Maintenance Free – Suburban Myths – You mustn’t believe them all

  • Building Design Expert
  • 9 years ago

Stonehenge is about as maintenance free as you get, but it's still affected by the weather - all 5000 yrs of it - Looking good

Most people know, or know of the incredible engineering feat that created the iconic monument at ‘Stonehenge’. Reportedly huge pieces of natural stone were quarried in Pembrokeshire and transported 150 miles to where we can marvel at them today. That of course was around about 5000 years ago. I’m guessing admittedly, but they didn’t do ‘maintenance free’ back then. Geologists uncovered evidence of a ‘timber’ constructed circle on the same site. But of course the absence of the invention of pressure impregnation and modern preservative chemicals meant it would never keep up with it’s masonry cousin.

So Stonehenge is arguably one of  the first maintenance free structures. Although only in the sense that it doesn’t require repainting, or repointing. It doesn’t need the DPC renewing, and the cavity wall ties have not disintegrated. So all good news there. The one thing that ‘Stonehenge’ has resisted fairly well is 5000 years of weather. There is no doubt that it looks significantly different today than it did on opening day, the weather has seen to that. But arguably the visual design intent remains, and on that basis the function too.

I heard a very knowledgeable speaker the other day state that the subject building (a warehouse shed) had a life expectancy of 20 years. A startling revelation – This building costing hundreds of thousands of pounds was only going to last 20 years. I asked myself what might happen after this time? Was the structure pre-programmed to implode? Would all the windows and doors start to fall out? Did the building’s Health and Safety File contain a warning notice for the occupants to be sure to make arrangements to leave on a prescribed date. It did smack a little of ‘the end of the world is nigh’, but I’m fairly sure he didn’t mean it to be so.

So what was the design life of Stonehenge? I always remember being told that the design life of my parents council house was 60 years. Pretty ambitious given the former reference to a warehouse constructed with the benefit of modern design techniques and materials. I am also old enough to recall that “maintenance free” was not in common language usage back then either. So if the council house was destined to last 60 years, in the full expectation that during that time the windows would to be repainted, the brickwork would need re-pointing and the guttering replaced – just for starters. Then what was expected to happen after 60 years?

UPVC, or PVCu as the europeans insisted we call it; was introduced as the global panacea to ‘maintenance free’. It looked like a timber window frame. It functioned like a timber window frame, but it didn’t require painting or staining like a timber window frame so therefore it was ‘maintenance free’. It didn’t take long to find them out though: The early frames went yellow in sun-light. OK, that was a manufacturing thing, and they fixed it. Frames became dirty very quickly and would require cleaning at least annually to keep them looking good. So who was going to do that? Rhetorical question, because at least with the old regime repainting every 4 – 5 years could make them look like new again. Leave our plastic windows that amount of time and the chances are they would become oh so dull, and the muck and grime of the outside world took up residence in the surface fissures of the progressively matt finish.

Far from being maintenance free, we just exchanged one maintenance programme for another. And so it is with Aluminium, Stainless Steel, Hardwood, Glass-fibre. Unless its construction use is totally unaffected by the environment in which it exists, it cannot be maintenance free. Unless you take ‘cleaning’ out of the equation, absolutely nothing is free of maintenance.

So until science develops all  construction materials to be self cleaning, immune from vandalism and self repairing, we are going to be carrying out scheduled maintenance inspections, cleaning and repairs to our buildings. That being the case, unless our speaker was advocating that we ignore all maintenance issues for 20 years. Our warehouses, council houses, office buildings, hospitals, even the garden shed could be, in theory, around for as long as they remain useful. Or until English Heritage decide they should be listed.

When designing our buildings we can be sure that future maintenance will directly correlate to the materials used in construction, and to a large extent the workmanship standards adopted in assembly.

Today, and not just in construction design, we are more likely to accept a lesser quality of material, and, or workmanship to shoe horn a feature into a price bracket. Georgian builders were less influenced in this area, and the standard of construction and materials used is testament to the the huge catalogue of buildings that have survived to this day. Of course they have been rigorously maintained, but that maintenance is so much easier when the construction quality is there to begin with.

So have we learned through experience? For the most part yes. Experienced building design professionals will assemble a construction specification using either materials, or a design whose associated building methods have known or minimal maintenance consequences. Young designers need to learn, but twas-ever-thus.

One of the greatest problems we still face on this front is buildings designed by the contractor. – Call me old fashioned but if professionally qualified ‘Building Designers’ stuck to designing buildings, and Building Contractors stuck to constructing and maintaining them, our chances of keeping traffic moving would be so much improved. The insistence, by housing developers in particular, in developing house types and not thinking through the details, and their consequences is alarming, and the cause of many a ‘motorway pile-up’. The problem is tempered by systems like NHBC, but experience tells us that the maintenance programme for this safety net has allowed too many holes to remain unrepaired over too many years. To be fair contractors are employing qualified building professionals more and more, but the problem has yet to go away, and until it does ‘Maintenance Free’ will remain a ‘Suburban Myth’ and ‘You mustn’t believe them all’.