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Turning the clock back at King’s College, Cambridge

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Having transformed King's College's majestic 18th century Gibbs’ Building in 2015, Thomann-Hanry has completed an extensive clean and restoration of the Grade II Listed Chetwynd Court, with equally spectacular results. Here, PSBJ explores the two historically-sensitive projects.


As the ninth oldest Cambridge college, King’s College was founded in 1441 by Henry VI and is one of the 31 colleges in the University of Cambridge’s holdings. With an outstanding academic record and world-famous architecture, the King’s College grounds include several architecturally-significant edifices.

Amid these notable constructions proudly stands the Gibbs’ Building, situated adjacent to the college’s well-kept front court. The second oldest building at King’s College – following the college’s chapel, an example of late Gothic architecture whose construction was interrupted by the Wars of the Roses – the Grade I Listed Gibbs’ Building is named after its Architect James Gibbs, one of Britain’s most influential architects whose work transitioned between English Baroque and Georgian architecture.

Construction of the Gibbs’ Building dates back to 1724, however, it’s reported that the first stone was laid in 1461 when masons left behind a large block in the front court. 300 years later, this stone became the foundation stone for the Gibbs’ Building. The structure was the only part of a large scheme that Gibbs designed, which was planned to include similar buildings on the south and east side of the front court. Today, the Gibbs’ Building contains fellows’ rooms, the tutorial office and the ‘turing room’ (student computer room).

Cleaning up history

Steeped in history and heritage, Britain’s universities are home to some of the nation’s finest historic architecture. However, centuries of accumulated grime, pollution and dirt mean many of these buildings’ fine facades are now a shadow of their former glories. For King’s College, the aesthetics of the stonework at both the Gibbs’ Building and Chetwynd Court had fallen into this predicament, influencing the visual appeal of the college itself.

The profound history that surrounds the establishments on King’s estate was at the forefront of both restoration works. Comprising stonework dating back to, as aforementioned, 1461, the Gibbs’ Building restoration and conservation process had to be approached with a delicate outlook, particularly when it came to appearance. The team at King’s College, consequently, approached London-based commercial cleaning specialist, Thomann-Hanry, for a viable solution that would revive the appearance of its established architectural heritage, while circumventing the likelihood of unprepossessing scaffolding.

Quite apart from the drawbacks of enveloping buildings in scaffolding for months, conventional cleaning processes use water, chemicals and detergent, making them environmentally questionable, at best.

However, as King’s College discovered, there is an alternative. For a globally-renowned tourist site such as this, enshrouding the buildings in scaffolding would be a huge disappointment to students, staff and visitors, therefore, King’s College specified Thomann-Hanry’s façade gommage system, which is specifically designed to work without scaffolding. façade gommage gently projects sharp, fine powders under compressed air, lifting and removing dirt with no damage whatsoever to the underlying stonework. Rather than the months taken by conventional cleaning, the process takes weeks, even days, to complete – saving cost, disruption and preserving the fabric of the building itself.

Furthermore, the entire ancillary works, restoration and redecoration were carried out from the company’s MEWPs, avoiding the need for scaffolding altogether.

The restoration of the Gibbs’ Building was the first project that Thomann-Hanry undertook for King’s College. At the beginning of the project, the company was briefed to clean just one small elevation. However, the workload increased as the college was infinitely delighted, not only by the results but also by the speed at which the work was carried out. The speed of turnaround was critical to King’s College as works had to take place during the summer break in order to avoid interference with the working life of the students and, as the University of Cambridge works on a collegiate system with students frequenting the site from both King’s College and the University of Cambridge; time was of the essence.

The expansion of the project saw Thomann-Hanry clean the entirety of the building, refurbishing and redecorating every timber window, metal grill and the underside of the central archway passage. In addition, the stonework was restored to a high level, including the supply and installation of new Portland stone balustrades to match the existing. To ensure a seamless process, the cleaning specialist also deployed one of its drones to survey sections of the building.

Juan Cortizo, Head of Restoration at Thomann-Hanry, operated the team that restored the stonework, timber windows and redecorated the timber work at the Gibbs’ Building. He commented: “Working with Historic England and the college’s restoration team, led by Matthew Beasley, this project was a cross between a restoration and conservation scheme.

“It was a project where some of the work involved simple restoration, such as repainting, and a few elements that required stonework to be replaced after centuries of erosion.”

Following the successful restoration of the Gibbs’ Building, the company was brought back to King’s to undertake further work to Grade II Listed Chetwynd Court, designed by prolific English Gothic revival Architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who was recognised for many iconic buildings, including London’s St Pancras Station.

Again, without the use of scaffolding, water or chemicals, Thomann-Hanry successfully completed this project in just three weeks. Alongside cleaning the stonework at Chetwynd Court, the restoration team also undertook replacement work on all masonry, timber and fixtures.

Commenting on the company’s work, Thomann-Hanry’s Managing Director, Mark Styles, said: “There is no other system suited to this class of work; cleaning and restoring educational environments without having an impact on students’ studies. “façade gommage is ideal for facades such as this, which are heavily polluted and where water can mitigate contaminants further into the stone.”

Adam Gardner, Deputy Clerk of Works at King’s College, added: “Thomann-Hanry have shown that the method they use is certainly appropriate for works such as this. The team of operatives that carried out the work were extremely diligent and very knowledgeable.

“The conservation and restoration of historic fabrics such as those at King’s College is very fulfilling to be involved with. Thomann-Hanry have provided a great service from start to finish.”

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