Preservation Trades

By Rudy Christian ,

The great cathedrals around the world (here we are in England) provide a view of the seamless blend of the work of many trades. The total immersion in such a high level of hand made beauty is difficult to find in our modern world of manufactured materials and CNC machined detail.

What are (is, was, were?) “preservation trades”? Honestly, I haven’t got a clue! Well, maybe a clue, but certainly not what I would consider a good answer. I know what “preservation” is because my grandmother used to make preserves, and with all this stuff going on with Wall Street I have a pretty good idea what “trades” are, so maybe preservation trades has something to do with putting your money in jars and storing it in the cellar? Come to think of it, I wish I had done that a year ago!

Sorry, couldn’t help myself, but on a more serious note, let’s talk about preservation trades. Preservation, which the rest of the world calls conservation, is in a nutshell keeping historic buildings useful. Preservation is also another term for maintenance. However you look at it, preservation is work and to do it right it requires knowledge and skill. So how about trades? What are they? In the earliest and simplest of terms they can be categorized as carpentry, masonry and ironwork. When building began there was only masonry, working with stone, and carpentry, working with wood. Ironwork came later. These trades are so much a part of the fabric of our lives that entire parts of history are named for them. Everyone learns about the “stone age” and the “iron age” in school. I wonder why there was never a “wood age”?

So what are preservation trades? When the Preservation Trades Network (PTN) was formed as a taskforce of the Association for Preservation Technologies (APT) its purpose was to provide a voice for the trades; the professionals who actually work with the stone and wood and iron. At the time it was thought that the people who did that work on old buildings were somehow different than the ones who worked on new buildings, that somehow a different set of knowledge and skills was required. What many of us have learned in the decade since is that trades are trades and the difference is really that of understanding traditional trades, and it turns out there are quite a number of them.

Masonry for example encompasses numerous trades. At the core are stonework and brickwork, or “red masonry” and each of those fields contain numerous specialties and refinements just as working with lime plaster, or slate or wrought iron does. Timber framing requires knowledge that can be traced back thousands of years but uses the same materials as does fine cabinetry and decorative wood carvings and it is the preservation and application of that ancient knowledge that will enable us to conserve and maintain our historic architectural heritage. Preservation is knowledge.

Today architects who specialize in historic preservation and the property owners who are stewards of our heritage have a resource that is much greater than it was even ten years ago; the realization that the Whitehill report was wrong and that the trades are not dead and never have been. Access to trades education is growing and the understanding that skilled and knowledgeable trades people are an important component of planning and practicing preservation is as well. The world of historic conservation is changing and personally, I think it’s for the better.

So what are preservation trades? Maybe we should call them “preserved” trades? Whatever we call them, I’m glad they’re still around.

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