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 intro-
duce people involved in the construc-
tion 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 ad-
dressed by providing the sort of edu-
cation 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 wood-
working machinery. Tutors were iden-
tified from those with the requisite
skills amongst the local tradesmen,
most of whom were unused to teach-
ing 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 sec-
tion. During the courses, the tutor is
backed up by this person at all times,
sometimes with other members of the
section who welcome the opportu-
nity to increase their technical knowl-
edge. 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 brick-
work, 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 publica-
tion, 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 re-
pairs, 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 re-
action 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 repeti-
tive 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 di-
rect 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
437666.
Context 55 September 1 997