Venturing forward in Scotland: Protecting a legacy

A unique construction and conservation project for The National Trust for Scotland to preserve The Hill House.

I recently had the honour of visiting a unique construction and conservation project that our Venture partner, Robertson, are carrying out for The National Trust for Scotland to preserve The Hill House, near Helensburgh.

The project, includes the design and creation of an amazingly innovative solution to help our client protect a key piece of Scotland's cultural heritage.

The Hill House

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a well-known Scottish architect, designer, water colourist and artist, designed and built Hill House for the publisher Walter Blackie between 1902 and 1904. The outside of the house is rendered in a Portland-based cement, which has been absorbing rain and saltwater coming off the bay and a result is unfortunately slowly degrading not only the exterior, but also the beautiful interior of the house.

The House is one of few remaining examples of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work (even more so following the tragic destruction of the Glasgow School of Arts due to fire in 2018) and remains a popular tourist destination, so throughout the project it is paramount that it remains open to the public.

The solution

Working onsite with specialist engineers, the Robertson team have begun to erect a ‘tent’ over the house, to allow for the render to be removed safely, then a replacement reapplied and the delicate conservation work to continue. The engineers' attention to detail was fantastic and everything has been delivered with safety and sympathy to the house at the very forefront.

The tent is a steel frame with - get this – what I can only describe as chain-mail stretched across the beams! I am told that these panels of interlinked steel chain-mail will repel up to 80% of the rain, whilst allowing the air to circulate and letting the house breathe. I’ll be honest, when I saw that a technology that dates back over 2000 years being used to protect the house I was gobsmacked – here was a perfect example of traditional forms of engineering being used in a manner never thought of previously.

When I quizzed the onsite team on how the tension of the panels of ‘mail’ were calculated, I was told that the engineers who designed the solution were on site, taking measurements down to the very last millimeter to ensure that the correct levels of tension were being exerted on every individual panel – truly a feat of engineering in and of itself, and one that left me lost for words as I stood at the top of the structure, gazing out over the house and its surroundings.

The project also includes the creation of a visitor centre onsite, which will celebrate the cultural importance of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the history of the house and the importance of preserving our iconic buildings for future generations.

During our time visiting Hill House, it was also good to see that the site team were working with, and assisting when needed, the groundskeeper, who was busy preparing plants and flowers, reading to be sited when the works complete later this month. It’s only through such collaborative approaches that a project as unique as Hill House can succeed.

Multi-functional space

Once complete, there are also plans for The Hill House to be used for events and, all being well, to house craft market stalls at Christmas within the structure of the tent. It’s expected to be there for the next 10 years (at least) as the removal, testing and renovation of the house continues, and forms part of the National Trust for Scotland's wider regeneration plans for their heritage sites, supporting sustainable local economic growth in Scotland.

It’s a stunning piece of engineering and it was a privilege to see it in person on my site visit earlier this month, I look forward to getting back to Hill House when the visitor centre opens to have a good nose round the interior of the house, and to see the reaction of visitors to the solution!

Written by:

Darryl Steventon

Development Manager

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