the race against the olympic torch

When Dædalus Conservation was awarded the contract of undertaking structural repairs and re-roofing works on an iconic historic building in a Surrey town, the Guildhall in Guildford, there was little to concern us when told that the works must be completed ahead of the Olympic Torch procession which will go past the building in mid July. The works, although technically demanding and requiring exemplary craft skills in the execution of scarf repairs to the large timber support posts, were something we had done many times before.

The usual checks were carried out at pre-construction stage; has listed building consent been awarded? Are all the specified materials available? Has a detailed survey of the timbers been undertaken? Has an asbestos survey been undertaken? A resounding yes to all.

When working on historic buildings you are always at risk of uncovering “surprises” some pleasant but often the type you would prefer remained undiscovered. With this project the only area that was likely to throw up such “surprises” was the valley gutters and so sufficient allowance was made within our programme to deal with the worse case scenario.

Licences were applied for and technical queries were addressed early allowing advance procurement of the air dried oak, hand made tiles, lime mortars, hemp insulation and other specialist materials. Everything was in hand.

Shortly after the award of the contract the first draft of the scaffold design was submitted for what was a tricky temporary roof and access scaffold over three roofs spanning over 50m. Being Grade1 listed and of timber frame construction there was no way of imposing any additional load onto the structure. Propping through the historic roof space into the principal rooms below by punching holes through the historic ceilings was also dismissed without second thought. We were therefore reliant on the more solid structures of the brick built modern buildings which flanked the Guildhall. To use these buildings as supports required the consent of the owners and the award of a party wall agreement and here is where the first small cracks in the plan start to appear.

To obtain a party wall award requires the appointment of a party wall surveyor and notification to the neighbouring properties at least two months ahead of works commencing. With haste the client made the necessary arrangements and we set about phasing the scaffold to minimise any impact this was going to have. However, and as seems inevitable when one relies on third parties, the matter did not get resolved without problem and so it was with only twelve weeks before the Torch’s arrival we commenced works.

With the down time used efficiently to procure all materials required and fabricate the steel supports and new handrail system for the bell tower we advanced with gusto on the roof stripping and repairs only to be stopped in our tracks once more by the discovery of what is termed as “suspect material” in the attic. With a manager trained in asbestos awareness at hand the area was immediately quarantined and samples collected and sent for analysis. The results were not good, confirmed asbestos which was a surprise to all as the property had undergone a full survey prior to works commencing. The reason why this material had not been identified during the survey can be attributed to the restrictions imposed by the building being listed. To lift boards, open up partition walls or poke behind panelling requires listed building consent and it is not reasonable to allow this level of intervention unless there is significant evidence that asbestos is likely to be found.

We are presently adapting scaffolds and making the most of the 14 day mandatory notification period to the HSE before we can get contractors in to clean the affected areas. This operation will take a further two weeks and meanwhile I am constantly reminded of the Torch’s progress on television, radio and newspaper and any raised excitement of the pending Games has been replaced by dread and anxiety.

We have re-scheduled the works and done all we can to ensure we complete and remove the scaffold so that the Torch bearer and thousands of onlookers are able to enjoy an un-obscured view of one of the town’s greatest facades. There can’t be any more “surprises” can there?

With over 20 years experience in working on all manner of historic buildings and having dealt with bats, rats, tube train vibration, anthrax, roman artifacts and human remains to name but a few of the “surprises” that have announced themselves mid way through a project I remain ever alert to the many ways an historic building can undermine even the best laid plans. Undermine, now that’s another story….
An explanatory leaflet on the Party Wall Act and details of what to do in the event of discovering suspect material can be found by following the links below.

Party Wall Act etc 1996: Explanatory Booklet

Asbestos HSE Information