Working with the builders:
The Essex experience
Anne Holden describes an initiative aimed at improving the
specialist traditional skills of local craftsmen.
As part of its education work, the Historic Buildings and Design Section of Essex County Council has set up practical courses designed to introduce people involved in the construction industry to traditional building materials and methods. We already run craft days, consisting of lectures and a few practical demonstrations, throughout the summer, but these are designed for, and mainly attended by, conservation professionals such as architects, planners and surveyors.
Much of the work of the officers of the Section is concerned with trying to ensure the correct use and choice of building materials and techniques. We thought that this would be best addressed by providing the sort of education which is not easily available for those who will be actually doing the work.
Committee approval for funding was obtained, a disused barn at Cressing Temple was converted to a heated workshop, and old school woodworking benches were bought, together with some portable woodworking machinery. Tutors were identified from those with the requisite skills amongst the local tradesmen, most of whom were unused to teaching or public speaking. Hidden talents were revealed on this front, although the most important ability turned out to be an in-depth knowledge of the subject. It is easy for a professional to spot when the tutor has insufficient training and skills. The courses are devised and run by one person, who also handles a normal development control load for members of the section. During the courses, the tutor is backed up by this person at all times, sometimes with other members of the section who welcome the opportunity to increase their technical knowledge. Books and pamphlets on the subject are made available, and the tutors also provide hand-outs.
This year topics will include lime mortar, lime plaster, lead details, join-
ery repairs, rubbed and gauged brickwork, flint walling and wattle and daub. Subjects chosen are amongst those we have the most difficulty with on site when it comes to practical knowledge and technical ability. A day on lead details was added to last yearís list because students on the flint walling course spotted the tutorís three full-time leadworkers at his yard, and were keen to learn more.
Initially publicity was directed, via a specialised mailing list, towards building contracting companies in Essex. Contrary to expectation, a!most all those attending the courses have been self employed, and had noticed the courses through an article in the only widely-read trade publication, Professional Builder (which is free). This has implications for course fees since these students have to bear not only the price of each course, but also earning time lost and travelling expenses. Numbers so far have ranged from 12 to 18, and enquiries have come from as far away as Scotland and Cornwall. Experience, space and tutor:pupil ratio has dictated a limit on numbers for most topics of about 15.
Despite the splendid 22 x 6.5 m workshop at Cressing Temple, it has proved more interesting to work on live projects. For the last series, we used the home farm at Audley End for the conservation brickwork course, Peter Minterís Bulmer Brickworks for the rubbed and gauged arches, the Moot Hall at Maldon for joinery repairs, a Quaker meeting house for flint walling and a private house for the wattle and daub days. The latter was run for us by Jackie Wilkinson (Norwich City Council) and friends.
As far as we know, Essex County Council is one of few organisations in the country that are running this type of education programme. Future plans are to start the series again in October, running a course once a month until May, since the winter is the least busy time for the construction industry.
The overall impression of student reaction is of surprise at what is taught, great enthusiasm and a desire to learn a part of their trade not encountered before. Many are bored by the repetitive nature of their current work in the construction industry and find little interest in modern materials. It is too early to notice any improvement in the quality of work in the county, but the courses have had results in the work of the students themselves. One of them is now working at Chequers (the PMís country residence) as a direct result of attending the lime mortar course, and has prepared his own lime putty. However, it has given us, the Historic Buildings team, a better idea of where to find skilled local tradesmen, and which to include on lists sent on request to applicants and listed building owners.
Anne Holden is with the Historic Buildings &
Design Section, Essex County Council. Tel: 01245
Context 55 September 1 997