Why we should not endorse proprietary products
Jack Warshaw suggests that we should continue to promote natural renewable resources in our buildings as well as in our daily lives.
When 1 was a kid, adverts for toothpaste had a man in a white lab coat appearing to assure his audience that every dentist this side of the Himalayas recommended the product he was holding. Later, the adverts seemed to move on to little cartoon characters with large toothbrushes scrubbing away at immense teeth, or tiny bubbles somehow neutralising nasty old plaque. Now of course advertising is more sophisticated - somehow there's always a generous amount of silicone cleavage in the picture, cut off (in the UK) just above the nipple, not only selling toothpaste, but everything. Famous actresses and models lend sex appeal to articles from hair colour to carbuncle remover. Now apply this to the conservation world?

Old style advert..
"92.5% of conservationists say that Creep-O-Plast will outperform lime putty by 4 to 1"
or worse:
"Creep-O-Plast is certified by the IHBC!"

New style advert..
(Cue torrid topless love scene and sexy voice over) "Come on, handsome, be the first to really impress your client with NEW CreepO-Plast's magic ingredient - REAL pubic hair from professionally inspected IHBC sustainable sources!"

Now, we all know that the celebrities who appear in these adverts are paid to flaunt themselves, and we treat the voice over claims accordingly. But, in theory at least, we shelter in the umbrella of exhaustive tests (on animals and the like) of all cosmetics and medicines before they are licensed and, so long as we follow the directions on the bottle we can't go too far wrong.

Why should building products be treated any differently you ask? Well, consider the chap who specified the arsenic impregnated wallpaper for Napoleon's exile quarters on St Helena, which, released by the dampness of the walls, is supposed to have killed him. In
today's litigious climate the specifier would be struck off, financially ruined and jailed as the party responsible for the performance of the wallpaper in the particular circumstances, while the manufacturer could avoid responsibility by simply pointing out that his product wasn't intended to be used in damp conditions. Get the point?

If you recommend anything, how do you know it works, or that, with your name on it, it will not be marketed, or used very differently from the way you envisaged when you were approached by the marketing manager. Would the ad copy for the plastic repair compound you have endorsed read ". . . looks and feels like real wood/stone/iron/daub. . . use everywhere, indoors or out ... conservation without tears. . . " Would the ad have a strip at the bottom which reads 'WARNING! THIS PRODUCT MAY DAMAGE YOUR BUILDING'S HEALTH?" What if someone actually used the product and it failed, or someone died from it?

My training included two important rules which, 1 suggest, we vary at considerable risk to the buildings we look after:

  1. Traditional materials and techniques are those which have been around a long time, with proven benefits, limitations, appearance and behaviour;
  2. Keeping faith with the building's materials means that repair should be like for like. Only if the original material or technique caused a problem should an alternative, preferably proven solution be considered.

To these I would add that traditional materials are made from naturally occurring elements, not harmful where used with care and if properly managed are sustainable and can be replicated when necessary.

Any added value lies primarily in the working of the material: the conversion of wood, moulding of metal, carving of stone. They are generic, tend to be associated with particular localities, and therefore contribute to local distinctiveness. Nature and tradition don't advertise. They cannot be owned, patented, branded or monopolised. They offer choice, variability, value and beauty.

If we buy a brick, board or tub of lime tomorrow, we have a reasonable expectation that one of our great-greatgrandchildren will be able to get another one just like it a hundred years from now. Can we expect the same for McDonut's emulsified inverted polyvinylethyl chocolate chlorate cladding on a sesame seed bun with ketchup?

The IHBC Technical Committee has declined to endorse any proprietary product. Come to think of it, 1 don't know any professional institute which does. if members have experiences of particular products, services or patented techniques which they wish to share, that is to be encouraged; commercial testimonials are not. Otherwise, how long would it be before "study trips" to exotic historic places were being offered by companies to the Chairman or Editor of Context (not me - Ed.).

Remember the advert in which the Stuttgart Statsgalerie is used to sell Rover cars? Did you think of 'Big' Jim Stirling driving one? Now they can't give them away. Not that they're bad, just that they're past their sell-by date. 1 for one can't wait to see the deluge of Dome associations, not to mention Dome Clones popping up everywhere, but that's another topic. I'd be willing to bet though that the one-cell stone, plaster and timber church where 1 was married, put up around the first millennium, will still be standing long after the Dome is doomed.

Let's leave the selling to the salesmen, tests to the BSI, BBA or BRE, treat all new proprietary products with the caution they require and continue to promote natural, renewable resources in our buildings as well as in our daily lives.

Jack Warshaw is in private practice and serves on the IHBC Tecbnical Panel
Context 63 September 1999