Preserving our building heritage is not only a worthy endeavour but it can be financially rewarding. It is not cheap to renovate or restore the structures of the past and when you are dealing with a large ancient pile there are specialist health and safety issues to be considered. You can go from working on an ultra modern project, like the ones I have tackled recently, to the resurrection of a 19th century mill, but don’t take the task lightly.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
We don’t want them to fall down that is the point of renovation but a key to safe working is realising that what went up, went up in a very different way to how it would go up today. Get it wrong and it can come down fast. I was working with a friend on a 18th century cottage when I first came across our ancestors way of making the exterior walls solid. They built the walls and filled the gaps with rubble. As you remove the outer skin of carefully placed blocks you come to a vertical slag heap. Over time the fist sized stones have settled and gravity can give the unwary the idea of permanence. In fact it is like playing Jenga after betting your hands. If you take out the wrong point, at the wrong time, it leads to ‘shuttering’ and boy you need to get out of the way quickly, literally the lot can come down.
We were putting a door in at the time, one that would lead to a conservatory. It did get done but not before a lot of dust had carried off a lot of cursing.
On several other projects I would stand back and wonder how they hoisted quarter ton slabs of stone into a tight corner or an elaborate block up and out on a gable end.
Later Additions, Modern Headaches
Sometimes the rules about what you can and cannot do with an old building are frustrating I know, however, they have brought some benefits. Back in the day if you had a dusty and neglected warehouse you could add what you liked to it. Indeed you could also rip out what you wanted, block staircases off, fill in windows and install whatever materials you liked.
The problem with the free hand that you had in the 50s and 60s was that roof access could be restricted and asbestos was used as additional construction was undertaken without any thought for the future.
It is almost as though you need a thorougher understanding of how to build the old way before you can adapt a building to operate in the modern age. There is a good reason it seems this way and that is because it is that way. When it comes to health and safety and old buildings…We need to understand the game just the same as the designers and builders on these renovation projects.
Safety and Efficiency
In that order, but as I always say though the principle of safe working first is not negotiable only a dreamer could last in this industry without realising you have to be innovative and aware of the operational needs of the client. This is doubly so in projects involving ancient buildings. One man who really seems to have a grasp of this field is James Woolgrove. I recently re-read an article in which he tells Health and Safety magazine about the unique challenges of these sort of projects. I would recommend it to anyone who is thinking of operating in this area of expertise.
I will always remember that first taste of old time wall building not because that made me an expert, but because it taught me a principle. The tools and some of the working practises might not have changed much but the attitude, materials and problem solving of years ago can throw you a health and safety curve ball unless you are aware of them.
Full article in Health and Safety magazine Click Here