Archive for January, 2013

Heritage & Renewal in 2013

Heritage & Renewal in 2013.

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Preservation – Looking Back to Look Forward – Workmanship of the Mason

US Treasury Department Building under construction, ca. 1867 - Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington DC

US Treasury Department Building under construction, ca. 1867 – Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington DC

I encourage the next generation of future masons to always look for opportunities to embrace mentors in our trade. And to the older masons I say make a difference in the world of a young person looking for a trade and openly share your professional experience in masonry knowledge in the preservation of important historic architecture. We each bring to the table a skill set that can, and will, make a difference – if, or course, we are given the chance and awarded the projects we seek to secure.

Many of you may not know about my background and experience in masonry preservation – so I will provide you with just a brief overview of how I ended up where I am today with the title of: “Historic Masonry Preservation Specialist”  I grew up in the masonry construction business working for my father, uncles, and grandfather in a family owned business located in Toledo, Ohio. This opportunity to be birthed into a family of working brick and stonemasons was not by choice but to keep me out of trouble in my teenage years.  And yes, it did work. There is something about carrying brick and stone, building scaffolding, mixing mortar, and cleaning out the toolbox that keeps one honest. I think I was just to tired after working all day to have the energy to get into trouble as I learned the trade of masonry construction is most demanding on the body.

As it turns out I developed a lower back injury that kept me from working in the trade actively – so I decided to go back to school and study architecture. It was in college that I began to appreciate the art of design and the process of construction as it related to historic and traditional masonry architecture. If I could no longer lift and set the stone – I could learn about how to preserve its original condition – and more importantly to do this in the means and methods of the original builders. This meant I needed to be willing to learn about traditional masonry construction tools, methods and materials. It also meant I needed to find other masons that understood these aspects of my new desire. The year was 1990 – 26 years ago. I researched my own family of origin in the masonry trade which dates back to 1870 in Posen, Prussia. So I was the 5th generation in my family to be involved in the masonry business.  The problem; however, was that the oldest living relative that would had known about traditional masonry construction methods, workmanship, and materials was my great grandfather and he died in 1951. My grandfather died in 1979; my father in 1985.

As luck would have it I secured a job at a lime manufacturing company in 1991. It was during my employment I discovered an enthusiasm for historic mortar materials, which of course are based upon lime, and have been for thousands of years.  Working with several conservators, architects, and a masonry contractor based in Toronto, Canada I began offering lime putty for use as a binder (without Portland cement) combined with sand at the jobsite. It was not long after; however, that I realized the need to train masons on the jobsite to use the Portland-free mix design and assist them in delivering the best quality possible. I traveled to England, Ireland, and Scotland over the next several years to work alongside other masons who generously mentored me in preserving historic masonry using lime mortars and traditional methods on castles. Then I brought that information back to the United States to assist in our training efforts here. That was 1998.

Lime Mortar Training Workshop at the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 1997. Image Courtesy of the NPS.

Lime Mortar Training Workshop at the U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 1997. Image Courtesy of the NPS.

We made mistakes; we learned from our mistakes, we improved our methods, tools, equipment and materials. We did not give up. Encouraged from my mentor masons in Europe and Canada – I completed one project after another across the United States monitoring the progress as I went along. Writing, speaking and communicating with industry professionals I stayed focused. I wish to gratefully thank the pioneers in the masonry preservation movement in Europe that encouraged and personnally helped me like; R.H. Bennett, MBE, Winchester, England; Dr. Gerard Lynch, London, England; Mr. Douglas Johnston, Glasgow, Scotland; Mr. Patrick McAfee, Dublin, Ireland; Ms. Pat Gibbons; Charleston Fife, Scotland; the late Mr. John Ashurst, London, England; Mr. John Fidler, York, England; Mr. Colin Burns, Manchester, England; Mr. Stafford Holmes, London, England; Mr. Tim Meek, Charleston Fife, Scotland; Mr. Michael Wingate, England; Mr. Sam Trigila, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Scottish Lime Centre; and English Heritage and the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in London, England.

Since the early 90s I have been privileged to assist in the effort to establish (or best said, re-introduce) the lost art of true traditional masonry preservation with the use of lime mortars leading the way. As we continue this effort in 2016 we will actively be searching for architects and historic building owners that seek to preserve the architectural history and character of their properties by supporting the masons by offering onsite historic masonry training that is project specific. I strongly believe that by understanding our past and acknowledging the workmanship, trade practices, techniques, and tools used by the original masons in the process of the original construction we will have a better chance at success in the authentic preservation of historic masonry.

If we go into historic masonry preservation projects expecting that masons today should know all the details that are vital to the success of a masonry preservation project – I think we are asking for too much – especially in a low-bid environment in which many design professionals must deliver their services.  Let us expect the best, write excellent specifications to support quality assurance – but we must be realistic in the understanding of what that actually means to the mason working at the site. In many cases these men and women have never worked with a straight pure lime mortar before so there is a natural learning curve that must be acknowledged. But we can not, and should not, let masonry contractors figure it out on the jobsite without proper guidence. This is why I started my company to do just that – mentor and help the masons through training. The same way I learned in Europe.

Speweik Preservation Consultants are not masonry contractors. We use our hands-on historic masonry experience to provide the necessary technical consulting services in: condition assessment, material testing, specification assistance and masonry contractor training at the project site. We strive to support the efforts of the Architects and Historic Building Owners in meeting the US Department of the Interior’s Secretary Standards for Rehabilitation in Division 4 and to protect the historic integrity of the architecture under repair consideration.

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