Research into surface coating materials for historic buildings

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After helpful input from members, SPAB is reviewing its involvement with UCL surface coatings research. We are seeking to ensure traditional finishes are central to the study.

In July 2020 we announced that we intended to participate in a University College London (UCL) PhD that would investigate the efficacy of a diverse range of solid wall surface treatments, traditional and modern.

As these products are marketed for use on historic buildings and sometimes specified in relation to internal wall insulation, the SPAB is frequently asked for advice on their suitability. In the 1990s, the SPAB issued a warning against the use of new, colourless consolidants and surface coatings on historic buildings. Manufacturers argue that the composition and performance of such coatings has since changed considerably. We need to understand whether this is the case and how historic fabric may be affected.

The SPAB believes in rigorous research into building materials and methods. We pride ourselves in undertaking leading research with integrity and innovation.

Our technical and research team have made it a priority to understand the performance of water-resisting treatments. During spring 2020, an opportunity arose to support research to understand such products in collaboration with UCL, supervised by Drs Hector Altamirano and Valentina Marincioni. The study intends to look broadly and independently at the performance of a range of surface coatings, traditional and modern, and to examine issues such as the effect on surface patination. The research is funded with assistance from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the industry sponsors, the SPAB and Safeguard.

News of the planned research has sparked great interest among SPAB members. Some have welcomed SPAB participation, while others have raised concerns or suggested amendments to the brief. We take the views of our members very seriously and are currently exploring these with UCL. 

Surfaces and surface finishes have been of special interest to the SPAB since its foundation. The SPAB Approach encourages “respect for the signs of age in surfaces”. It also advises that “Often it is best for new materials to match the old, but sometimes use of alternative materials can assist the retention of historic fabric…" The UCL research intends to examine issues such as the effect on surface patination, as well as the technical performance of coatings.

The scope of SPAB’s involvement in this research is yet to be defined, but we will share updates in the coming months.



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