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SUSTAINABLE FUTURES REPORT

About Anthony Day

I’m Anthony Day and I produce the Sustainable Futures Report, a weekly podcast and blog. I bring you a selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.

I take a global perspective. If you look at my archive of over 200 reports you’ll see that I have covered climate change in the Arctic, energy issues like the Keystone pipeline in the United States and tar sands in Canada, global warming with wildfires across the world and coral bleaching in Australia. I’ve looked at waste and the pollution of the oceans. I’ve covered the circular economy and recycling and I’ve reported on renewable energy including wind, solar and tidal power.

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In this Wednesday interview from the Sustainable Futures Report I talk to Alex McCallion, Director of Works and Precinct,

and first we hear the bells of York Minster, 

one of the great cathedrals of Northern Europe. The present Minster Building has been on this site for over 800 years and therefore could be seen as a perfect example of sustainability. Its continued existence is due to the care of generations of artisans and craftsmen across the centuries. And the work continues today. 

Alex:

York Minster sits within a precinct of seven hectares. So we're responsible for an incredibly complex part of the city centre, which is why we have created a master plan for how we care for it over the next 15 years. And we're bringing that forward as a neighbourhood plan so ultimately, it will become part of the development plan for the city. So within that seven hectare estate, we have 53 properties. All but one are listed, most are grade two star listed. Three of our properties are grade one listed. One of those, the Minster itself, is a scheduled monument and the whole of the estate is scheduled with significant archeology below it. So an important part of the plan, or the driver behind it is sustainability. And when I talk about sustainability, I mean financial sustainability, so we've always got the money to look at after the Minster and the estate, Environmental sustainability, which I know we're going to touch on in some detail and then heritage craft skills as well so that we've always got the skilled team here to look after this very complex area.

Anthony:

So at the heart of this is the Minster itself, the iconic building, which has stood for how long?

Alex:

Well, the Minter you see before you is over 800 years old, but of course the site's got a history dating back over 2000 years. So if we go down into the undercroft, you can see the Roman Basilica down there and the Norman Cathedral and then the Minster as we see today evolved over 250 years. So the big conservation and restoration project that we're working on at the moment that you can see out of my office window covered in scaffolding, it was completed in the late 14th century. So it's one of the later parts of the Minster.

Anthony:

And there have been other challenges during its history. A lot of people may remember the fire in the 1980s, but there have been other fires in the past, haven't there?

Alex:

There have, yes. So 1984, the big fire in the south transept. There was the fire of the 1830s, I've forgotten the exact date, but in the choir. And then of course there was the fire in the nave as well. So we do have a history of fires here. But your listeners will be pleased to know, we have a state of the art fire system in our roof and significant fire compartments up there which stop the spread of a fire. And it was interesting when I was watching those awful images of Notre Dame burning and you could see the flames licking through the roof, they didn't have that same system and compartmentation. So they have been in touch with us for some advice there. Yeah.

Anthony:

And he other major challenge in relatively recent history of course, has been the stability of the central tower.

Alex:

Yes. And of course, one of the big outcomes from that was the establishment of York Minster Fund, who are an enormous benefactor to York Minster and all of our conservation and restoration projects at the moment. But that dates back to the late 1960's when huge cracks appeared around the central tower. And for many years, people had said that the inner ring road that literally ran past the Minster was causing issues with the foundations through vibrations of large trucks, which of course is exactly what happened. And couple that with the perched water table that the Minster sits on. Our water table moves quite significantly over the course of the year, which still causes movement in the cathedral now, led to almost the collapse of the central tower. So it literally was a race against time stabilise it. And ARUP’s led on that project and essentially pumped huge amounts of concrete into the base just to stabilise it. And you can see all of those new foundations now when you go down into the undercroft, so it's an incredible subterranean structure down there.

Anthony:

As you said the precinct contains, what was it, 57 properties?

Alex:

53. Yeah.

Anthony:

And all of those will have their challenges?

Alex:

They do, they do. Varying challenges. One of the big ones is the extent of the backlog maintenance. So some of the properties haven't had money invested in them for decades. A lot of need re roofing, proper insulation. We've got single pane windows that are rotting. So we are, through our estate strategy and as part of the neighbourhood plan, we're working through that backlog maintenance to invest in our buildings and bring them up to modern standards.

Anthony:

Insulation and double glazing of course, is something that you can do in these peripheral buildings. But you certainly can't dry-line the walls of the Minster because apart from anything else, it's covered in plaques and memorials and you certainly can't... Or can you,  double glaze the windows?

Alex:

Well, you'll probably aware that the Minster is the repository for the largest in situ collection of medieval stained glass windows in England. So we have this wonderful collection of national treasures. 68 of those windows are still exposed to the elements. So we have stone erosion but then we've also got this tragic erosion of these beautiful works of art. So in partnership with York Minster... Not York Minster Fund, York Glaziers Trust, and with the generous support of York Minster Fund, who are paying for a lot of this, we're putting in external glazing onto these windows. So it is effectively a form of double glazing and Sarah Brown, the director of York Glaziers Trust, would hate me for saying that because it's much, much bigger than that, it's protecting those treasures for future at generations to come and look at them again.

Alex:

But it is providing an element of thermal installation within the cathedral. And also, we're looking at new vestibules within our main entrances, again, to stabilise that thermal... Or increase the thermal efficiency of the building because at the moment, as you'll know, from our west front when the doors are open, the draught is incredible. And also that fluctuation in temperature inside affects the tuning of the organ. But to heat that building is an absolute nightmare. We're using a late Victorian heating system effectively, of pipes and the hot air just rises and dissipates through the uninsulated roof.

Anthony:

Yes. Well, that's going to be a continuing challenge I think, isn't it? Yeah. Is there any scope for insulating the roof?

Alex:

Limited, but we can look at more efficient ways of heating the building. And in 2018, we replaced our eight gas guzzling boilers and replaced those with six super efficient gas boilers, which have the lowest emissions of nitrogen oxide on the market. We were the first institution to use those. And I hope that those are going to be the last gas boilers we install in the Minster. So I'm cooking up a plan for a ground source heat pump. I don't know if you're aware that under Dean's Park is an enormous water tank that was installed by chapter in 1942, so that we always had our own supply of water were the cathedral to ever be bombed. Thankfully, we never needed that. But what we've got now, is a huge battery under Dean's Park, so it's 250,000 cubic metres of water, that if we can keep that water at a constant temperature, say 10 to 12 degrees, heated by solar power, there's your ground source heat pump which then has the potential to provide the heating for most of the precinct and the cathedral.

Alex:

Now that's a massive engineering project and it's a little hare-brained idea I've got at the moment. But I do think it's got legs and we're taking some engineering advice to see if we can make that work because you'd never get scheduled monument consent to dig a hole that size in the precinct now. But I think when you're responsible for looking after a heritage estate like this, you do need to think outside the box. And I think unless we drive that agenda and have these conversations with the heritage bodies and the decision makers, it's going to be impossible to get this to net zero by 2030, and that's the ambition of the church of England. Now we'll never get this estate to net zero, it's impossible. We're dealing with the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern England, in Northern Europe, but we can certainly get to a low carbon estate. And I don't know if you are aware that last week we got planning permission for our refectory.

Anthony:

Yeah, I saw it in the paper. Yeah.

Alex:

Yeah, yeah. And part of that planning consent is solar tiles on the roof, so the first of their kind on a heritage asset like that in the context of a much wider heritage estate. And that will reduce the carbon footprint of that building by about 15%. So it's not huge, but it's a move in the right direction. And I've always said morally, we have to be leading on that agenda. So that's a big shift.

Anthony:

Yes, yes. I noticed on the website that you're going for the Eco Gold Church Award. Well, I think you probably ought to have platinum if you achieve all the features you're talking about.

Alex:

Yeah. Yes. To get Eco Gold on the cathedral I need to put solar panels on the cathedral roof.

Anthony:

On the cathedral itself?

Alex:

On the cathedral itself. So now that sounds horrific, but it won't be. So the way that technology has advanced in the past five years means that we won't be putting the panels on that Gloucester has got which are the big clunky panels, but these are much slimmer panels now, that will sit within the grooves of the lead roof. Now this isn't a medieval lead roof, it's a Victorian lead roof after the fire. And the view you've got that we're looking at together now, you'll get glimpses of the panels through the parapet, but only glimpses. And from the ground, you won't see them. But that has the possibility of creating a huge amount of energy for the cathedral when we have the biggest demand on the grid, which is during the day when all the... The Minster's always got lights on, even in the middle of the summer, which drives me mad. But then the surface energy can go to heat this water tank I was telling you about.

Anthony:

Yes, yes. As far as heating the building is concerned, I imagine that your objective is to stabilise it rather than to achieve any great temperature. What's your target temperature?

Alex:

We try and keep it at about 15 degrees in the winter. Which is, which is a nightmare, it drops as low as nine degrees sometimes. So when we've got large services on and the west doors are open and the south doors are open and you've got the wind coming through, it's impossible. And what always makes me laugh is people complain about how cold it is in the cathedral. But it is a medieval, huge building so it's never going to be shirts in the middle of winter in there. So people do need to dress appropriately. But keeping it at a constant is as best we can hope for.

Anthony:

And I'm sure when it was originally built, there was no heating in at all.

Alex:

No, no. That's a Victorian addition and it is incredibly unefficient because hot air rises.

Anthony:

Yeah. Yes, yes. Well, could we take a walk across and look at some of the-

Alex:

Yeah, of course.

Anthony:

-Specific challenges?

Alex:

Yeah. Yeah.

Anthony:

Thank you. Right. Well, we're making our way up the staircase on the scaffolding up the outside of the Minster and there's a lot of it.

Alex:

Go up onto the fourth lift. We can look at some of the stone renewal and some of the issues that we're dealing with.

Anthony:

Okay. Okay. So we're looking here at two different types of stone.

Alex:

We are, yes. So we're standing on level six of the south choir scaffolding and we're currently looking at the western buttress of the south choir transept which houses the Cuthbert window. So it's the huge window you see inside the cathedral and from outside of it if you've got the Minster school behind you. So the whole of the Minster was originally made of magnesium limestone, which comes from a seam in Tadcaster, and it's where we get our stone supply from now. It's a beautiful stone. The Victorians couldn't get that limestone for whatever reason, they used ketton.

Alex:

It's still a limestone, but geologically it's much younger than the magnesium limestone, and you can see all of the oolites in it, it's a much tougher, rougher stone where the magnesium limestone is much softer and cleaner. And what the Victorians didn't know is that magnesium limestone and ketton react. So as the water runs behind, you get this reaction that causes this rapid cavernous decay of the ketton. So this piece of stone, to you and I, looks in really good condition but I'm just now pointing at a big, cavernous hole in that. So next year you could see something similar happening here. So we're in the process and we've got the permission from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission of England to remove all of the ketton and replace it with magnesium limestone.

Anthony:

And the original magnesium limestone from the 14th century, that will stay where it is? The surface looks pretty worn.

Alex:

We work closely with the Surveyor of the Fabric and the Master Mason to decide what stone stays on the building. So if we think it's going to have at least a hundred years life left in it, it stays. But anything that needs to come off will be removed. So we've got all of the consent from CFC, the Cathedrals Fabric Commission of England to do that. So this will all be dismantled and then rebuilt using new stone. So we have a hundred year scaffold cycle of the Minster. So we don't expect to be back at this part of the building until at least a hundred years.

Anthony:

Right. But how many years will the scaffolding be at this point?

Alex:

At least another six years. So this is a five year project in its own right, but we always leave a bit of a buffer in there. So you'll see this scaffolding up here, probably until the end of this decade. And then we'll move it around to the north choir aisle to do exactly the same again. And then after that, we'll be moving to the central tower to do the restoration there.

Anthony:

Right. So it's a constant process.

Alex:

It's a constant process. So we won't even have got to the nave. So yes, it'll certainly see all of us out in terms of workload.

Anthony:

Right. We moved across and I looked at the top of the buttress.

Yes, I'm privileged to be looking closely at the top of one of the buttresses and looking at the details of, well I don't know whether these are gargoyles, but the figures pointing out from the corners of the column. Not many people get as close as this.

Alex:

Yes. These are grotesques, so they're decorative. We don't have any working gargoyles at the Minster. There are some on the chapter house but they don't work anymore and it'd be lovely one day to get them spitting the water back out into Dean's Park. But yeah, so these grotesques tell story of King Solomon. So there's the baby, there's King Solomon himself. And what's rather interesting here is this pinnacle, which sits on top of the buttress. So it's decorative only but adding weight to the buttress. This was finished in 2018 and you can already see that nature's starting to take its toll, so we've got moss starting to build. And I always think that's fascinating. Doesn't take long. But the old medieval philosophy was that it was all done for the glory of God. So humans won't be able to see it from ground level but God can always see it. Which is why you have this beautiful detail.

Anthony:

Did I say no double glazing? Oh, protective glazing on the outside of the stained glass windows.

Alex:

Yes, yeah. And you can see the echo of the principal lead of the medieval stained glass behind it. So you get the clarity of the glass when you're looking from the inside because the light is coming through unrestricted. But those will now be protected for at least 150 years.

Anthony:

And did you say how many windows you actually have in this building?

Alex:

I didn't. I should know that, but we have 68 unprotected windows. So we've still got an awful lot of work ahead of us. And it's not just the glass, of course, it's the stone as well. The stone that's holding this glass is in a pretty bad state on some of the windows. It can be quite overwhelming at times when you think about just how much there is to do. And of course, unlike the European cathedrals, the care of York Minster is entirely down to the Chapter of York, the governing body of York Minster and we're entirely self financed.

Anthony:

So is it the state that covers the European cathedrals?

Alex:

Yes. Yeah. So we get no Central Church of England funding or government funding. So it's all from our own investments and fundraising and paying visitors, York Minster Fund, who we couldn't do without. So it costs £22,000 a day to operate and care for this place. So it's a lot of money.

Anthony:

We moved into the Minster itself where the organist was practising for Christmas. We made our way into the undercroft where the organ was still very Loud.

Alex:

So this is the undercroft and a large part of this space was revealed during the excavation to loosen the foundations to stabilise the central tower. And this is part of the original Norman cathedral and in Norman times they used a render... Like the Italian cathedrals and the frescos. So this would all have been rendered and then made to look like large blocks of stone. People would have to walk past this and don't see it but this is one of my favourite parts of the cathedral because you've got the whole chronology of the building dating back to... You've got the Roman columns around the corner and this part of the cathedral. And then a lot of the dressed stone from the Norman cathedral's now used as infill and support, which is rather nice to try and pick at and look. This is another interesting thing. A lot of this is millstone grit stone, which is from West Yorkshire. And a lot of this was brought over by the Romans. So a lot of that again, is recycled from the Roman stretches that would've been here.

Alex:

And then in some of the blocks are enormous and they'd have been dragged over by slaves. That 27 miles, can you imagine? 

 

 

We're standing in the south transept at the moment, looking north towards the five sisters window and looking now at the recently completed grand organ.

We've come into the consistory court to get away from the sound of the grand organ, which I'm sure you agree is magnificent, but the sound is incredible. So the grand organ was a project that we started in 2018 and we do a similar project once in a century. So the organ was completely dismantled, sent up to Durham where Harrison and Harrison restored a lot of the parts and replaced a lot of the parts. And a wonderful thing about this project is that a lot of the instrument that hadn't spoken since the 1960s, we've brought back into voice. So the tower pipes that I was pointing at in the south transept. Those are new tower pipes, but speak again. So the sound coming out down the nave and the range of the new instrument is incredible.

Alex:

So our director of music can talk at length about the capability of this new instrument. But it was a £2.2 million project. Lot of crafts people involved in its restoration. We had a specialist gilder and painter who painted the tower pipes and re-gilded them. Our stonemasons restored a medieval staircase inside and our joiners restored the Victorian case and next year will complete the Oak paneling in the choir aisles. So it's been a multidisciplinary project, which has been wonderful to see. And then we walked past one of the choir windows just now, where you probably saw two of our conservators working on the window sill, where we've had some recent cracking and movement. And it goes back to the point I made earlier that the building is constantly moving and shifting and despite its great size, it's a very delicate building. So that movement does lead to cracking and we have to be quite reactive and responsive when we see that. So we need to take the advice from the cathedral engineer to make sure there's nothing sinister going on and then carry out remedial repairs. So it's a living building.

Anthony:

Yes, and in need of constant care. And as you say, it's a whole variety of skills and crafts that you need to bring together to deal with the whole of this building.

Alex:

It is yeah, and we're really lucky in York that of the 42 anglican cathedrals, York is one of only 10 that still has an active works department, and ours is the largest in the country. And as part of the implementation of the Neighbourhood Plan, I'm trying to establish the whole of the precinct as a centre of excellence for heritage craft skill and the estate management so that we all always have the broad range of skills to care for an estate and a building like this. So it's not just masons and glaziers, it's electricians, carpenters, plumbers, lead specialists and gardeners as well. We have a team of four gardens to look after the seven hectares. And not to keep going on about money, but when I say £22,000 a day you can see why it costs so much money. And rightly too, it's a national treasure.

Anthony:

Yes, absolutely.

Alex:

So we are in the Zouche chapel now, which is the chapel just off the south choir aisle. And actually the construction of the Zouche chapel was delayed during the Black Death because of lack of workforce at the time. So quite relevant in the current times we're living through. But we're looking up at the beautiful vaulted ceiling here and this is an incredibly complicated structure, which we're just about getting our heads around because above here you've got the transept we were looking at on the outside a few minutes ago, with the Cuthbert window in, and that huge load that was coming down the buttresses. But then the buttress doesn't continue, it stops. And so that enormous load is being transferred across these vaults and then down to the floor. But if you think about the size of the buttress we were looking at and the size of that vault, it's incredible that that load is transferring through that space.

Alex:

You can't quite see it here, but there are some hairline cracks appearing in the ceiling, which are old, they're not new. But obviously there is something happening there that we need to understand what the cause is and is it of any concern. But if we look down here at this rib, you can see excessive de-lamination of that stone rib, which has been caused by water ingress from the roof above. And that's a little microcosm of some of the issues that we deal with on a daily basis around the cathedral and you can see elsewhere where it's happened in the past. But water and limestone do not mix well and so you see this extensive damage. So what we've done is, the reason the scaffolding is up in here, is our conservators have been up and removed the loose stone to make sure it's safe. And then we'll do some repairs. And we've started using a new material, which is French and it allows us to do very delicate repairs and from the ground, you can't notice unless you are really looking for it. So that's a project for January.

Anthony:

Right. Right.

Alex:

Just for your interest, there's a well there, which goes down about eight meters and it still works. So that's where we got the water from. 

 

 

So we're now back in the Stoneyard where all of our stone arrives. So you're looking at all of the six sided cut stone that arrives from Tadcaster. This is our primary saw, which dates from the early 1960's. It's the largest saw of its kind in Northern England. And then bridge saw is just down here, which allows us to cut and rough out some of the stones. So you'll see that the saw's taken away a lot of the stone ready for the hand finish. And that's a piece of the buttress stone. Do you remember the ketton we were looking at, that corner piece? That's the mag lime replacement. So we've got about a three month supply of stone on site but one of the biggest risks to our project is the stone supply. If we can't get it, then it's going to really delay things, obviously.

Alex:

So what we're looking at through the neighbourhood plan is converting this area of the precinct into our new technology hub. So buying new saws, which will do all of this roughing out for us in a fraction of the time, which then means the process of preparing the stone will speed up significantly. And then we're looking to build a new heritage quad just behind the deanery, where our scaffolders, gardeners, masons will be based in this new state of the art building. And there'll be accommodation for seven apprentices. So our first and second year apprentices will be able to live on site at affordable prices, because our first year apprentices, their salary's nine and a half thousand pounds. How on earth they survive in this city and pay the rents is beyond me. So that's one part of it. And then we hope to use our international partners and invite their apprentices to come and learn from us and for our apprentices to go over there.

Alex:

So Milan, Cologne, Washington, Trondheim are all official partners in our centre of excellence and we want that to continue to grow and we become the Knowledge Hub for the international cathedral world and sharing best practice. And this has all been driven by York Minster Fund, who have been driving a research and development project looking at technology and benchmarking us against other institutions. So we're really investing in the very best technology as a tool to support the heritage craft skills.

The Queen's Head - model for York MinsterYou may have read in the press that we're erecting a statue of her majesty, the queen on the west front of the cathedral here. So I'll give you a sneak peek. The statue is going to be made of Lepine limestone. So the stone's actually coming from France because we can't get the bed height needed in Tadcaster. And then you'll see that the orb and sceptre are going to be made out of bronze.

Alex:

So we've done huge amounts of research into this. So there's a statue of Queen Anne outside Saint Paul's in London and her orb and sceptre are in bronze as well. But it's been a difficult year getting all of the permissions and consents. So that's the finished model that Richard will use as the scale for the stone.

Anthony:

So this is just a model then?

Alex:

This is just a model, yes. So it'll be used as the scale model for... Richard will take all of his references from this. But the process started back... This was the original maquette that we then... Once we got initial approval for the concept we then scanned and then that scan was used to mill the polycarbonate core of the model. And then Richard finished all that by hand and added pieces in using clay, so the chain of office that was all made by clay and then we've got the garter star and the diadem, that was all made from clay. So you can see that the heritage craft skills certainly are not lost. Quite the reverse, but we're using technology as a tool.

Anthony:

And when will the statue be completed?

Alex:

It'll be installed in the autumn.

 

 

 

 

Anthony:

What are you actually working at the moment?

Dave:

It's a finial above the window S8 which is this one. So it's a little tiny finial up there. Sits on the parapet with the coping.

Anthony:

And what's the stone that this is made of? This is the...

Alex:

This is magnesium limestone.

Anthony:

Right. Yes.

Dave:

Mag lime - from a quarry near Tadcaster.

Anthony:

Yes. Yes.

Alex:

What's it like to work with?

Dave:

It's nice. Yeah. You get a good bit, it's really nice. It's one of the best British carving stones, I think. You get a nice lot of detail in it.

Anthony:

You've covered it with all sorts of pencil marks and sketches. Is it going to have the level of depth and detail that we've got in this piece over here? Right. Is that your pattern?

Dave:

Yeah. That's a cast of one of the previous pockets from the window below so it has to be the same as it comes up to meet the thing finial. So I'm using that as a guide.

Anthony:

And how long will it take you to transform this stone into that pattern?

Dave:

There's probably another four to six weeks worth in that-

Anthony:

In this piece here?

Dave:

Yeah. 

Anthony:

And then there'll be another one?

Dave:

Yep. And then there'll be another one.

Alex:

And this will be on the building for at least 300 years.

 

Anthony:

As we walked back across the precinct, we met one of the trustees. "That building's been there for a thousand years", he said. "It's good for another thousand yet." 

 

My thanks to Stonemason Dave Willets, Sharon Atkinson of the Minster Communications Team and of course my guide, Alex McCallion, Director of Works and Precinct. 

 

There are links to the detailed plans on the Sustainable Futures Report website, which is at www.sustainablefutures.report

 

https://yorkminster.org/about-us/master-planning/

https://www.york.gov.uk/planning-policy/minster-precinct-neighbourhood-plan/1 

 

That was the Wednesday interview from the Sustainable Futures Report. 

I'm Anthony Day. 

 

A Merry Christmas and the next Sustainable Futures Report will be on Christmas Eve.

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About Anthony Day

A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

Anthony Day

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