Chairman's Report: Facing the challenges of 2013

Two major concerns face our industry through 2013; proper training to bring new people into the business and as the grey clouds of austerity continue to sweep across the country the importance of client understanding about the difference between specialist workmanship against what ordinary builders can offer.

When a building is of historic importance any work or renovation carried out must be done with sympathy, yet this is not happening among general building companies that have moved into the specialist Heritage sector looking for new business. They do not fully understand the complexities of working with natural materials or have sympathy with the original fabric. Specialist companies work with these problems on a daily basis and know how to solve them, and while we work with the elements as a way of making buildings waterproof lesser skilled builders endeavour to shut out all sources of water, which isn’t always the best way of preserving the structure.

Also, while we were cheering on Team GB as they achieved marvellous things at the 2012 Olympics, the knock on affect as far as heritage funding was concerned, is that cash was switched from specialist building projects to complete the London Stadium. Millions of pounds of potential work simply dried up over a three- year period, and this is something the industry has had to absorb.

Lead theft continues to be a worrying trend, and now insurance companies are getting very wary about paying out for repairs and replacements after church roofs have been stripped, often several times over. A story published in Cathedral Publications Ltd makes sobering reading revealing that metal theft is the fastest growing crime in the country.

Written by Jon Livesey, English Heritage’s national security adviser, it went on to reveal that one specialist insurer paid out just £20,000 against ten claims in 2003. That leapt to a staggering 945 claims in the first six months of 2010 that cost the insurer £2.1 million. Now people looking for insurance cover find a £5000 cap on direct thefts, and another 5K for damage from things like water penetration.

The industry has been investigating the use of new materials to replace lead, after initially trying things like felt and plastic, which proved to be unreliable, and again proved that people were working on problems and projects they didn’t fully understand. Stainless steel and zinc certainly works but is far from acceptable in the industry’s eyes. And while money is being sucked out of the business to cover continuing thefts and repairs the money isn’t being made available for other on-going renovation projects. In short, the industry took quite a thrashing.

On the positive side I hope that metal thefts begin to decline as new laws try to control and identify the movement of stolen metals. It took a long time coming but something had to be done to curb the on-going wave of crime. It also seems that Lottery funding for important projects is likely to come back into focus during the year with English Heritage using a two-tier tendering system. What is actually happening here is that requests for HLF funding will be considered four times a year rather than the single consideration currently happening through EH at the end of each year. The hope is that major funding projects will then be considered more sensibly spread.

Another important change that will improve our business is the introduction of the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire, which will have to be completed when tendering for work funded by government money. By completing the paperwork companies will be proving that they have the ability, understanding and experience to carry out the project to the full satisfaction of the client. From our point of view we see the move as a way of ensuring that properly trained people are carrying out specialist work.

As I said earlier, training is big challenge for the industry. We need people with new skills, ideas and enthusiasm, and this is only possible through properly funded apprentice schemes but with the industry so depressed most companies are unable to take people on for training. Interestingly I see more examples of bodies like Men of The Stones embracing the system, which in the long term, will see us through the tough times.

Over the past year the industry did a good job of treading water but even then some big companies went out of business. Some tried to diversify into the commercial building sector where they were short on expertise. They found themselves building grand country houses with all the period features that customers demanded but pricing them at standard commercial building rates when it is clear that these types of buildings can cost up to three times the cost of a normal build.

Often the heritage builder, more used to handling specialist work, found themselves at loggerheads with architects and quantity surveyors who just couldn’t understand the time frame it took to complete the work and the extra costs involved. Basically it’s the traditional building trades clashing with new commercial building practices.

Heritage money has been vastly reduced as estate managers have had to tighten their belts but we hope they will be able to release funds during the coming year for new work. The trouble with many big estates is that they have large lumps of cash committed to annual repair work before they even think about funding other projects. One large estate employs two craftsmen who spend a whole year working on wall repairs.

The big historic houses face a problem though because the essential work they put off today will have to be done tomorrow. All the people in our business are passionate about taking care of these very important historic and grand buildings, which with the right care will still be standing way past the next century.

Carl Edwards MIoR
Men of The Stones

Mel Russ