The colour – earth buildings and literature

One of the joys of picking up novels is finding buildings, and stories of their construction and maintenance. One of my childhood favourites is the opening of Wind in the Willows where Mole is Spring-cleaning and whitewashing his home on the river bank. I’ve just found another building gem in ‘the colour’ by Rose Tremain.

In ‘the colour’ a newly married English couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate to New Zealand in the mid 19th century and in establishing a new life in a new country build a new cottage of Cob. The couple try to farm harsh land near Christchurch, but the house is built on the wrong site, in the wrong place, and by the husband and local labourers – rather than by the husband and wife in partnership.

The cob building acts as a metaphor for a failing relationship in a harsh country. As the building self-destructs in extreme weather so does the relationship between Joseph and Harriet – and this provides the substance of the novel.

Whilst I love finding interesting buildings in novels this is another example of how earth buildings have been used as a symbol for failed relationships and harsh lives. This is perhaps most famously by Woody Guthrie in House of Earth (in this earlier blog post).

So what of cob houses in New Zealand? Cob is a construction material associated with the early colonial buildings in New Zealand. For example Broadgreen is an 1854 2 storey Cob Building, now listed and protected as a Historic Place it is an unusually large and rare surviving example of what was once a common material of construction


A brief search of the New Zealand Heritage Lists shows a wide range of colonial earth buildings – cob, adobe, sod, rammed earth – all legacies of a colonial era and reflecting local vernacular materials and styles executed in New Zealand, as homesteads, agricultural buildings, missionary and church buildings (amongst others). The survival of these buildings and structures is in contrast to the perception of earth as an ‘unconservable’ building material of last resort.

In the 21st century like Earth Building UK and Ireland EBUKI – New Zealand has an Earth Building Organisation and a range of earth building standards for contemporary construction. A quick google shows a range of contemporary constructions in New Zealand – all rather aspirational and in contrast to the metaphorically hopeless Cob house of ‘The Colour’.

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Conservation inside the box

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has recently launched the ‘Box the Hill House’ appeal to raise an additional £1.5 million for a total project budget of £4.5 million to provide conservation repairs for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House, Helensburgh.

A wet, modern building

On completion of Hill House in 1904, harling was applied. Harling is a characteristic of many Scottish buildings (even sometimes referred to as a ‘national’ surface finish) and refers to the application of a layer of material to the exterior building surface – this is intended to be both decorative and waterproof. These rough-textured surfaces traditionally used lime and aggregate – by using lime the surface is permeable so moisture evaporates away from the solid wall (either stone or brick work). When lime is used the harling is weaker than the solid wall and therefore acts as a sacrificial layer that can be replaced and renewed on a regular basis.

In the case of Hill House, Portland Cement was used in the harling mix rather than the more traditional lime.  At the time in the early 20th century Portland Cement was an expensive, innovative ‘wonder’ material that was celebrated for its beneficial uses and central to new thinking on the specification of building works and materials. Mackintosh’s use of new materials (Portland Cement is just one of many) is explored in this really interesting work by Ranald MacInnes.

Unfortunately for Hill House Portland Cement is impermeable, and by trapping moisture this has resulted in accelerated decay and erosion of the soft red sandstone, whilst water ingress has damaged the historic interiors. The problems associated with the inappropriate use of cement-based materials on traditional buildings are now very well known and much conservation work is concerned with their removal. 

Further reading suggests Hill House has a very long history of repair and reactive maintenance. Analysis of early photographs by the NTS suggests that when the building was completed in 1904 the harling was already becoming discolored. Hill House has subsequently been subject to numerous repairs from the 1940s onwards with the growing awareness of the severity of the problems associated with harling. Debates have ensued over the conservation philosophy to be used on the building (specifically how retention of ‘original’ fabric could be balanced with the required remedial works) as a result Hill House was subject to a number of experimental conservation programmes.

Conservation in the box

In the case of the Hill House this is a very significant historic building and a very high profile case of accelerated decay. The NTS have most recently undertaken a condition assessment at Hill House in 2012, and it is this assessment that the current scheme of conservation works is based upon. The Hill House ‘Box’ is a temporary shelter designed by London-based architects Carmody Groarke – it will provide protection from wind and rain, and create a working space for conservation specialists to undertake their work and for the public access to see conservation work in progress.

After a high-profile launch of the NTS campaign the Hill House shelter has been named as a cage, a box, and a shield for the ‘dissolving’ architectural masterpiece. But shelters have a much longer history of use in conservation. Temporary structures are used to provide a sheltered space to enable  archaeological excavation and conservation or a longer-term solution for site conservation and presentation. On archaeological sites permanent shelters can be essential conservation measures but they are controversial and can result in debate over their visual impacts on a site setting or they can change the microclimate (and therefore as an unintended consequence accelerate erosion). Of those permanent shelters on archaeological sites the most famous is the structure over the 13th century Casa Grande ruins in Arizona. The shelter here was built in 1932 and the shelter itself is also now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Increasingly, temporary sheltering and scaffolding of conservation works provides the opportunity for the public to engage with the conservation process through opening up access or through hard-hat site tours. For example the National Trust provides public access to Castle Drogo during its current 6 year conservation scheme (Castle Drogo is another ‘wet’ early 20th century building where a vast flat roof was made using asphalt as an ‘innovative’ material). Increasingly conservation projects makes use of so called ‘principled procurement’ to integrate public engagement within conservation project planning and financing from the outset. Just like Hill House’s Box – scaffolding has also been used for marketing construction schemes – making use of scaffold sheeting or netting (making an interpretative or marketing opportunity out of the Health and Safety in Construction requirements for containment of work in open or vulnerable locations).

IMG_2053.JPG Chichester Cathedral’s temporary enclosed scaffolding, Spring 201
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A culture:nature journey

As part of the 19th ICOMOS General Assembly and Scientific Symposium in Delhi I am co-covening a session with Chris Dunn on A Spectrum of Culture and Nature – From Abandoned Buildings to Wilderness” This session will explore the nexus of culture and nature by considering how ideas of wildness,  wilderness, authenticity, and decline form important counterpoints to reconstruction and restoration, from both cultural and natural heritage perspectives, as well as how culture fits into wilderness landscapes.

An example of the former is the gradual process of change on abandoned archaeological sites, which is often considered an acceptable conservation approach. Here cultural heritage ‘returns’ to the earth, and from a natural heritage perspective nature ‘reclaims’ landscapes and sites. However, this approach is contrasted by post-disaster recovery (from both natural and manmade disasters) in which reconstruction is seen as an important element of the ‘healing’ process (and is a current focus for both ICOMOS and UNESCO). An example of the latter is the rich symbolic and material relationships that people form with wilderness landscapes, settings where parallel debates surround ecological restoration and maintenance of cultural resources. The session will consider the broad implications of these different approaches within the culture:nature nexus.

The aims of the session are to:

  • Consider the different approaches to abandonment and conservation of cultural and natural heritage
  • Engage critically with approaches to authenticity, materiality and ecology – considering how they impact on the processes of cultural and natural heritage management

and to:

  • Reflect on philosophical considerations relating to values of wilderness and cultural landscapes, considering the conflicts and issues that arise within the broad culture: nature nexus


Beyond the session I’ve been struck by the connections between culture:nature and nature:culture from my very preliminary explorations of Delhi over the last few days – for example wildlife in historic buildings, graffiti on trees, and trees growing through and now part of streetscape and buildings.


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Habitat – Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet


I am delighted to be amongst the contributors to the landmark publication Habitat – Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet which has just been published by Thames and Hudson.

The gloriously illustrated book celebrates humanity’s ability to create buildings that are  adapted to their cultural and environmental conditions. I’ve contributed an entry on vernacular buildings in Turkmenistan, which looks back on work I was involved with in the mid-2000s.

The vast volume (it runs to 600 pages) is an invaluable addition to the literature on buildings and sustainability. Rather than adopt a regional (or materials-based) approach the editor, Sandra Piesek, has adopted a climatic categorisation to vernacular buildings around the world – considering tropical, dry, temperate, continental and polar zones.

The launch event last week was a great reflection on the different disciplines that are concerned with sustainability and the built environment (anthropologists, architects, plant and material specialists, builders and engineers etc) and then me, as someone who started out as an archaeologist and is now teaching building conservation.

Much more information available via the Thames and Hudson website and it is of course available to purchase in all good bookshops.

(snaps are from the Thames and Hudson review via the Thames and Hudson website).



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exploited landscape stories

For the last 31 months (or since April 2014) I’ve been working for the North York Moors National Park on the development of the This Exploited Land HLF Landscape Partnership Scheme. In the time I’ve been working on this project my blog fell quiet – but the National Park conservation blog was regularly updated with highlights from the project – of which there were many.


When I joined the project it was focused primarily on the physical remains associated with a century of ironstone exploitation  from the 1820s through to 1920s – and so through the development of the scheme I developed a ‘before, during and after’ narrative to contextualise the physical remains and extend the project from an archaeological focus to a broader, heritage landscape focus.

Alongside the stories of how the landscape has been used, it also contains amazing stories of people who lived and worked in the landscape in the past and those who value and use the landscape today. The landscape and the exploitation of its mineral wealth is also interwoven with a number of famous and influential lives, including Gertrude Bell.

In many ways the rural industrial landscapes remind me of the distinctiveness of earthen cultural landscapes (characterised by upstanding ruins in ’empty’ places) and so switching from the very ‘old’ archaeological sites of Central Asia, Middle East or South America through to much more modern landscapes in the UK was an easy transition. The conservation problems are similar, so the methods and approaches that can be applied are remarkably similar but are applied to different materials and from different time periods.


I’m now handing on the reigns to a new project team who I hope will share my delight and passion for the former industrial landscapes of the North York Moors. In the meantime I’m returning to more teaching and more freelancing.


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melting earth

Landscapes are made up of lots of different things and one of the most fascinating aspects of earth buildings is the cyclical ways in which they are made, un-made, remade and un-made. The process of making is linked to the geology of the landscape and the unmaking creating the ‘product’ of those human:nature interactions – cultural landscapes.

This year’s Earth Building UK conference (Clayfest) ran in partnership with the Tay Landscape Partnership and so lots of different activities and events took place to celebrate the vernacular building heritage of the Tay Landscape. One of these, un-melting is a series of interventions in the landscape undertaken by The Red Field (a community interest company). It explores the process and loss of habitation – here the sense that buildings ‘melt’ back into the landscape from which they were made.


This ‘melting’  lies at the very heart of the creation of landscapes. This ‘process’ of earth buildings is explored in my chapter in The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity (edited by David Harvey and Jim Perry). Taking very different evidence from this Scottish example, the chapter reflects on work in Turkmenistan and Abu Dhabi to consider the ways in which we look at earth buildings, and how ‘looking’ allows us to understand the process of change in different ways and can enable us to challenge conventional approaches to conservation.

Earthen cultural landscapes can be on such a vast scale they stretch our perception of the culture:nature debate (such as the example below from Peru) – but they are clearly ‘re-making’- ‘melting’ into a landscape that is changed and changing as a result of the past and present human uses.


A hillside in Peru scattered with stone and earth buildings.



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Archaeology and shoes in the Vale of Pickering

This is a brilliant ‘new’ find not of really old archaeology – but of the material culture left behind by archaeologists.

This is a pair of boots left behind by archaeologists at some time between 1978 and 1984 when the Cook’s Quarry site was backfilled. They have just been found again in starting up further excavation.

Here the boots have another afterlife as a demonstration of 3D modelling of archaeology, and represent the ’embeddedness’ of archaeology in the Vale of Pickering due to to lifetime(s) of engagement with excavation and research undertaken by the Landscape Research Centre.

These boots were made for digging – enjoy

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