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Industry Interviews

Mary Mann speaks with James Charlewood
 James Charlewood - Cathedral Stone Director, Cathedral Stone

Engineered materials are the favourite for new builds in Australia, but James Charlwood says it is dimension stone that will help build us a sustainable future.

How and when did you first become involved with stone?
I picked up a piece of limonitic sandstone when I was about 12, while I was staying in Warrnambool in Victoria with my father. I carved little ponds out of them – they never held water, but we put pot plants in them. Really that was the first of a lot of small projects in stone during my teenage years. But that particular limonitic sandstone was significant because the first project I ever did when I went into business for myself was using that same stone, on Glenample Homestead (an historic building on the Great Ocean Road).
I’ve always loved working with my hands; school was an absolute bore, except for woodwork classes. Ironically now I’m stuck running a business!

How did your career develop from there?
In year 10 I did work experience with a stone mason, who had done a lot of landscaping work around my home. He really taught me a lot about work, for a start, and certainly had a lot of passion for stone. I was doing a lot of paving, but it certainly got me quite habituated into the building site and the whole work ethic, and he became something of a mentor.
It wasn’t until about a year after leaving school, having spent a bit of time working at a leather workshop and picking tobacco, that I started an apprenticeship with Barrabool Stone. It was marble and granite work, not where I wanted to be. But in hindsight it was a valuable experience working in a factory environment, processing stone and using machinery.
From there I transferred my apprenticeship to one with the University of Melbourne, and finished it in 1985.
At the end of my apprenticeship I received a Churchill Scholarship, which involved travelling to quarries, conservation training centres and heritage sites in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and France, and then to work for three months in England to consolidate what I had learnt.
Then I stayed on and worked and studied for a couple of years. I came back to Australia in 1989 because I had a job working on the Glenample Homestead, and I had other projects lined up.
In 1991 I won the contract to restore St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and started trading as Cathedral Stone in about 1996.

What are you working on currently?
We are working to restore Newman College (built 1918) at the University of Melbourne. We completed the contract to restore the Mannix Wing two years ago and are in the latter stages of completing the Carr wing. It has been a marvellous job; it is an ‘A’ classified historic building and recognised nationally. It has been an absolute delight. The high standards that have been expected by the client have been enforced by the architect and realised through our own commitment to those standards, and the support and commitment from our suppliers and consultants.

What are some of the challenges you have faced with this project?
The Beaudesert sandstone we use was not a well proven stone when we started working with it. It was a stone of variable quality - but with a vigorous testing and quality assurance process we have been able to identify the premium grade stone from that quarry, which the client, of course, would settle for nothing less.
Another really significant challenge was the specialist restoration mortar that we use, which we import from the USA. It didn’t perform initially on the Barrabool sandstone (the original building material), which has a high clay content. It is a very dimensionally unstable stone and we had serious problems getting this restoration mortar to adhere to the surface. It was only through a five-month development process working closely with the manufacturers, which we hadn’t budgeted for at all, that we could achieve the results acceptable to us and the architect, Arthur Andronas.
We had an absolutely fabulous outcome in the end - the tonal range in colour, the texture, the level of adhesion onto the stone is absolutely outstanding.
It is the resolution of those problems that has really turned that project into the success it is today.

How important is testing and quality control?
It is absolutely vital in today’s environment. In the past, in the absence of scientific testing procedures we really had to rely on the expertise of individual stone masons to pick what they thought was the best stone. Some people still do that and there are merits in that, but to really make sure that we have an objective process, the testing procedure is absolutely the best way to go in this day and age. It has been really vital to the whole process.

Why should communities look after their heritage-significant stone buildings?
It is vital and central to our western culture in Australia because it is a very short and comprehensive history that we’ve got, of white settlement. The signature of those brief years of settlement in this country is expressed in terms of the buildings that we leave behind us. To maintain those buildings in perpetuity for future generations is of course central to our national pride and our sense of identity.
But a more important reason as to why we must care for these buildings is that we really need to learn from what our forefathers created in terms of cultural and green sustainability. Being able to create places that have meaning from one generation to the next; and of course dimension stone is one of the primary materials that is able to express the design impulse of a whole generation for perpetuity, meaning it will last for such a long time.
In terms of the environmental sustainability and the carbon footprint, it takes a very small amount of energy to extract dimension stone from the ground and create a structure which will last for many, many generations. And when it lasts for that long its carbon footprint diminishes significantly. Also, the building of it requires such a high level of skill in the first place, and it creates high-quality jobs for young people – that is something that mustn’t be forgotten. We have given away skills to the manufacturing industry, but the products that they produce are highly processed and generally don’t stand the test of time, nor do they really provide a really vibrant expression for our culture.

With so many engineered products available, does stone have much of a future in the building industry?
It is yet to be proven. We don’t see very much new build happening in Australia in terms of dimension stone, but we do see them in Europe – a lot of extremely high-profile projects like art galleries and court houses built in dimension stone. Unfortunately I think it is budget driven. But if in Australia we had an appropriate carbon tax that considered the life cycle of buildings and the huge offset to the carbon investment in those materials - which are low in the first place - it would absolutely make it more affordable for new dimension stone builds. That alone would be enough to drive the revival of traditional technologies.
Our traditional technologies and primary materials have stood the test of time. And these projects have a huge value to the individuals who work on them, and to the economy. These projects are highly labour intensive and a huge percentage of the money invested in them go back into highly skilled labour. The men and women who work on our projects have the opportunity to develop skills vital to a sustainable future.

By: Mary Mann
Media Liaison Officer
Stone Initiatives (c)