Weekend Interview: Tom Bromet On The Joys Of Restoration
Restoration and conservation issues along with broader environmental topics are at the top of the agenda for most people but as Tom Bromet explains to Group Editor Andrew Palmer it is not a quick and easy fix.
Wentworth Woodhouse Photo: Damian Griffiths
When it comes to sustainable living it starts at home for Tom Bromet, who, as an associate at Donald Insall Associates, the architectural firm, and historic buildings consultancy, likes to practice what he preaches.
So interested is he in natural products and how we can improve design on buildings, which sustainability and conservation are aligned to, he is off to a lecture shortly after our interview has finished to learn more about hemp and its uses.
“I suppose I live in a bubble and the hemp lecture is just one of many events I attend to learn about how new materials and technologies can be used in building design. For the newest technologies there isn’t the evidence base, the sort of 10 year data to say they do work perfectly but new natural materials are generally compatible with historic building materials.”
If sustainability is one of the top issues for younger generations, how I ponder, is society understanding what the issues really are? I confess my knowledge is weak hence chatting to Tom and he agrees, because many of his friends don’t have the full knowledge to understand and it is up to firms like Donald Insall to hopefully help clear the fog.
“We have been collaborating with councils wanting design guides and leaflets for homeowners to retro fit pre 1919 buildings. It’s tricky in today’s digital society as there is a huge increase in the frequency and volume of information that goes past people’s eyes. And involving people who know what they are talking about isn’t obviously accessible to everyone unless on a large enough project. And it is difficult to upscale because every building has a distinct set of circumstances and materials. Unfortunately, there isn’t a silver bullet”.
York City Walls - Donald Insall Associates
Tom has recently moved back up to the North from London and has started working on his own house where he has used conservation materials such as lime, timber, stone, stone tile roofs. For Tom it is about using products we have been using for centuries in a more innovative way which are natural and breathable materials. We have a new set of values to consider around themes like thermal conductivity and breathability using improved products such as insulated lime plaster on the walls or insulated lime floor slab rather than concrete and timber fibre board insulation on the roof.
As Tom explains: “It’s important that all those materials are breathable and insulative so water vapour can pass through them. They also have a minimal carbon footprint as materials, unlike the ubiquitous petrochemical-based insulation boards or using concrete as the floor slab for example.”
It’s fine and I take the point about councils needing to take the lead, but I consider that like me, and his friends, we are not educated as well as we could be as a society to research and look for these varied materials and understanding what we should be doing, which leads me on to the thorny issue of retrofit.
“I would say that retrofit as a topic is actually remarkably high-risk. I have realised that in my own project. You can’t just put insulation into a roof thinking it will help because it could make your building a lot worse unless done correctly. We must be careful as a society to do retrofits properly looking at the whole building holistically. There are lots of guides out there and it is as frustrating as it is complex; it would be good if ‘green dealesque’ initiatives could just be rolled out but unfortunately the building, its physics and chemistry have to be considered. We have seen so many examples where things have gone wrong and resulted in more mould and more unhealthy and less efficient buildings.
Raby Castle - Donald Insall Associates
“If a building is retrofitted but does not have adequate ventilation or can’t breathe this will lead to water build up and mould growth effecting the occupants health. If water ingress is not addressed before retrofit and the walls are left saturated, because water is more conductive, then the walls will be less energy efficient. Both instances could mean seeing the lifecycle and energy costs of the building go up rather than down after a retrofit. Potentially could make the whole situation worse unless retrofit is done properly.”
That is all fascinating and I have led Tom into a digression. I want to find out why he has moved back up north and some of the projects he is working on. Interestingly he tells me that he is “enjoying being back in Yorkshire as it is nice to work on projects that are pre fire of London. Working in the capital meant that projects dated after the fire of London. It’s so nice to be working on medieval things. There is so much history here.”
He can get his teeth in to the conservation and regeneration projects and collaborating with communities bringing them together and there are, as he tells me, interesting schemes to get his teeth into as part of a multidisciplinary team on Grade I and Grade II listed institution projects, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
He tells me he has taken a particular interest in cultural continuity through adaptive reuse of existing buildings as well as new-build interventions.
Wentworth Woodhouse Photo: Damian Griffiths
“We have some interesting larger projects such as Wentworth Woodhouse, Raby Castle in County Durham and the York City walls.”
I’ve been to the impressive Wentworth Woodhouse a Grade I listed country house with 365 rooms and a 606ft long elevation in the village of Wentworth, close to Rotherham, which is owned by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust run by CEO Sarah McCloud. The Trust has appointed Donald Insall Associates to help with the roof repairs and a number of other projects.
The first project of the Trust’s overall plan is to make the conditions stable by putting a roof on and the then working on projects that will enable Sarah and her colleagues to start income generation to pay for other repairs.
“The first project was just purely roof repairs, but we also considered sustainability and added some insulation at appropriate opportunities. It was just a case of keeping the water out from a conservation point of view.”
“As I mentioned earlier Andrew, water is often your worst enemy, so it is hat and boots to keep the rain off and making sure the ground and drains are clear. Our biggest priority was getting a new roof on to stop the water coming in. Once the building is stabilised the redecorating can start, and we can look to adapting the use of the other buildings on the estate.”
Often with renovations one always finds a surprise and for Tom and his colleagues the restoration of the Camellia House at Wentworth Woodhouse proved to be fascinating.
“It is essentially an orangery with 19 of the rarest Camellias in the western world; only three have been identified, no one really knows what the rest are. They are some of the oldest camellias in the country with the earliest arriving in 1792. The proposal is for the building to be a stand-alone café in the grounds that will start the income generation to feed into the major repair works in the main house.”
...it is really important to balance the historic fabric and the conservation goals of minimal intervention and keeping it how it's always been along with the changing needs of the community or the particular owner or particular use
“The second project is the Stable Block or half of it as it is so big along with the Riding School. Both the Stables and the Riding School are Grade I listed buildings. A section of it is going to be a commercial kitchen with a café and the Riding School, which is a long rectangular building, will hopefully transform into a wedding venue and events space. In addition, there are education spaces, accommodation for events and retail and visitor offer.”
And it seems that Wentworth is not the only building with similar plans. Further north in County Durham there is an exciting project that will improve the visitor offer at Raby Castle for it to become a major attraction in the area so that the trio of Castles: Auckland, Raby and Barnard will hopefully become a pearl in the Teesdale visitor offer.
“It’s really exciting at Raby. We have been working there since 1969 doing various repair works on the Castle. Now the new Lord Barnard has set out a business plan for the estate buildings north of the main castle. He plans to convert several listed redundant estate buildings into a new visitor offer just behind the Walled Garden.
Wentworth Woodhouse Photo: Damian Griffiths
“Luciano Giubbilei, the landscape architects are working on the Walled Gardens, and we are putting in a new build visitor centre. The listed Coach House will be an exhibition space with a museum and the Riding School an event space but will take a more fluid approach with seasonal programmes.
“The Dutch barn, which is more of an outdoor space. There will also be a new Vinery Café and a children’s play park on the hill behind with suspended walkways and little wooden structures between the trees. A more intricate glass house within the walled garden is also going to be a café so there is lots going on to improve the visitor offer and each of the buildings will offer something slightly different.”
It’s clear from Tom’s enthusiasm that he is enjoying the project work not least York City Walls, which I can tell from his eyes, he is looking forward to getting involved with.
“We’ve been appointed to oversee the repairs and be the architect. There is some reactive maintenance to do, and the ambition is to improve again, the visitor offer through getting access to places that the public might not have had access to before.
“It will involve improving the interpretation of the Walls themselves generally improving the visitor offer as a whole and hopefully look at the strategies around bio-diversity how some elements are treated especially ramparts for example. It is still early doors though and ongoing. We have just written the conservation management plan that set outs the high level goals and smaller repairs that need immediate action like security.
“We are just about to start on some of the more noticeable projects for the public. I would like to get access to some of the key Bars, like Monk Bar and Bootham Bar and try and get more spaces available to the public.”
The challenge I suggest for most conservation and regeneration work is consulting with communities, bringing them together and re-educating the way we think about how we all live, work, and play, whilst at the same time taking a responsible attitude to conservation and sustainability.
“Yes Andrew, it is really important to balance the historic fabric and the conservation goals of minimal intervention and keeping it how it's always been along with the changing needs of the community or the particular owner or particular use. Our job is often to balance those and manage the change in hopefully a creative way, where you can minimise the impact on the historic fabric but also allow people to continually use these buildings, like York City Walls for example.
“The uses often change but they are obviously extremely significant structures. It's allowing the new functionality to take place which is important and for people to occupy them as well as making sure that the fabric isn't damaged as it might compromise the significance or the history of the archaeology.”
In balancing those needs and keeping the sense of heritage coupled with finding new uses for the building but ensuring the fabric and infrastructure and all significant aspects are considered must lead to debates and intransigent views of traditional vs modern.
“My key mantra is keeping it flexible. For the fresh approach you don't want to be designing too many new things.
“It's good to try and keep the original spaces open and flexible and produce temporary reversible items which aligns with a sustainability approach as well as using fewer materials. Ultimately the more you can allow a space to be flexible and take on as many potential future uses, the better."
Tom’s 3 top tips
1.Get your building into good repair. You can’t retro fit unless you stop water coming in from the roof or if there are wet walls or the ground conditions are wet from blocked drains. You need a building that is dry and in good repair before you can start, and I would add that your building will be more efficient if in good condition and dry because wet material are more thermally conductive.
2.Get the correct professional who knows what they are talking about as a building must be viewed holistically. You can’t just insulate one element because you will force condensation to other areas and so concentrating all the buildings moisture into one place causing localised decay. Think of it cooking pasta. If the walls are uninsulated, when you boil pasta that vapour given off goes to all the elements of the building and if it condenses it is spread over a large surface area. If you start insulating the roof for example, then that boiled pasta will only condense into the remaining cold walls and so you get more water there. Then if you insulate some areas of the walls but not others all that moisture will be concentrated into small areas of cold walls cause damp, mould and rot potentially.
3.It is important to get someone who knows what they are looking at and understands about using breathable materials rather than concrete or ‘petro-chemical’ materials opting for sheep wool or lime-based products.
So, it is a case of not overdoing it.
“Yes, because if the building becomes too specific then it can only be used for that use. Checkmating is not what you want at all.”
Going back to my point at the beginning of this interview, there is a big educational undertaking needed especially as different generations approach and think differently about renovation and historical context.
“Well, often a project starts with a conservation management plan setting out high level principles and, for example, with the case of the York City Walls, which went out for public consultation, community engagement and working with all the stakeholders is an imperative. On the three projects we have been discussing, all have multiple clients and stakeholders involved and all of their ambitions require managing and considering.”
“This means planned structures to get an efficient representative team in place of key stakeholders and then develop the design within that team or steering group who can then communicate out into the wider public. It’s a useful practical way in moving forward and it is important to get round the local community and let everyone know what is happening.
“Often the people that know these buildings the best are the gold dust, people who can really inform the design and unlock keys to the proposal.”
That’s refreshing to hear but one of the problems is surely getting bogged down by the stakeholders. I suggest that you can’t design by committee as everyone wants different things especially in the consultation and planning policy stages, which leads to subjective points of view. How then does Tom deal with this to make sure there are no delays?
“We will have distilled down and that is why we like steering groups because there are stakeholder representatives of individuals that sit down for monthly meetings and with whom issues can be resolved.
I asked Tom to pick to identify a good project.
"One of the best I have heard of is the School Bell project by Architecture 00/ which was to reconfigure the Notre Dame RC Girls’ Secondary School. The client asked the architects to design them an extension because the corridors where overcrowded. Rather than design an expensive and carbon intensive extension requested, the designers recommended that the school relieve congestion in the corridors by retiming the school bell system that controlled the student movement throughout the halls. This eliminated the need for an extension and only required a new bell system. A huge cost and carbon saving while meeting the brief. This project is a big inspiration.
“I would say that we always think about the importance of the narrative and justification. The conservation management plan in smaller projects would be the heritage assessment, looking in absolute detail into a building’s history then set that out in a detailed report. Finding old plans, paintings and photographs becomes the evidence for your design narrative and provides a logic within the narrative. That is the best way of collaboration and getting groups behind the proposal.
“Things fall down when you can’t justify what you are doing in the narrative and the story that everyone can understand. Best to show the steps in how you arrived at a solution and often everyone has the same goal. Then stakeholders and planners can get behind the scheme and everyone sees the logical result.”
We are coming back to where we started and perhaps there needs to be an emphasis from government about building regs as they do seem to be a long way behind where they should be, and although Tom understands that point, he does emphasise they would “not be quick and easy to update.”
“On a positive note, a vast majority of people want to do something positive and are willing to put a bit of cash up front whether for personally or professionally. There is a latent desire, whereas that desire is not being matched through government policy and an evident lack of professional skills and contractors and materials in a way to deliver on that latent design.”
Perhaps we all need to attend the lecture on hemp or similar events.