Repairing history

Only a handful of roofers in the country have the skillset to tackle re-roofing
a complex copper turret or replacing the lead cornices on a 120-year-old
heritage building. It’s a small but vital part of our industry that offers a
whole world of satisfaction, plus a job for life.

Published in Winter 2022 edition of RoofLink, the roofing industry magazine and RANZ Member journal.

I’m up a scaffold with Stephen Markham, who’s invited me to take a close look at a pleated copper roof on a turret he’s just finished. He looks chipper – and so he should; it’s beautiful. Below my feet is one of the oldest buildings in Auckland City, built for educating students and still being used today as part of Auckland University.
“We’ve done this and the one next door, too,” says Stephen. “Eventually, we’re doing all the buildings on Princes Street to protect them for the next 100 years. Heritage architects Salmond Reed are involved with the renovations, and they’re basically going back to exactly the way they were, keeping everything traditional the
way they were built originally.”

The rest of the roof is a mix of terracotta and slate tile, but the Deco-style turret is unique. Stephen tells me that the original roof detail was most probably installed by the top plumber on the job. The plumber? “Yeah, in those days, the top plumber was the only person allowed to do the roof because any lead or copper work was all covered by plumbing. Once the plumbing was done, the drainage and the second fix, and it got to the roof, the best plumber on the job would get to do it. It was the icing on the cake, literally, so the top guy would have done that. It was him showing his skills and why he was the top man on the job.”

“When I first came up here with the old roof on, it was a detail I’d never seen before. Most people would have replaced it with just a big sheet of copper and not bothered to put all the effort into reproducing that detail. But I decided it would be worth the extra labour to keep it.”

The copper roof on Princes Street is only a comparatively small area. How long would something like that take from start to finish? “That turret would take two weeks. A lot of the work is setting the job out. That, alone, took two days on this one. Setting now is everything. You must set out correctly; otherwise, it just doesn’t work. It’s like baking a cake; if you haven’t the right ingredients, you’re wasting your time.”

On-site training

Stephen would be one of the very few people in the country who had the skill and the experience to take on such a job. I ask him whether he’s taking anyone under his wing to pass on his skills. “Yes, the guy I had on here [Joachim Scale] was part of my training program for the Chief Post Office – another job we are working on just down the road. We put adverts through Martin at Fribesco for on-site training for lead work. Joachim came up from Wellington. He was a very good hard-metal worker, so, with my guidance, we put him on this one to do
the copper on this one as well.

“Joachim trained in Germany. He has a high level of skills, but unfortunately, in his nine years here in New Zealand, he’d never had the opportunity to use those skills to their full potential. But working with me, he trained up on lead, which he’d never done before, and also worked with copper to the high end, which he’s never done before either. With the on-site training, he’s getting true experience and the satisfaction at the end of the job of completing something like this.”

As a copper or a lead worker, Stephen says you learn something on every job. “It’s always nice to break up the more routine work. So to work on something different, like this turret, is always exciting and makes you feel proud at the end of it. We all train to do something in our lives, right, and to do work like this is a dream come true. It’s like any artist who hopes their paintings will be admired for years; it’s the same with us. We do copper and lead work, and if people admire it and then respect that work, then you’ve done your job well, and you’ve left a legacy.”

Lead’s still the best

For the Chief Post Office at Britomart, one of Auckland’s most prestigious heritage buildings, Stephen has been engaged to remove and replace all the lead cornicing on the building, which is a huge job. “The cornices that project from the building are now coming up to 100 years old, so they’ve become porous, and water seeps through. Some parts hang out over a metre-wide and could endanger the public if they get soaked and start falling off.”

Is lead still the best material to use, or is it mainly because of the heritage requirements? “Yes, it is. I mean, it’s a flexible, long-lasting material. In these kinds of buildings, there are loads of ins and outs. They are tough areas to line, and no one’s come up with a practical substitute to overcome that and offer the life expectancy of lead. Also, bearing in mind that to scaffold them and carry out the needed work is an absolute fortune, so you want to be paying out for something only once. You only get one chance to protect them, so you try to do your very best. And lead is renowned as being the best.” It’s true. How many roofing materials could you say, hand on heart, will still be doing their job in 100 years.

Stephen says, back in England, he’s removed lead that’s been on buildings since the 1700s, and there’s not been much wrong with it. And it can always be recycled – every ounce goes back to the suppliers to be melted down and reused, says Stephen. “It’s the ultimate recyclable material when you think about it. For these reasons, it’s still the number one choice to protect roofs and cornicing.”

Good career choice?

For a young roofer – or even a not-so-young roofer – does Stephen think it’s a good career move to specialise in lead or copper? And is there enough work out there for more people to get involved in it?

“Well, if you train yourself properly and do some nice work, there will always be jobs out there for you – I think I’m proof of that. It’s always kept me busy. Sure, you have to do the normal run-of-the-mill work as your bread
and butter, but you occasionally get jobs like this. Most of the work is in Auckland and Wellington, but they’re also doing a lot of the old buildings in Dunedin at the moment, and that’s why I’ve been training up people so
they can go on to these other jobs.”

The vast majority of the work is commercial, on heritage buildings, because that’s where the money is. Occasionally, there’ll be an individual or homeowner who want something special for their house, who’s got
a lot of money, but it’s rare. When specialist jobs do come up, Stephen endeavours to do on-site training programmes and promote the work that way. “People can get a feel for it and appreciate this sort of work on the job, then go from there if they like it.”

“I want this type of work to carry on. It’s got to carry-on. There’s no other choice from a heritage point of view, so there’s always going to be work, I guess.”