Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Building Tectonics has dealt with many listed buildings over the years, helping clients with a range of agencies such as Planning Departments, Conservation groups and of course also the practical problems of structural integrity and water ingress. Like many practices and mature professionals working in this field, you pick up a huge knowledge base over the years to add to the academic studies that we undertook at the beginning of our careers and the odd CPD (continuing professional development) events we attend. I must just add that certain individuals that you meet along the way can also leave their mark too, and I was fortunate to meet the late Mr Cecil Hewitt on some occasions and learn about the array of timber joints found in medieval timber structures. For more information about this extraordinary self taught individual you can go to https://coggeshallmuseum.org/cecil-hewitt/. He brought to life what had been in my view a rather dry academic subject and in so doing created a link, for me anyway, about the unknown and unnamed master carpenters of centuries ago. I cannot help but run my fingers over the marks carved into the ends of large timber beams and studs and the matching symbol in the adjacent timber. These were intended to ensure that the pieces forming the timber structure were matched up correctly because the cutting, notching and hole boring was done in a workshop on the ground and sometimes off site. They are very common in medieval and timber framed buildings built before the 1700 and were intended for the team of workmen putting the building together. Even though not intended for the delight of future generations, I like to think that the carpenter who scribed this may have just thought that he was "making his mark" so to speak and proudly reaching out to future artisans saying "I did this!". Fanciful perhaps, but we have found bits of wood secreted away in floor voids with initials and sometimes names, but in my case only dating back a hundred years, and so pride in your work is quite ordinary, habitual and timeless it seems. Long may it last.
For me, the most important aspect of what I do is finding an economic use for old buildings, because regardless of how quaint they may look and the sentiment they induce regarding the past, we have to find a use for them otherwise they will become a financial and emotional burden on someone, usually the property owner. Living in an old and perhaps listed building is fine if it suits your lifestyle, but it won't suit everybody. I have had my share of clients who have wanted to knock walls out to create larger spaces and put in larger windows to let more light into the dingy interior. I have been known to advise them to move but sometimes we can accommodate their request. However, the biggest problem is when the building is not suitable to live in, say because of its location or layout, that is what happens. Well, if you cannot find a way to give it a new lease of life then it is probably doomed. Understanding the original concept of its design and structure and trying to find a way of sympathetically introducing a modern agenda can be very difficult, and a little flexibility on the part of clients, planning officers, historic building officers, planning committees and banks can go a long way to ensuring the long term economic survival of these time capsules. It can take years and often the imminent collapse before people see sense in this regard. The satisfaction felt when, despite all the odds, you can give an old building a new lease of life though, is invigorating and keeps us going. It's not for the faint hearted though.