Cathedrals have an air of permanence and can give a visitor the impression of time standing still. However the Cathedral architect and his team face a constant challenge to maintain this historic building and to balance the needs of conservation with the demands of a living community of worshippers, visitors and staff.
The fabric of Norwich Cathedral
Norwich Cathedral is an amazing piece of architecture which has gradually developed over the last 900 years incorporating some later Gothic embellishments and changes into the original Romanesque (Norman) church. The extraordinary thing is that the majority of the original building is still intact. In addition a number of the other Priory buildings have also survived and been adapted for other uses, many still in use in the Close. They survived mainly because at the beginning of Henry VIII’s initiative to dissolve the Monasteries, the last Prior agreed a deal whereby he surrendered the Priory but it was immediately refounded as a secular Cathedral with himself as the first Dean.
The architectural fabric of the building is architecturally and historically complex, and because it is so old and has been exposed to the weather for so long different parts have different levels of wear and decay.
The role of Cathedral Architect
Every Cathedral has to have an appointed architect or building surveyor to act as Surveyor to the Fabric.
The Architect works closely with the Cathedral Archaeologist who has a parallel appointment. Both report directly to the Chapter of the Cathedral.
The Architect has a very intimate relationship with the Cathedral and has to get to know every part of it, as well as developing a head for heights.
Every five years the Architect carries out a detailed inspection and prepares a report on the condition of the building fabric. This includes recommendations for repairs and conservation with priorities and approximate costs. This is then used to plan campaigns of repairs. With buildings of this size and complexity there are inevitably parallels with repairing the proverbial Forth Bridge. Areas of walling and roofs tend to have to be revisited every thirty years or so for more repairs. The problem with repairing historic masonry is that there is an emphasis on conservation and preservation rather than replacement and restoration. So it is inevitable that repairs are designed to do enough and no more, and this tends to make repairs last for only about thirty years.
Carrying out repairs
The Architect implements repair projects by preparing drawings and specifications, finding suitable builders and conservators, obtaining tenders and administering building contracts. The repair works are usually highly specialised and very traditional. Repair techniques used today closely resemble the trades' practices of the original builders, setting aside our use of power tools for primary cutting of stone and timber. Hand tools in use today would be instantly recognised by the medieval mason, carpenter and glazier.
The Architect is also responsible for improvement projects. These vary from putting in Fire Alarm Systems and lighting to designing new furniture and making areas more accessible for wheelchair users.
Rules and regulations
Very often statutory approvals are required for repairs and improvements. However, churches and cathedrals are fortunate enough to enjoy exemption from the planning regulations administered by the secular authorities provided the maintain a parallel system for securing approvals with the same –if not more – checks and balances as are employed by the state. The Cathedral has its own listed buildings panel called the Fabric Advisory Committee which considers most minor projects.
Major projects and those affecting historic fabric or archaeology or the setting of the Cathedral in its surrounding landscape have to be referred to the national body called the Cathedrals’ Fabric Commission for England.