Straw, Sticks and Stones

Straw, sticks and stones are three key traditional building materials in the story of the wolf and the three pigs: a story which perhaps demonstrates the need to have the right materials to hand for building conservation projects…!

Traditional Roofing

The most recent English Heritage  Conservation bulletin is on the theme of building materials.  It contains two short articles which show the huge importance of sustainable sources of traditional building materials.

The first article ‘The Strategic Stone Study -matching stone sources to end uses‘ is by Tarnia McAlester, who explains the important links between geology, quarry sites and availability of appropriate materials for repairing historic buildings in particular landscapes.  More information about the Strategic Stone Study can also be found at the British Geological Survey website.  There has also been a good work done on such issues by Historic Scotland’s Conservation Group who have produced Technical Advice Notes and Research Papers about traditional materials.  Two reports are of particular interest and available online, including the TAN 12 Quarries of Scotland and TAN 21 Scottish Slate Quarries.

Front cover for Conservation Bulletin 69

The second article in Conservation bulletin, ‘Ensuring supplies of suitable thatching straw‘ by Stephen Letch, explains that problems with supplies of thatching straw has led to an increased use of imported water reeds as an alternative material.  This led to the formation of the National Thatching Straw Growers Association who are doing growing trials on different varieties of wheat crop to establish what conditions are required to produce the best straw for different applications and techniques.

However, the maintenance of sources of traditional building materials is not simply a historic building conservation issue, they also allow architects to incorporate these materials into new buildings in ways which can be more sympathetic to the setting of historic buildings and to the character of the broader landscape.  Indeed, the growth of traditional crops, and a greater number of varieties in our landscapes, would help with biodiversity, and is perhaps more sustainable than importing from across the world.

That’s got to make the big bad wolf happier…?


Heritage Craft Skills

Many of our heritage sites appear timeless.  Historic buildings are usually key components of the character of our streetscapes but, as they are so familiar, usually go unnoticed.  Often, we only really pay attention when they are destroyed and a gap site is presented: the missing tooth in the smile !

I always take time when I am in York to pause and watch the stone masons working at the side of the York Minster in the Stoneyard.  The high level of their skills is apparent in the finished pieces which sit inside the yard before being raised up onto the Minster.  Some of the stone components of the Minster have been standing for about 800 years: so the ravages of time inevitably begin to take its toll.  However, it is not just wind and rain which can damage stone, the Minster has also been subject to major fires in 1840 and 1984.

The work of the stonemasons is currently part of a major conservation and restoration project York Minster Revealed.  As well as the work of the stonemasons, there is also a programme of stained glass conservation being undertaken by York Glaziers Trust. Importantly, the project is allowing for an expansion in training in the skills in working stone and stained glass on historic buildings.

Without constant maintenance and conservation, to ensure that they will be there for future generations to appreciate and enjoy using them, we easily lose the heritage assets which make our towns and landscapes distinct.  But conserving our heritage is more than simply protecting the physical remains of the past, it is also the maintenance of understanding and skills required for the future.