The sorcerer apprentices

When David Gladstone needed to remove the badly cracked stone finials from the roof of his early Georgian home, Wotton House in Buckinghamshire, he invited a number of tradespeople to give him a quote.

“I had quite a few people up on the roof, sucking their teeth and telling me what a difficult job it was,” the retired diplomat says, “and then I heard nothing from them.” With the professional builders failing him, it was left to his ingenious estate manager – who designed individual metal frames so that each stone could be removed by crane – to save the day.

Gladstone’s experience highlights a growing problem facing the millions of Britons who own so-called heritage homes: the dearth of craftspeople possessing the traditional, often ancient, skills required to care for their properties. It is a problem of which both the heritage and building industries are acutely aware.

Paul Simons, director of McCurdy & Co, the company behind the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, says the scrapping of traditional apprentice schemes in the 1980s means that when a lot of today’s tradespeople retire, their much-needed skills will go with them.

“There has been a shift towards academic qualifications, and crafts skills have become devalued. Eastern Europe still places value on crafts because their building industry isn’t as modernised.”

John Edwards, of English Heritage’s conservation architecture team, says it is not just historic properties legally protected for preservation that require special skills but also properties built before 1919. “Many listed buildings have decorative elements but take these away and you’re left with a shell of a Victorian or Georgian terraced house. These buildings are different to modern buildings and need to be understood properly, not just in the heritage sense but also technically. Most builders come to properties with a new-build perspective.”

One common problem is lime mortar, which forms the building blocks of pre-1919 housing. “If you point an old house using cement and water, the result is a deterioration of brickwork and the walls will let the water in,” says Edwards. “Not only will the pointing have been a waste of money, it will likely cause further damage to the house.”

Carpenters working on old buildings must understand how different woods are affected by different conditions over periods of time. A roof slater and tiler need to know how to make best use of an original roof covering and be able to use traditional methods for fixing both original and replacement tiles or slates.

According to “Traditional Building Craft Skills”, a 2008 study backed by ConstructionSkills, an industry-financed skills council, and English Heritage, the future of pre-1919 buildings in England, of which there are 5m, could be at risk as most of the workforce undertaking repair work does not possess all the skills required to do the job properly.

The report found that “over two-thirds of the work, of which 67 per cent is for private home-owners, is being carried out by those without the right skills and materials. This is detrimental to the buildings and stores up future problems and unnecessary extra cost to rectify.” It discovered that of the 500,000 professionals working in the UK, only 507 are building conservation-accredited. This equates to one accredited surveyor for every 85,000 traditional buildings, and only one engineer with relevant conservation experience for every 276,000 pre-1919 structures.

This severe shortage in knowhow is the reason the National Trust has created a new apprenticeship scheme. The three-year programme, which started in September 2010, is aimed largely at 16- to 19-year-olds, and will train young men and women in traditional skills including stone masonry, carpentry, joinery, lead work, plumbing, painting and decorating. It offers 16 positions at National Trust properties, where apprentices will train alongside staff due to retire within that time. The aim is to provide continuity of valued skills by enabling those who are retiring to teach and mentor the next generation.

Rory Cullen, head of building at the National Trust, notes: “The severe shortage of people with heritage building skills has made it extremely difficult for the Trust to recruit appropriate staff, and this situation is common to the industry as a whole. We have responsibility for the upkeep of more listed and historic structures than anyone else, so we are in a prime position to generate awareness of the issue and take action to address it.”

The apprenticeship scheme is not the only one seeking to plug the traditional building skills gap. Other qualifications range from the NVQ3 (a work-based diploma designed to be broadly equivalent to two A-levels) to a full degree, and are aimed at young people, career-changers and those who want to up-skill.

Dominic Benoist, head of construction at Symm, the Oxford-based group which specialises in restoration, highlights his own company’s apprentice scheme: “We have 230 direct employee tradesmen, 20 of whom are at apprentice level. They do five years and work with skilled tradesmen, experiencing different crafts – it’s good for a carpenter to know how plumbing works when they fit a kitchen.” He says Symm has been savvy at finding funds: “A lot of people don’t realise there’s money available for training.”

Molly Briton, who has recently qualified as a stonemason from the Building Crafts College in east London, describes her job as “awesome”. The 25-year-old fine art graduate previously worked in the British Museum as a gallery assistant. “I realised the competition at the museum was fierce and I would be up against people with PhDs and MAs. I’m dyslexic so I didn’t want to go back to college to do an academic qualification. I had a passion for conservation and started to look at other courses and found stonemasonry.”

She doesn’t have any regrets about the £6,000 fees. “Everyone on my course is employed now. You can combine practical skills with art and you get to use your brain – you need to be able to use geometry and be accurate.”

Stephen Letch, chairman of the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association, has been a thatcher for 35 years. “If you cut my arms off all you’d see is straw,” he says. But he, too, laments the fact that some skills are dying out. It means that the appearance of English villages is changing: “In the last 100 years the number of thatched properties has gone from 900,000 to 60,000.”

He says it’s not just a question of keeping traditions. Many of the old methods are in tune with modern environmental concerns. “Thatching is very energy-efficient. In Holland there are about 3,000 thatchers, compared with 800 in Britain, and many of the Dutch thatchers are working on new properties.”

Not surprisingly, given the amount of thatch used in the construction of the Globe theatre, Simons agrees. “Old crafts skills can be adapted for modern buildings. We can build using straw bales and earth. It’s not just about old-fashioned architecture.”

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