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16 Sep 2021

A day in the life of a ... Building Surveyor

Written by Tara Crooke RIAS RIBA
A lady stands on a narrow parapet on top of Falkland Palace, holding an omega-shaped National Trust for Scotland sign. The rooftops of the village of Falkland and the Lomond hills can be seen behind/below her.
Tara on the parapet at Falkland Palace
In this series, we join colleagues from across the Trust for a behind-the-scenes glance at the important role they play in caring for our special places. Here we meet Tara, who is part of the Buildings Team and works to conserve and maintain the built heritage in the Trust’s care.

Hi, I’m Tara, a Chartered Architect specialising in building conservation. I hold the position of Building Surveyor for our Edinburgh and East region. This area contains a huge variety of building types: from Georgian houses and a royal palace to a ruined abbey and a mid-20th-century monument.

My role is to help look after the built heritage at these diverse sites so that future generations can continue to enjoy them. I’m part of a team called Consultancy Services at the Trust. Alongside other heritage specialists, including curators, conservators and archaeologists, we provide in-house advice to the property management teams regarding conservation and any new-build projects that are planned.

I have always loved working with historic buildings, and the history of architecture was by far my favourite subject at university. Working for the Trust allows me to be amongst some of the most beautiful architecture in Scotland.

A major part of my job is to regularly inspect the fabric of our buildings, looking for signs of deterioration and areas where sensitive conservation may be required. Decorative stonework and high-level masonry are often on my list as they’re increasingly affected by pollution and severe weather events.

The South Range at Falkland Palace was recently identified as requiring some conservation to the stone statuary and decorative waterspouts on the south elevation. This elevation is designed in the Ecclesiastical Gothic style, as appropriate for the façade of a chapel, and was part of the remodelling of the palace carried out by James V between 1537 and 1541. Along the façade there are several niches to the stone buttresses, which act as aedicule – small shrines containing stone-carved ecclesiastical figures. Unfortunately, over the centuries most of these figures have been lost. However, a few remain, and I am currently running a project to bring them down to be conserved in a specialist stone conservation studio, before returning them to their home in the niches. This project involves externally appointed experts, including a conservation accredited surveyor, specialist access contractors and a stone conservator.

At the same time, we’ll look to conserve in situ the decorative waterspouts, which throw the rainwater that collects in the large parapet gutter above. We’ll also examine and record the niches whilst the statues are away, a rare opportunity to inspect this otherwise inaccessible area of built history. Our in-house archaeology team plan to 3D scan the statues whilst they’re in the stone conservation studio. They have also carried out a drone survey, which has helped us look up close at some of the inaccessible areas. All of this work adds to our research and helps us to piece together a greater knowledge of our buildings and their history.

Dealing with large complex buildings means gaining a head for heights. If it’s not looking at high-level stonework, then it’s checking on roofs! This often involves scaffolding, cherry pickers or walking around accessible parapets. Keeping our roofs in good working order has always been a priority but it has become increasingly important now that we’re seeing the effects of climate change.

During my time at the Trust, I have dealt with numerous difficulties arising from extreme weather events. Although our properties were designed to withstand the Scottish weather, the frequent heavy downpours, often combined with strong winds, are having an impact on our built heritage. Water ingress and damp can have both short-term and long-term consequences, from initial flooding to increases in rot and pest infestations. So not only do we try and keep our roofs watertight, but we’re also increasingly looking at sensitive ways to improve the environmental performance of our buildings.

We recently carried out repairs to the clay pantile roof at Preston Mill, replacing the previously used cement-based torching and mortar with a more traditional, environmentally friendly lime-based mix. Whilst the work was being carried out, it gave me the chance to base myself at the mill for two days, providing a great opportunity to get to know the building better.

Although most of my time is spent on conserving older buildings, I occasionally get involved in something more contemporary. I’ve recently designed a small, green oak framed, meadow-roofed garden entrance for the walled garden at Crathes Castle. I’m keen to promote the use of sustainable materials in any new interventions we add to our properties and I’m looking forward to this small project starting on site in the autumn.

No two days are the same at the Trust and that’s why I love my job: there is always something interesting to learn or a new problem to solve. Recently, I was asked to stop by Culross Palace as there is an ongoing issue with two of the chimneys. It turns out that the local jackdaws enjoy posting sticks down the chimney stacks, which then form a pile within the fireplaces of the Palace. A simple solution would be just to cap the chimney heads, but with the Palace being a Scheduled Monument and a Category A Listed building it’s not so easy. Consents are required for a sensitive design that will need to be almost invisible whilst allowing the chimney to remain ventilated ... and stop the jackdaws having fun.

As for the future, there are some exciting plans for several of our properties in the Edinburgh and East region, so I’m looking forward to getting involved in those and continuing to care for our wonderful, internationally important architecture.

I love this place

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