Tuesday 23 October 2012


Last week I took a book out of my local library called "The New Brutalism". When I checked the loan stamps, the last time that someone took it out of the library was November 1967, which just goes to show how little we think of 1960s Brutalist architecture.

This book opens up a strange world of concrete which has all but disappeared from our towns and cities. I can't understand why Le Corbusier revelled in the rough texture of, what I would call, badly executed concrete and brick but which purists might call raw, untreated materials. He was either preoccupied with speed and putting up a building quickly or dissatisfied with the plainness that resulted from the flat planes in monolithic blocks. Maybe someone else can explain it to me?

I was so surprised in this 1966 book to see "brise soleil" on many concrete buildings, as I thought that this was largely a new phenomenon. How wrong I was!

The main reason why I took this book out was to research a building I am working on, built in 1965.  I also bought several more obscure rare books - Elain Harwood's “A guide to Post War Listed Buildings" (2000) and Trevor Dannatt's "Modern Architecture in Britain" (1959).  I think these are a good basis for anyone researching influences on British buildings of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Albert Hall (not that one!)

This week I am trying out a new method for a Heritage Impact Assessment on a fabulous building called the Albert Hall in Manchester.  My photos don't do it justice and there are plenty of blogs out there which do (see this link - http://theskyliner.org/post/31389360454/albert-hall-manchester-skyliner )

This is the second Edwardian Baroque building I have worked on this year, and mighty interesting they are too, with lavish theatrical interiors.  If you want to get a flavour of these visit some of the music halls of the first decades of the twentieth century, such as Buxton Opera House, originally built as a music hall, but now raised in status to an opera house.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Salford Cathedral - using your loaf and not relying on plans

I was recently appointed to write a Statement of Significance for the Cathedral House, which is part of the Roman Catholic Salford Cathedral. This is one of those cases which demonstrates that in the absence of documentary information and original plans, you have to be a bit of a building detective and (yes I admit it) a bit of a nerd, drawing on previous experiences of similar building types and wider knowledge of architecture (in this case nineteeth century architects) in order to draw out the relative significance. I am afraid there is simply no substitute for really detailed inspection and experience. It won't do just to say that a building is Grade II* and ipso facto it has to be very special and that is its significance. Some things may not be what they seem.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Liverpool - World Heritage Site in danger

Yesterday UNESCO put Liverpool Maritime Mercantile World Heritage Site on the "in danger" list.  I have been reading the debate on various blogs and am pleased to see that it is not being reported any more as either "jobs" or "heritage", black or white. My uncle, who lives on the south side of the Mersey, is now fully engaged with the debate. Some good may come of this yet........

Thursday 21 June 2012

Tea and Tobacco in Liverpool

Liverpool - the City was unusual in having dual-purpose offices and warehouses. Once the main offices of Tetley and Company Tea Merchants, it also served as the offices of a tobacco importer and later a sugar refining company.
This week planning permission was granted for the change of use of a grade II listed former tea and tobacco office & warehouse within the heart of Liverpool's World Heritage Site to a boutique hotel. I was really pleased to be working with a new architect (new to me that is) for this project and produced a Heritage Impact Assessment for the architect along with a detailed Supporting Statement. Can't wait for the opening. One of the benefits of this change of use will be that more people will be able to see the amazing interior decorative plasterwork, with its scenes of tobacco harvesting, tea importing and orange harvesting. 

Friday 18 May 2012

The Students Guild, Liverpool - plaster repair

This week I'm writing specifications for the repair of Sir Charles Reilly's Students Guild in Liverpool with help from Ornate Interiors, who have pointed out the problems with the friability of some early twentieth century fibrous plasterwork. I'll be specifying "Crystacal R" hard plaster for localised repairs in places subject to greatest wear and tear.  The building contains a fascinating mixture of moulded fibrous plaster, hard lime plaster run in-situ and wet lime plaster applied to laths for formwork to create domes and barrel vaults. The building dates from 1909-13 and was at the turning point between old and new methods of ornamental plaster fabrication.

Cast ferro-concrete was used to create some of the most elegant and visually lightweight staircases I have seen - oval and circular.  So beautiful, you can't fail to be amazed by them.

ICON Conference

Recent conference held by ICON Historic Interiors in Cambridge provided the most wonderful tour of interiors of colleges and university buildings dating from the 18th century.  A special treat to see inside the Senate House - very inspiring. Speakers covered subjects such as the restoration of John Linnell sofas, the use of Chinoiserie in 18th century interiors (which I thought was particularly fascinating), the restoration of Kew Palace kitchens (a subject close to my heart, since I was inolved early on with the restoration of Robert Smythson's Wollaton Hall kitchens) . Also managed to see the Corpus Clock, for which my colleague Tyra Till was the design consultant & project manager - it is a beast of a clock!

Friday 30 March 2012

VAT on Listed Building alterations

The Chancellor George Osbourne last week introduced the proposal to scrap the zero-rating of VAT on listed building (consent) alterations.

I often used to advise people (in my local authority days) to apply for listed building consent for complete re-roofing, one of the advantages being that they could apply to the VAT office for zero-rating for this work. I am sure I was not the only one to do this and I don't know how successful they were in getting the work zero-rated, because the change was suppoosed to be self evident, but it worked for a while. We know that the system is crazy. This has been going on for decades and I have been dealing with it since 1987. Let's forget the moaning and debate and get an e-petition up and running, a well written one, to prevent this happening and not to undermine all our lobbying over the last 30 years. The petition I signed yesterday was not very professional.

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area (3)

A good outcome of the NPPF is that it does remove the ambiguity over this issue (see previous posts). It places the emphasis fully on the process of assessment of significance and this will then lead the decision makers and professionals to follow one or other assessment - whether it generates "substantial harm" or "less than substantial harm", based on its significance.

Another interesting question that will need to be explored in case law is what is "public benefit". This is not as straightforward as it might seem as it doesn't necessarily mean public use. Housing does not generate a public use but the consequences of development of a derelict or brownfield site, a gapsite or a building which has been torched or which has many environmental health problems could have significant public benefit of different degrees.

National Planning Policy Framework & pickling veg

I have never been one for waffle, although I could be fairly accused of information overload at times. The new NPPF released on Wednesday (27th March) seems to be a concise summary of all the issues that were considered in PPS5 and I quite like it. Only time will tell if it works well and removes most areas of ambiguity. The English Heritage companion guidance to PPS5 , the Practice Guide of 2010, is still valid and relevant, we are told by DCLG, but it will need amending quickly to ensure it carries weight in planning decisions. Dave Chetwyn on the Linkedin Group forum has also identified that it needs to respond to the Localism Act.

The main challenges it seems to me are now;

1. Defining in case law what is a heritage asset (an undesignated one). I have just seen an appeal notification (APP/A3010/A/11/2164722) where an inspector has just this week refused permission to demolish an unlisted building, which is not in a conservation area and not on the Local List but is recorded on the HER. His phrase was "its roadside position and general appearance....generate a sense of history and tradition". He therefore decided that combined with the fact that it was on the HER it was a heritage asset. This building is late 18th century in origin but is much altered.

2. Deciding who determines significance. This year's IHBC conference is about just this issue. If we rely on local groups to identify significant buildings without any process of vetting or established criteria, there is a danger that the whole process of identifying heritage assets could be undermined by over-zealous protection of everything old. In the same way, there are some conservation areas which are decidedly dodgy designations.  NPPF reinforces the need to consider designations of conservation areas carefully.

If local authorities rely on the "local view" and public opinion then significance could become exaggerated. Does it matter? Well, some would say what matters is what local's want. But then, we have created a national system of designating heritage assets over a hundred years with a thorough process of assessment. So that must be right too, mustn't it? 

I dread a backlash against over-zealous protection of any part of our heritage. We are in danger of all being labelled as people who "pickle in aspic" and I for one only want to be associated with pickling veg.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area (2)

Update on the building in London - at a meeting today I invited colleagues who are mainly conservation officers to comment on the demolition issue. It generated some good debate but no strong view in one direction. English Heritage colleagues were keen to stress the importance of the "cherished and valued local scene" as an important element of the conservation area and there clearly is a value to be placed on that.

Several people suggested that they had similar cases where they had restored buildings like my case in conservation areas, using grant money. Of course, where this is available it is a great tool but how many conservation areas have access to public subsidy in this form? Very few.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Pentelic marble, the Acropolis and Charles Reilly

I have just had a fascinating discussion with Paul Croft about a Charles Reilly building we are working on in Liverpool. He believes that Reilly may have been trying to re-create an interior with the character of Greek temples, by painting the plasterwork to imitate Pentelic marble. This would have been in 1910-13, just after N. Balanos carried out his restoration of the Erechtheion (1902-09), so is extremely plausible. I have not yet found any evidence of any visits that Reilly made to Athens, but he was well travelled in Europe. We will just have to see the outcome of architectural paint analysis and trial panels to see the original finishes. Interestingly, it may have been a very deliberate choice to contrast with St. Georges Hall, in all its polychromatic glory, which Reilly admired.

I had not come across the name Pentelic marble and my last visit to the Acropolis was in about 1982, when it was very hot and the monuments were inaccessible. I have now looked at the website www.ysma.gr/en and what a fascinating site that is, telling us in great detail about the recent restoration of the Acropolis. They say that they are matching the original Pentelic marble but the colour is so different in the photographs (the original marble a kind of pale creamy pink and the recently quarried stone a pale creamy white), that I wonder what has caused the change in colour?  How long will it take for the new stone to weather and to blend more uniformly with the old, or is it better that the old and new have a strong visual distinction, given the complex history of the various restoration schemes? Is the difference iron oxide staining from the iron used in the original construction or is it the effects of centuries of pollution? Or is the source a different seam from the quarry on Mount Pentelikos? The "ysma" site states that the effects of "microbial colonies, consisted of bacteria, algae, fungi and lichens" have altered the colour of the surface of the monuments, but no more.

Until I started looking at the links I wasn't aware that the Elgin Marbles had been cleaned a number of times, whilst in the British Museum, in an attempt to return their white colour, most recently in the 1930s. This was based on a misunderstanding that their original colour was white. Now that's another story!.............The British Museum accepts this was "a mistake" and deals with this in a paper on their website by Ian Jenkins.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Oddfellows Hall

This week I am surveying and recording an Oddfellows Hall in Lancashire. I know very little about the Oddfellows and this has been a fast learning curve. It's not a building type covered by the English Heritage listing selection guides, although Masonic lodges are covered. Although they were established for philanthropic reasons, to protect the interests of a community of individuals, they shared many characteristics with gentleman's clubs, albeit in a mainly working class environment, and in most cases women were excluded. They also seem to have been born out of roots in the trade guilds in parallel with the freemasons and many kept the regalia and ceremony and retained the names of "lodge" and "grand master", so it is easy to see why they might be treated with suspicion. But my observations are that they had a benign influence and were instrumental in protecting workers interests before the creation of the welfare state. The Oddfellows are listed as one of the UK Friendly Societies.

The interiors of these buildings are known to members of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (Manchester Unity) but not to the rest of us. Although I have now recorded the remains of this interior in Lancashire it will be interesting to see if I can unearth any examples of other interiors to see how they compare.

Demolition of Historic Building in Conservation Area

Recently visited a site in a London Conservation Area where there is local pressure to keep one of the older buildings, which was built as a pub in the nineteenth century. But how far should you go in keeping old buildings, just for their own sake?

It is an interesting case as the building has undergone a large number of alterations over its life. It has evolved to take in light industrial uses on the site and merged with the original building. Not only has it lost its original pitched roof structure and tiles, but also its chimneys and details such as cornice and pediment. It is now merely a shadow of its former self, and very plain, but I'm sure the local interest groups and some neighbours will not see it that way. The building has had its day, and served its purpose but it is now vacant, redundant, in very poor condition and without life or real architectural merit. Why not build something positive in its place, keeping the form and footprint, to preserve the character of the conservation area? The pragmatic approach is to weigh up its significance and then balance the loss with the public benefits. I am sure that there will be very different opinion, even within my own profession, about this sort of issue and each case has to be judged on its own merits but there is a new factor to be brought into the debate and that is the local view and values that local people place on these sorts of buildings - the opinion of local amenity or special interest groups is now given much greater credence under Planning Policy Statement 5. Views seem to have polarised over the years I have worked in this profession but I find there is always a common sense balance to be struck. Watch this space to see how this progresses.

Friday 27 January 2012

Hemp Lime Plaster - use with Rubble Sandstone

Hemp lime plaster (above) with damp patches (September 2011)
Hemp lime plaster being applied (April 2011)

I am monitoring progress on our new hemp lime plaster walls in the "extension" this week. The old walls had been mistreated and sealed with almost neat cement render in places. They were re-plastered by Andy Lawson of Limecraft in the Spring of 2011 dubbing out with hemp & lime supplied by Womersley's and then plastering in several coats up to 50mm thick. The basecoat was finished with Special Fine Finish lime plaster supplied by Rose of Jericho.

In hindsight it would have been better to use an intermediate coat with a finer grade of hemp or haired lime, as the walls are very uneven, but it certainly has "character". The walls have taken a long time to dry out compared with haired plaster (over 9 months) and this has been variable even though the substrate was prepared in the same way. Some damp patches were evident about a metre above the floor level, unrelated to rising damp. The central heating has now drawn the damp through the wall internally with resulting patches of efflorescence on the surface of the painted plaster.

This week, following Nichola Ashurst's recommended treatment for efflorescence when damp walls are drying out, I have dry vaccumed the patches of efflorescence and have re-painted the walls with casein distemper supplied by Rose of Jericho. At the moment it looks fine and the visible damp has gone. It's going to be interesting to see if we get the damp returning when the heating goes off in the spring, especially if there is a temperature inversion and the building "sweats". Lime is so forgiving - I love it. The spare tub of lime finishing plaster can be used indefinitely for patch repairs when the children whack the walls!

Georgian Mansion in Chester

Recently carried out research for a listed building in Chester. It was one of those rare lucky strikes where there was a huge amount of material scattered all over the country, in London, Bolton, Swindon and Chester. Visited Bolton Archives where there were over 50 drawings - a gold mine, with survey drawings of the building from the 1920s, proving that it was hugely altered at that time.

This demonstrates the value of thorough informed research and the usefulness of the National Archives database, which provided information about this source.

This now throws a questionmark over the authenticity of the Georgian interiors. Architectural paint analysis may be the only answer.

The Pevsner volume on Cheshire also incorrectly attributes the work carried out in the 1920s as by Sir Charles Reilly but although he may have influenced the arcaded hallway and the plasterwork in the Dining Room, most of the alterations were by a little known provincial architect from Bolton called, Richard Hermon Crook.