We have done it again! We are proud to announce Black Barn has won the precious RICS Building Conservation Award, this has been a very successful end to a sensitive building.

Team Force Restoration has already won both the Construction Excellence North East Award 2014 and the National Construction Excellence Award 2014 for our restoration work on Black Barn.

Black Barn is the last known example of an original heather thatched roof in England. An archaeologically sensitive site, Listed Grade II on accounts of its extreme rarity with original heather. The building is regarded by English Heritage as a national importance. Team Force Restoration were honoured to restore this building.

Risk Register

Furthermore, Team Force Restoration has successfully removed Black Barn from the English Heritage at Risk Register in 2014.

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This last known example of an original heather thatched roof in England had survived protected by corrugated iron sheeting fixed in the 1920’s. This had been removed in 1990 when some minor repairs had been attempted, but prolonged exposure since then had left most of the South-West slope either torn off by winds or degenerated into peaty compost. This had also contributed to decay and loss of timber in the cruck frame, with most of the rafters (rough cleft oak) in that slope ready to collapse. On the North-East more sheltered side much of the base coat of original heather thatching had survived better and most of the rafters were sound. Temporary props and bracing were introduced inside the building to make the structure safe.

The project was started in December 2012 with the erection of scaffolding and a temporary roof which was retained until December 2013 so that all the work was done under cover to completion. The project was very substantially grant-aided by English Heritage supported by Northumberland County Council and included provision for Heritage Skills Training through H S I run by North of England Civic Trust.

Challenges

an archaeologically sensitive site Listed Grade II* on account of its extreme rarity with original heather. The building had been on the Heritage at Risk Register compiled by English Heritage, its condition noted as ‘Very Bad’. A change of ownership in 2008 gave fresh impetus to finding a way forward to develop appropriate techniques of repair informed by an archaeological investigation of the surviving fabric.

Heather thatching was widely used in the English uplands before the mid-19th century but by the end of the century in the face of the wide distribution of Welsh slate by railway to every part of Britain the skills of thatching were largely lost and very little heather thatching is now attempted.

English Heritage have been very keen to encourage a revival of interest in historic building skills and the unexpected opportunity to study this unique 300 year old thatch gave many exciting clues to lost details of the craft. The thatching sub-contract was to include experiment in recovered techniques to ensure more durable performance. Finding any thatcher with experience of heather in England was difficult and the trade is very fragmented with no formal accreditation scheme

What we did

Masonry consolidation and timber repairs were carried out and an opportunity to work with green oak in traditional carpentry workmanship, using axe and augur for shaping and pegging rafters over the purlins. The only metal introduced was the use of new steel bolts to strengthen joints between the cruck blades and the collars. Opening up the feet of the cruck blades hidden in the walls revealed extensive rot. This was carefully cut out in-situ and extensions were built up in epoxy resin reinforced with stainless steel rods.

While clearly a simple unheated historic barn used as domestic outhouse storage cannot be presented in terms of its ‘in-use’ energy performance there is much that can be said about sustainability in its favour.

First of course is the buildings age, in use for 300 years on the same site, the only substantial modification being the removal of two bays from the North end to allow the construction of cottages in the 1890’s. Accommodation for that was made by building a new brick gable at that end to pick up the timber roof structure.

Then the essence of the vernacular tradition lies in the application of local skills working on locally available materials. In an historical context transport would have represented a greater problem over long distances than it does today so stone and timber would reflect local sourcing as a preference. As the geology of much of Northumberland provides easy access to sandstone for building and limestone for burning with coal (also locally available) one can see a self-sufficient rural economy behind the original construction of the barn.

It was expected in this project that the archaeological study would also yield information about the organic materials and possibly even identify their sourcing. Materials for the thatching are by their nature sustainably managed, most of it locally sourced from sites in Northumberland: all the heather, hazel sways and liggers were winter cut. Spars, also hazel, twisted into staple-form are commercially produced in Somerset from sustainable hazel coppicing. Clay, peat and sphagnum moss were all available within a few miles of the barn. So too was the timber for the replacement rafters, cleft green oak from the woods around Slaley in South Northumberland supplied by Hexhamshire Hardwoods.

Working all these natural materials required little more than human strength and skill applied to shape, place and fix by hand. So the embodied energy was very low indeed and the carbon footprint nil, except in short-run transport from moor to site.

There is another issue important to the wider community which is the cultural transmission of skills. English Heritage was keen to promote, through the archaeological investigation of the thatch, a wider interest in heather thatching. The practice arranged, with the North of England Civic Trust, to run Heritage Skills Training Days for Masonry, Carpentry and Heather Thatching. The barn will be accessible in the future for further education and training and the Consultant Team is currently writing reports and articles for publication in peer-review professional journals as part of the Archaeological Research Project, separately funded by English Heritage under their Regional Capacity Building Grant Scheme.

Construction Excellence North East Award 2014 and National 2014 Winners

In May 2014, Team Force entered into the Constructing Excellence North East awards and won an award for our work with English Heritage at the Black Barn.

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RICS Awards 2015 North East Renaissance. Building Conservation Winners

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