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Urgent high-level repairs

23 May 2014

Our church is showing some troubling stone decay, high up on the walls and tower. The surface is breaking up, and we are worried that stone may fall on passers-by. Do you know if emergency grants are available anywhere?

THE past few winters have certainly taken their toll on church stone - even the past mild, but wet, season. Yours is certainly not the only church that is raising concerns.

It is important that the projects that we undertake to conserve and repair stonework on our churches are considered thoroughly before any work is done, as there are so many factors to consider.

First, have a meeting on-site with your architect, and together begin to assess both the extent and the urgency of the stone-conservation and repair needs. This may be a question of viewing through binoculars, and assessing from high-level access in the tower, or behind parapets.

With your architect, identify the most urgent elements of stone repair which might fit into the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Repair Grants for Places of Worship Scheme, and send off their enquiry form. With the Scheme's approval you can go forward to make an application.

At this stage, your architect's estimate of the cost of works will be a best estimate, and it may be helpful to have a quantity surveyor's input in the cost-assessment.

Once you are in the system for the grant scheme, there is a thorough development stage in which a grant can pay for all the studies that will be needed to inform good decision-making. For example, a structural engineer can assess whether the stonework problems are jeopardising the structure of the building, or whether the damage is primarily to the facing. A stone consultant will look closely at areas of damage, and advise on ways of making repairs. The examination may be assisted by use of a cherry picker, so that close looking (and tapping) at otherwise inaccessible stone can take place. The architect can then report on the best way to tackle the stone issues.

The HLF will assess all the findings and move your church forward to the stage when permissions and tenders are in place, and the work can get under way. Unfortunately, this process can take up to a year to complete.

So discuss with your architect, again, the level of urgency. If stone is flaking off, and causing a risk to passers-by, then, while the cherry picker is in place, I have known architects to brush off deliberately any stone that is threatening to be loose enough to fall, thus keeping the project safe until works can happen.

If the work is making the structure of the building hazardous to users and passers-by, and cannot last for that year, then it may be time to restrict pathways, put up "dangerous structure" signs, and, if necessary, restrict use of the entire church. If you do need to take the latter course, talk to the HLF early on about how to get work under way speedily.

Similarly, a temporary support may be needed to areas of serious structural deficiency, but, in these cases, I suggest that you ask the diocese, through your archdeacon, to help you to find the way forward.

It is possible that if your damaged area of stone is small, and the budget is not too high, then, despite the urgency, you might choose the route of applying to a few of the larger trusts that help with church repairs, as they may make a quicker response.

You will still have to go through a responsible series of preparatory steps under the guidance of an architect; after all, your stonework will have to last at least another 100 years after its repair.

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