Sustainable Design > Traditional Skills and Crafts
How skilled repair and restoration can help preserve the character of the countryside.
It’s a grim scenario that we’re all familiar with. You’re strolling through the countryside or a village and suddenly you’re confronted with a cottage or house that’s been unsympathetically renovated. Such features as faux leaded windows, stone cladding and a modern porch jar with their immediate surroundings.
But it’s not just such obvious excesses that change the character of historic buildings and communities. The loss of architectural heritage is often down to a series of what might at first seem small and unrelated decisions taken over years, rather than during a single major renovation. This is because the maintenance, restoration and repair of historic buildings is an ongoing process that requires tackling a series of problems and questions, for example:
Employing tradespeople with traditional skills and crafts can radically change how you approach and answer such questions, and help to prevent the slow erosion of architectural heritage. Beyond any legal considerations that come with working on the most historically important buildings, there are sound reasons to employ traditional methods:
So what is best practice for maintaining historic buildings? The key message is appropriately old-fashioned: skilled repair and restoration are usually better, and frequently cheaper, than starting over. If one piece of a sash window is rotten, for instance, that’s not a good reason to replace the whole window.
It’s a simple principle, but in practice working on old buildings is often a delicate business. For this reason, on major projects it’s always better to take advice from architects and surveyors who specialise in period properties.
These are also the professionals who are most likely to be able to help you find tradespeople with the appropriate skills. It’s an important consideration because such skills are increasingly in demand.
So what do such craftspeople do on a day-to-day basis? The best way to illustrate this is to look at the principles of maintaining and repairing historic buildings:
Portland cement wasn’t used on a wide scale until the middle of the 19th century. Before then, masons used lime-based mortars and renders. These have two main advantages: they allow moisture to evaporate, enabling buildings to ‘breathe’, and they’re flexible, meaning the building can move slightly without cracking. In contrast, cement renders and mortars are rigid and prevent moisture escaping, forcing it to escape through bricks or stones. This in turn can lead to salting and cracks.
When deciding whether to repair render or pointing, the first question to ask is does the job need doing at all? If it’s tough to scrape off the old mortar, it’s probably best left. If it does need replacing, try to match the original mortar as closely as possible. (Increasingly, restoration experts use chemical analysis to match mortar exactly.) When re-pointing a wall, be sure to match the original work. Avoid ‘strap’, or raised, and ‘recessed’ pointing.
Try to re-use preserve bricks and stones wherever possible because they have a distinctive patina that even recycled materials from another site won’t match.
Sadly, the East Border Region has few thatched buildings, yet that makes those that are left all the more precious and there are grants available to help with maintenance. A good rule of thumb with thatched roofs is to be as conservative as possible to preserve local thatch styles and, beneath that, roof structures that can date back centuries. Again, it’s better to repair than replace, supplementing the underlying roof structure with additional supports where needed. High quality thatch can last for as long as 50 years.
Local slate and sheet lead roofs are much more common on historic buildings in the region. They should not be replaced with fibre cement slates or concrete tiles.
Typically, PVCu windows and doors last around 30 years before they need to be completely replaced. In contrast, skilled joiners can repair original wooden windows, sorting out problems such as sticking or rattling. With basic maintenance, windows that are already a century or more old may go on for another hundred years.
Even if a window has gone beyond repair, a joiner will be able to replicate it, matching such details as sash boxes and glazing bars. Where possible, try to re-use the original glass.
There’s an increasing movement back to using lime plaster internally, especially in the vernacular farm buildings that are common in the East Border Region. The reasons are much the same as for outside work: it’s a flexible material that allows walls to breathe. This is crucial when you might, for example, be working on a wall built of field stones set in clay.
In grander houses, original plasterwork is frequently damaged down the years. These days, specialists match and restore such details as ceiling roses and cornices.
Regular maintenance of period properties pays off in the long term. Remove moss from slate roofs because it harbours moisture. Cast iron drainpipes, railings and gates last longer if they’re painted regularly. Check regularly for evidence of common problems such as woodworm, damp and slipped tiles or slates.