was not part of the original brief, we were able to carry out repairs using a specialist repair product that avoided potentially costly delays.
With old paint removed, the pillars were coated with a specialist lead-free intumescent (fire retardant) primer to protect the ironwork from any further corrosion, remove the risk of fire in future and prepare them for a top coat of intumescent paint.
While the project strengthens our extensive portfolio of work on iconic buildings all over the country, it also served to highlight the benefit of appointing contractors with specific expertise.
Restoration projects often throw up unique challenges and it’s essential that those carrying out the work have the right knowledge and experience to meet those demands.
It’s about assessing the problems correctly and maintaining a conservative approach to produce a tailored solution that produces the best possible results.
Chris Garvey is founder and partner of G-Force Steam which has played a key role in work to renovate historic buildings and other significant sites across the UK.
For more information visit www.g-forcesteam.co.uk