This was certainly one of the most fascinating and informative talks given to the Society in recent years - even if it wasn't "local"! The speaker, Mr Brian Morton, is an engineer/architect specialising in conservation work. He and his firm have been responsible for the conservation of the Albert Memorial and the Guildhall in London and many Fast Anglian structures including Southwold and Cromer piers, and various churches and secular buildings. He is currently working on the construction of the new tower at St Edmundsbury cathedral.
All this wealth of experience seems to have confirmed his ultra-pragmatic approach to building. The essence of his talk, as it came across to me, could be summed up as respect for old materials with scepticism about some modern materials, learning by trial and error from his own and others' experiences (as medieval builders did) and opting for minimal reconstruction in conservation work. And, incidentally, these priciples usually provide cheaper solutions than many other modern proposals do.
His respect for old buildings, old materials and old craftsmen came out in little casual observations that Greek temples 2500 years old weren't load tested and so wouldn't comply with todays's building regulations, and churches 800 years old have "a habit of standing up" because they were built of compatible soft materials and if on soft ground would have moved for a dozen years and then settled! By contrast, he has been horrified at the way that 1960s concrete was poured on to re-fix church rafters on to walls. And he is very sceptical of underpinning, which he won't do on bam conversions.
The talk was profusely illustrated with slides. We saw a particularly revealing variety of slides showing work proceeding on the tower at Bury. Other engineers had recommended that the tower should be continued in concrete: Mr Morton advocated stone, which together with the bricks and mortar will have similar porosity and so greater compatibility. There was a striking example of the need to be wary of modern ways. Scientific analysis had selected the best mortar mix out of fifteen samples. However, put to the test of exposure to the weather for 2-3 months, that mortar deteriorated and an adjustment had to be made to the proportions of fine sand and chalk. I am quite happy to believe now that the specification that the tower should be good for a thousand years will be met! (It's also reassuring that Mr Morton is consultant to the Ipswich Building Preservation Trust in their current assessment of the big timber-framed building at the comer of St Nicholas Street and Silent Street.)
The slides and a short film about the Albert Memorial were equally absorbing. We learned that Gilbert Scott hadn't checked the plumbers' seals: consequently water had been trickling on to the wrought iron above Albert's head. (Much of the rest of the Memorial is made of cast iron and polished granite.) All this complicated repair work was completed one year ahead of schedule and £3m under budget - and it looks magnificent in its restored exotic materials and colours. This used to be the sort of edifice I disliked. Perhaps I should take another look!