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Repairing Regency Buildings, is there a future?

The architecture of the Regency period, can it still be restored?

 

Image1. Courtesy of the Society of Brighton Print Collectors

 

Regency, Brighton, Hove and the South Coast.

 The Regency period is described by some as the years 1811 to 1820 during which George III was judged to be incapacitated and his son, the Prince of Wales, acted as Regent. It was, carried on for many years after 1820. Blossoming during these early years of the 19th century, the Regency styles gradually declined during the reign of William IV and Queen Victoria.

 

 Regency architecture can’t be defined as a single style for it embraced many different idioms – neo-classical, gothic, oriental and some vernacular. It was what we call now a “themed” design mind set, not restricted to a specific historical style or period. Today, if someone uses a few different bits of a few classical styles to create an interesting looking building is decried by the ignorant as “Disney” Yet looking at the Royal Pavilion this themed masterpiece stands the test of time.

 

The Prince and his architects

 It was the prince’s favourite architect, Nash, who brought a lot of Regency architecture to Brighton in 1813 when he transformed the prince’s pavilion into that fabulous integration of Mogul Indian, Scottish Baronial and Chinoiserie that is now the Royal Pavilion. The first highly themed building built in the UK.


 

 The first trains arrived in Brighton in 1841. It was a period of wealth for the gentry as it was a period of high Empire and England had successfully tried to make most of the world “a little bit of England. There was money to spend.

A restored GI façade in Brighton

 

 The cheerful frivolity of the Regency was soon replaced by Victorian seriousness, though Brighton has remained essentially a Regency town and a few more Regency buildings were built parallel to the Victorian, the Arts and Crafts and even some early Art Nouveau.

 

Crumbling 200-year-old buildings, what to do?

 

 The single most pressing problem now is how to repair and restore these wonderful buildings, not just in Brighton and Hove and the South Coast but in London as well.

 

 At the moment trying to find a specialist in the art of restoring these 200-year-old buildings including understanding the materials used and why they used them at the time is very hard.

 

Examples of poorly maintained/repaired Early Regency GII facades. Brighton

 

 Most of the few remaining big ornamental plastering companies have been hired to work on big budget restorations in London. The few left are not just not enough to keep the rest of these buildings in a good and reasonable state of repair.


 Below, a finished but undecorated Corinthian capitol on a recent Regency

Building restoration in Brighton.


 

Lack of the most basic maintenance caused this loss.


Courtesy JP Contracts.


One of these specialists who has worked as an IHBC Surveyor for many years is Neil England of Heritage Building Advisors. Neil spent over 30 years prior to this repairing, sculpting and making mouldings, working on prestigious projects such as the Royal Pavilion and many listed grade I and grade II properties. He advises now (we often tell him off for grabbing someone’s tools and showing not talking!) He is, what seems to look like the last generation of this ilk who is now positively helping small companies like JP Construction lending his large collection of historical moulds to cast out components such as Corinthian capitols to replace ones in Regency Brighton facade’s that were carelessly removed in the sixties and seventies. Putting back a brand-new capitol making it look like the same as it was originally built requires a level of expertise that simply put, is a dying craft.

 

 There are over a hundred thousand of these buildings all over Great Britain and perhaps under 1000 people left with the knowledge to repair them properly for future generations.

 

 The reason for this is simple. 40 to 50 years ago a young man from a lower middle class or working-class family did not go to university but instead applied for a position as an apprentice to a master tradesman. Five long hard years later he was qualified and proud of it, earning a good wage.

 

 There are no longer any structured 5-year apprenticeships in the building trades. Doing what are now essentially short modules the young person would be lucky to have even a basic understanding of his or her trade let alone an academic eye and brain behind the training wanting to expand their knowledge. 40-50 years ago, these trainees would be first hired as improvers, a sort of labourer, then if they showed some ability they would be offered an indentured apprenticeship.

 

 A good example of this training is Neil England, a highly respected master of renovation that has a wealth of knowledge based on a keen intellect that today, perhaps, would have seen him going to university instead of completing a long hard apprenticeship.

 

 The bonus of a good mind combined with years of experience puts him now, sadly, as the last of a generation of master craftsman. The only two countries I am aware of still producing high level 5-year apprentices are Poland and Japan.

 

 Now there are only basic building tradespeople being trained, ask a young plasterer how and when he should he use a lime render, you will get a glazed look, this means as summers get hotter and winters get colder (an Ice age is coming, Royal Geographic Society) the inevitable failure of facades and components attached to old buildings will accelerate exponentially.

 

 Will these wonderful buildings lose all the depth and grandeur they have as these bits simply fall off?

 

 The thought of seeing a Regency building be turned into Russian look alike building boxes with no decoration affixed as it becomes delaminated is shocking but it could happen a lot sooner than expected.

The complexity of a restoration

 

Are their alternative solutions?


The Possible and Probable Future of Restoration of Old Neo-classical buildings.

 

 There are, as I typed this, there are available laser scanners that can scan a large facade, pediments and any capitols attached, to a detail of. 005 percent accuracy. Ok then what?



 A company has just built a 3d printer that can print a life size human and with a little bit of effort they can do this in porcelain a hard type of white clay. The possibility of using Roman cement, or the modern equivalent, is a reality.

 

 So, a Doric column needs replacing, all is required is a scan done by one human operator, a degree not needed, a 3D modelling A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) to be told to clean up any holes or missing bits in the scanned 3D model then told to send the file to the huge 3D printer. It (the A.I) can order remotely, at the same time, extra 3D printing materials (clay or Roman cement) or even a very fine lime render with a setting retardant in it.

 


Can you tell if any 3D printed components are in this photo?

 Within the same 8-hour period a copy of the to be replaced part in the damaged area is produced showing the original makers scratches and marks basically producing an accurate copy of how it looked two hundred years ago.

 

 All it needs is to find is someone to fix it in situ. The reality of robotics is, I firmly believe, that within 20 years the “installer” will probably be a robot. The repercussions of this are bigger than you realise. Health and safety will cease to be as tough as it is now, robots’ lives don’t count, yet, the robot and the container holding the buildings replacement parts would be tethered with a single cable and a safety net place under the working area to catch any falling bits. Our respected and now also in short supply scaffolding companies will also diminish. Shocking, isn’t it? But also, exciting?

 

 I spent thirty years hiring highly skilled sculptors and artists to build my interior bits and bobs but now an A.I designer taking verbal instruction from me could design and build (3D Print) a life size statue of Lord Nelson in under 8 hours.

 

 Asking around there are no large numbers of high-level apprentices being taught so the end of an era is definitely about to happen. If a bit of a facade crumbles and falls off who will able to repair it? The immediate and urgent solution would be to pass a law forcing owners of grade 1 listed buildings to have, at the very least, a detailed 3D exterior scan made as an addendum to the building and conservation local heritage archive.

 

 The reality now is almost everyone (Under the age of 50) has embraced computers and to a large extent Artificial Intelligence. My own daughter has a virtual AI assistant on her office computer.

 

 With universities full of students who could be learning a craft or a trade that pays well instead of getting into a huge debt, there is simply a tiny pool of people left to be taught crafts and trades.

 

 I believe, historically, people are scared of change, the urban myth of Belgium workers throwing wooden sabot (clogs) into the machines that replaced them is a good example. (sabotage’) I feel if modern technology is the only way to save our building heritage, then let’s embrace it.

 

  As I was typing that last paragraph, - someone threw a shoe at me.

 

 

Steve Potter. (Associate HBA)



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