Professional Builder continues its celebration of the tradespeople who are preserving the built environment heritage, with a visit to Jason Wright of J Wright Roofing.
“I got sacked by my Dad in May 1991 and, out of sheer stubbornness, started out on my own on the following Friday,” recalls Jason. Today, the successful company that bears his name champions the sensitive repair of period properties, both through his firm’s on-site endeavours, and also through his active membership of the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC) Heritage Committee. Indeed, the expert roofer holds NFRC Heritage Craft Master status, and is evangelical on the subject of historic buildings.
The setting for our meeting with Jason – one of the glorious Georgian crescents of Royal Leamington Spa – could not have been more appropriate, and it is here his team were undertaking the re-roof of one of the elegant buildings so characteristic of this Warwickshire town. “We do a lot of work for local authorities, so the amount of heritage work we are undertaking at any one time varies, but I would think it would represent around 25 per cent of our business, and they are projects that demand a different skill-set and level of experience.”
Anyone involved in the roofing repair of a period property will tell you that the key to success is in sourcing and specifying the right materials, as Jason explains. “There is actually a wide variation in tiles across a relatively small geographical area. We can be working in anything from Welsh Slate, Westmorland Randoms or handmade clay plain tiles, the last of which dominate the roofs of the west midlands. Move east to Lincolnshire and clay pantiles hold sway, whilst central locations will often make use of Collyweston Stone Slate.”
“The first problem you’ll encounter is getting hold of these products. My dad was a real-life Steptoe, storing anything of any age he could salvage in our yard, and that’s something I learnt from him. That’s why we have our own reclamation yard because with, only three major quarries still open in North Wales, for example, price and availability can be an issue – with £6 a slate being quoted, and lead times of up to 12 weeks. We will certainly still use new Welsh slate but alternatives do need to be found to fill a gap in supply. The only Spanish slate we would use would be Del Carmen Ultra and Riverstone Ultra, both premium products from SSQ – and the only slate from Spain to be approved for use in the Snowdonia National Park.”
It’s not just the materials, of course, because the more corrosion-resistant copper clout nails on a slate re-roof like the one at Leamington Spa are a priority, but more modern elements can also find their place. “Because they weren’t originally built with central heating, period properties didn’t have to cope with modern condensation issues, but today we will install breathable membranes of no less that 160g/m2. If a heritage property is to enjoy the repair that it deserves then it can never be a price-driven project, a position that both client and builder need to be honest about from the outset.”
J Wright Roofing has itself worked on some very prestigious projects, including Windsor Castle and the Victoria Law Courts in Birmingham, as well as winning the Heritage Project award at the NFRC awards, but one of the things Jason most laments is the lack of training in the sector. “If our historic housing stock is to be maintained then more needs to be done to preserve these skills,” he declares. “We’re passionate about training, and have more apprentices per head of staff than any other roofing company in the UK. In addition, we operate an early intervention programme in a local school, and pick four of the best apprentices from there to join us. Hopefully that’s an example that others will follow.”
Not only is Jason an advocate for training he is also actively engaged with the NFRC Heritage Committee. “In order to reflect the variations in the roofing vernacular, each region has a representative on the committee. It aims to address issues associated with work on period properties from material supply, to techniques – as well as to promote training and best practice. Our particular focus is to join the Heritage Register, because, if they do, companies of any size can access a lot of support.”
The National Heritage Roofing Contractor Register is an NFRC initiative designed to ensure that only the highest standards of workmanship are undertaken on what are some of our most precious buildings. A resource open to both members and non-members of the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, qualification demands a relevant heritage qualification, as well as continuous review by a panel of NFRC experts. Roofers with a proven track record then fall into the following categories:
Heritage Roof Master: Can provide both technical design capabilities and quality workmanship.
Heritage Craft Roofer: These firms will always provide quality workmanship but do not offer the design facility.
Heritage Craft Roofer Operative: Craftsmen/women who carry out the roof work as specified.
“There’s a lot of ignorance amongst even experienced builders about how to approach heritage work,” continues Jason. “The requirements of BS 5534, the Code of Practice for Slating and Tiling, are not always relevant to historic properties, for example, and it is that kind of advice that the NFRC can help with. If you’re sorting and grading a Westmorland slate roof, for instance, then the approach is down to experience, and is a matter for you and a conservation officer to determine.”
“There is a much greater satisfaction in sensitively restoring a historic building than the kind of tile bashing you might get on new builds,” he concludes. “That’s first and foremost why we do it, but there’s certainly a commercial benefit as well.”