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Protecting our heritage structures

Saturated walls from leaking rain water gutter.

Many of our churches are in need of restoration (CN, March 10). Catholic News approached architect Rudylynn De Four Roberts, a member of Citizens for Conservation, for her thoughts.

Our old buildings are the visual representation of our history. They are history we can feel, touch and experience completely. They teach us about the crafts and skills of our ancestors, and about the development, structure, and functioning of human society.

By studying our heritage structures, we also learn about the innovations in science and construction technology over the years. We can judge the age of a structure from the construction detailing used. The way brick and stone are treated, types of saw marks on wood and stone and various types of joinery details, all tell a story.

Working out the story layer by layer is part of the magic of restoration. We learn how our ancestors lived and worked by simply studying the building construction, plans, layouts, and relationships of spaces.

The restoration process teaches us respect for the craftsmen of past eras. Our old churches tell of the self-sacrifice of villagers, who gave of their time, burning lime on site to make mortar and carrying river sand and stones, bucket by bucket from the local river, either by hand or using donkeys …no excavators here!

When we see what they accomplished with simple tools, we can only be humbled. These craftsmen of old deserve our respect.

But how do we care for these gifts from our ancestor’s past? Our own people built them with their labour, talent and love. Unfortunately, we have not always treated our historic structures with care and we now find many of our older churches are suffering badly and in need of restoration.

Routine maintenance is one of the most important factors in protecting your church. Without regular maintenance defects can occur that prove to be both costly and disruptive, and the historic features and fabric that give the building its special character can also be lost.

It is important to do research so that incorrect maintenance solutions do not cause more damage in the long run. This is particularly so for the St Joseph RC Church.

Some years ago, the church’s exterior walls were cleaned using an abrasive method. An abrasively cleaned historic structure may be physically as well as aesthetically damaged.

Abrasive methods ‘clean’ by eroding dirt or paint, but at the same time they also tend to erode the surface of the building material. In this way, abrasive cleaning is destructive and causes irreversible harm to the historic building fabric.

If the fabric is brick, abrasive methods remove the hard, outer protective surface, and therefore make the brick more susceptible to rapid weathering and deterioration. Thus, the bricks on the exterior of the St Joseph Church are melting. This was made worse by inappropriate repairs with Portland cement.

A planned approach to maintenance is important:

  • Regular upkeep enhances a building’s appearance, adds value and contributes to a sense of pride and place within a community
  • Regular maintenance and inspection, especially for roofs and rain water goods, allow for the early detection of serious problems, such as damp walls, and wet or dry rot, which in turn encourages termites and vegetation to grow on the building
  • Maintenance and minor works can be budgeted for in advance, costing less than a series of larger, unexpected payments for more significant repairs
  • Money can be saved through repairs rather than replacement of features
  • Adopting a researched planned approach gives you more time to select the best trades-person and correct materials for the building. Using Portland cement to repair lime mortar walls traps water in the walls and encourages the paint to peel (especially if we use latex paint or finishes that seal the lime mortar walls)

Historic preservation provides a link to the roots of the community and its people. Allowing these buildings to fall into disrepair is, ultimately, to disregard all of that history and the lessons we can learn from it.