Monday, January 02, 2012

Repairing Wroxeter's Roman residence

Wroxeter's Roman Town House was constructed for the Channel 4 TV programme 'Rome Wasn't Built in a Day', with a group of contemporary builders challenged to follow a Roman guide to building, constructing a property using only traditional materials and techniques under the watchful eye of Professor Dai Morgan Evans, who used his historical expertise to design the property.

Since it opened in February 2011, the number of people visiting Wroxeter Roman City has tripled as history enthusiasts and tourists flock to see this unique project.

"Watching the builders effectively having to relearn their crafts from scratch to use only the equipment and materials that the Romans used was fascinating, but the story of this property did not end when the TV cameras left the site," comments Mark Badger from English Heritage. "Channel 4 left us with a very unusual property that we have been opening to the public, and just like any other building, it requires maintenance to keep it in a good condition – but this maintenance is rather different to most properties we look after."

Some of the maintenance challenges are down to the different materials used during the property's construction, as Mark explains:

"As everyone will remember, last winter was exceptionally cold, and just as many roads around the country were damaged by frost and ice ingress, so was the plasterwork of the house. Romans did not have the luxury of a damp-proof course, so where the upper walls are protected from the elements by the layer of paint, the lower walls effectively suck water up from the ground, which makes the plaster much heavier, damper and prone to breaking loose when ice causes additional fractures within the plaster."

Similarly, the tight time-scales involved in building the property meant that certain processes had to be completed in a shorter time than would have been ideal; the filming schedule required completion of the project in just six months, whereas Professor Morgan Evans estimated that a property of this type would have taken the Romans two years to complete.

Romans were great innovators when it came to building, especially in their use of Roman cement. Lime mortar slowly hardens with the absorption of atmospheric carbon, and whilst they used techniques including adding volcanic ash to their mortar to speed up the hardening process, a layer of lime render would have taken a good couple of dry months to fully cure. The Wroxeter builders had only days to leave between layers of render, which means that the structure of the render is less stable than its Roman counterpart might have been.

In spite of these challenges, the Town House is still proving to be a fantastic resource for English Heritage. "We don't expect this property to last for 1000 years – indeed, as it is an experimental building, planning permission was only initially sought for five years – but it adds so much to the Roman experience, putting the whole of Wroxeter Roman City into a far more tangible context for our visitors. With additional signage and furniture planned to be added to the displays for Easter 2012, we are confident that people will continue to flock to this contemporary presentation of a luxury home from Wroxeter's Roman heyday," adds Mark.

Visitors can join Professor Dai Morgan Evans for a tour on Thursday 9 February and Thursday 8 March, or if they prefer to meet some of the team who actually created the house, two of the builders will lead tours on Thursday 23 February and Thursday 22 March 2012. There is also an opportunity to hear author Manda Scott talk about the Great Fire of Rome on 26 January as part of Wroxeter's Author Talks series of events.