Nov 14, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

Modern interpretation

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The Master's House in Ledbury, Herefordshire, stands as a historical legacy that endures through both its striking restoration and the experience and skills earned by the project team.


For building contractor Speller Metcalfe, this was an opportunity to work on a local, one-of-a-kind landmark that delivers outside of the traditional and put quality and historical accuracy above bottom line. At pricing stage the building hadn’t been fully opened up, so a collaborative approach was taken with client Herefordshire Council – talking through costs and challenges as they arose.

The project was also delivered on time; when considering the amount of work uncovered during construction this was a significant achievement for a complex, phased project in a logistically tight and challenging town centre location.

The building’s history

The Master’s House was commissioned by the Dean of Hereford and originally built as accommodation for the Master of the adjacent St Katherine’s Hospital, founded in 1231.

The existing structure dates back to 1487 and follows an H-shaped plan built around an oak timber frame – typical of the period – and despite many less-than-sympathetic extensions and alterations (typically every 70-80 years), it is this oak frame that maintains the building’s integrity.

Following its closure as a doctor’s surgery in 2002, the Master’s House had become dilapidated and sat as an unassuming building in the middle of St. Katherine’s car park, but behind the grubby pebbledash exterior there stood an exceptional building hiding an incredible medieval structure.

In a £3.2m scheme with client Herefordshire Council and under the West Midlands Contractor Framework, Speller Metcalfe set out to deliver a highly detailed, phased restoration of the Grade II* listed building.

Research into traditional methods

Because of the building complexity and widely-varying nature of historical extensions, specialist knowledge and investigation into traditional methods and materials was imperative to achieving an accurate restoration.

Examples include a petrographic survey used to ascertain the original quarry stone location of Shrewsbury that had been sourced in the 19th century, alongside detailed chemical analysis to achieve an exact render match dating back to the 1700s. Dendrochronology was also used to date the original timbers, with French oak used to replace the original English Oak, now a protected species.

Evidence was found of techniques used from the 15th century right through to the 20th century; consequently specialist training via toolbox talks and workshops was delivered to the team who used specialist sub-contractors where possible, in particular with the timber frame restoration.

The restoration process

While the scheme had strict budget requirements, it was important that the key principle of maintaining high standards of repair was adhered to, delivering a restoration that gave due credit to the extremely rare structure while remaining sympathetic to the end user. Such an example was the use of 19th lime plaster work that could have been cheaply replaced with plaster board – functional but not historically accurate.

To help maintain the old appearance of the building – not straightening the lines but incorporating the natural sag of history – Hempcrete cassettes were inserted underneath the original roof line to improve insulation but maintain the historical facade.

19th century traditional masonry repairs and stonework, alongside door and window restoration was key to reclaiming the historical context of the building. Wherever possible any historic features have been retained; exposing original panels, reclaiming brickwork from the removal of building areas, re-using timbers, restoring the original bread oven and restoration of wattle and daub panels. Panels beyond repair were re-wetted, broken down and recycled as 500-year-old materials into the new panelling using local Ledbury mud.

Due to the evolution of the building brickwork and techniques (predominantly 17th and 18th century), numerous samples of different types of mortar joints were taken to replicate the existing Tuck and Penny pointing.

For the main timber frame restoration, Speller Metcalfe’s Site Manager undertook detailed restoration courses throughout the duration of the project. Consideration of timber cutting was key, using a method that could replicate the techniques used in the medieval period while removing evidence of modern cutting machinery. Following the complete rebuilding of the original structure, the building is now slightly longer than it stood at the start of the project.

Appropriate modern techniques

While historically accurate techniques were used when possible, various technical solutions enable the Master’s House to remain functional and comply with building regulations.

Hempcrete, an innovative insulation product (and carbon negative), was used as an alternative to traditional insulation to enable the building to breathe and further preserve the timber for an additional 500 years. Limecrete flooring with Glapor insulation and slab (recycled foamed glass) also controls any ingress of moisture, sitting beneath the slab material.

Alongside the use of locally sourced, breathable paints these methods will help to better manage humidity levels. A Building Management System is also in place to enable remote temperature control, alongside underfloor heating for comfort.

A new historical legacy

As well as the building itself, the level of community buy-in to the project was exceptional with the entire project team playing a key role in working with the local residents and businesses, earning the project a Silver Considerate Constructors Award in 2013.

Alongside community engagement, the project has provided opportunities for trades to develop and learn new skills, with one of the carpentry apprentices personifying the team’s dedication to the high standards of repair. Adam Hill built his own forge and crafted bespoke, century-specific tools such as a framing slick and lignum vitae beaters to carry out various repairs, and was consequently shortlisted as a finalist in the 2014 English Heritage Angel Awards ‘Best Craftsmanship Trainee’ category.

Alongside the project team, the Master’s House leaves an enduring legacy that is echoed throughout the finished build through newly-revealed and restored features as well as ‘Interpretation stations’ that offer a similar interactive experience to museums for visitors.

The result is a historically-accurate, quality finish and one-of-a-kind building for Ledbury, housing a new library, council offices, function rooms and the John Masefield archive.

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