Innovation Versus Risk

Construction is frequently characterised as slow, dirty and expensive. It is definitely not considered High Tech. It seems everyone views as a problem that needs to be fixed, in order to bring construction into the 20th century. Designers are encouraged to develop creative solutions that will overcome these obstacles. New materials and construction methods are developed that will be stronger, lighter, more energy efficient, quicker and cheaper to produce.

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Architects are bombarded with promotional material from companies trying to persuade them to purchase or specify their new wonder products. These new products will go through stress testing and aging, to provide assurances to property owners and professional that they will perform as expected for at least 20 years. A time period that is primarily chosen to align with the duration of a new mortgage.

Innovation is by its nature, inherently risky. Materials and techniques that push at the limits of our expertise, require great care in their installation and use. While we try to predict how they will perform based on our understanding of the science and engineering principles, there can be unexpected outcomes. Nature and the weather often behave unexpectedly, weather patterns change, animals (vermin) can invade and sabotage the building. They have a particular affinity for insulation and cabling. Site conditions and human error are all in play.

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The history of construction is littered with failure. Products and materials that seemed like a great idea at the time, turned out to have unexpected and sometimes horrific consequences.

RAAC or reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete is only the most recent example. Asbestos once seemed like a wonder material in the post war period; fire proof, rot proof unaffected by the weather. Now we know of the horrible impact it had on health. The Aluminium composite insulated panels that were used on Grenfell Tower.

There are others that are waiting to hit the spotlight and capture the news agenda.

It is not just new buildings that are at risk. Traditionally built stone houses are currently regarded as ‘Hard to treat’ when it comes to energy improvements. The retrofit sector is rife with companies trying to sell new products that offer the ‘silver bullet’ that will magically make retrofit cheap and easy.

Adapting them to new lifestyles and heating demands that they were never designed for requires particular care. Every day there is more and more evidence emerging of homes that have been badly retrofitted suffering from mould and rotting timber.

The best approach to traditional stone buildings is;

  • Change as little as possible, but do what is necessary.
  • Stick to traditional materials and avoid anything that involves, plastics or foam as far as practicable.
  • Ensure that anything you put in, can be removed and the building returned to its original state, if things don’t turn out as expected, so try to avoid adhesives and foam and try to stick to traditional mechanical fixings. 

Those familiar with conservation will recognise these principles from SPAB, they still hold true.

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When dealing with traditional building materials, there is a greater degree of confidence. The materials are generally naturally occurring and have been used in construction for thousands of years. Many buildings constructed with these materials are still in use after hundreds of years. That is a huge boy of evidence that shouldn’t be ignored, but sad to say, it has been.

It certainly places the 20 years lifespan of innovative materials and technology, into perspective.

Too often old materials are seen as tired and out of date, not as good as new materials, and they are tragically replaced with inferior products, without an understanding of these remarkable old buildings, with only the immediate task in mind and with little thought for the potential consequences this may have for the future.

The problems we encounter on our surveys are generally where new materials and technology have been introduced to traditional buildings in a poorly thought-out manner.

If you are risk averse, why gamble with your property. Invest in traditional materials and skilled craftsmen. What appears to be a higher cost in the short term, will pay for itself many times over in the medium and longer term. While newer construction materials fall apart, you will reap the rewards of significant added value.

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MAAC studio are accredited conservation architects, PAS 2035 Retrofit Co-ordinators and Principal Designers working with traditional buildings throughout Scotland. 

If you need independent advice give us a call ?