Tuesday 16 November 2010

Can German Craftsmen give UK's Heritage a facelift?

When the London hotel your delegation is going to stay at suffers a fire a couple of days before a trip, it's unfortunate. When their arrival coincides with a 24h tube strike, you might think fate was conspiring against you! Instead we had an unflappable group of heritage and conservation experts, who took changes in their stride and actually arrived early for their event.

I was the facilitator for the group of 14 artisans from North Rhine Westphalia and beyond in Germany. The trip had been organised by Marie-Theres Luetje of the Handwerkskammer in Duesseldorf and was supported by NRW International. My colleague Mark Dodsworth of Europartnerships Ltd had coordinated the planning of talks, trips and meetings in the UK. Our London base were the meeting rooms and library of the hospitable Canning House of No2, Belgrave Square.

The companies were here for an intensive two day program, to learn how conservation and restoration work was done in the UK. They also wanted to know how craftsman were chosen for projects and whether there were opportunities for them in the UK. (Companies taking part and the program of events here).

The delegates had come with the impression that there was a tremendous latitude for poor workmanship in an unregulated market in the UK. In contrast to Germany, where there is a formal structure of apprentices, journeymen and Masters in the crafts. Did reality match the preconceptions? Here are some of my impressions

Britain's heritage is regulated, for example by the listing of buildings or parts of buildings. We learnt how one architects firm proceeded with documentation and restoration on the prestigious Regent's Street; from facades to recovering Art Deco interiors.

We had the privelege of a guided tour of Wimpole Hall with the House's resident expert and East of Englands key National Trust officers. There was loving attention to detail, with a balance between using traditional materials and techniques where possible and appropriate modern substitutes where necessary.

A visit to an end-of-terrace Victorian interior renovation clearly showed three things.
  1. Determined architects could find the best of British craftsmanship and 
  2. Modern features could be sympathetically introduced to the highest standard whilst retaining the Victorian character of the property.
  3. The lady of the house could have a floor to ceiling designer shoe cupboard
As the delegates lost their reserve and expert questions crept in, the buzz of conversation rose during the two days. At times the interest was so intense that keeping to the tight schedule was like herding cats.

Three lessons emerged from the visit
  1. A high standard of craftsmanship was demanded and could be delivered in the UK
  2. There was a definite interest in and need for the skills of the visiting German craftsmen
  3. Architects and trusts looked for companies that could deliver the standards required.
Time and again, it emerged that, in the absence of a regulated training framework, it took a lot of effort to find trusted quality craftsmen. Once such companies are identified they become preferred providers. We met German craftsmen and architects who had successfully transferred to the UK

So what is the way forward for the German companies?
  1. The craftsmen need a detailed portfolio demonstrating their skills. Existing UK experience helps!
  2. The texts must be in English
  3. The craftsmen need to be proactive in making key organisations aware of their skills
As those who know my belief in the benefit of companies collaborating for mutual benefit will guess, there are two further personal recommendations:
  1. Either find an existing craftsman or company in the UK in an area complementary to yours and see if you can work together, and/or
  2. Team up with other German craftsmen with different skills to be a stronger, larger group seeking to enter the UK market, with a range of services.

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