Nice Little Urner

Traditional Restoration Company

That is how it is in the restoration business. There are many techniques that can produce effects not just comparable to traditional stone finishes, but better – perfection is available. But perfection is not what is wanted. What we want is the real thing, carved by a genuine banker mason.

So says James Ginter, director of Sydney’s Traditional Restoration Company. This small and exclusive business has been responsible for some of the finest renovations of centuries-old buildings in the New South Wales capital and beyond over the last thirty years, keeping as busy as it does largely because of a refusal either to compromise on quality or to tolerate modern methods of reproducing stone finishes in lieu of serious and painstaking craftsmanship.

At St Mary’s, in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, James and his team have some 24 highly experienced masons, many of them from Europe as the skills are so rare, who can repair or copy damaged stone just as it would have been done originally, hundreds or in some cases even more than a thousand years ago. Modern reproduction techniques can actually produce a finer, flawless finish, he says, but no one really wants it because it will never look quite right.

Demand for restoration work and similar work in traditional stone is in general decline, says James, but this company is unlikely to lack for work in the medium or even long term, given its uncompromising attitude to quality. In a declining market, he says, it’s the people in the middle that get squeezed, his medium-quality competitors. At the bottom there will always be room for someone to do a fast and cheap job, and at the top, there will always be a market for the best.

“It’s a tough market. We refuse to compromise on quality, [which means that] not every client is suited to us. They will choose a contractor on the basis of how much risk they want to take, what value they place on their asset and the aesthetic quality. It’s the value for money statement that we focus on.” While some potential clients only want the most casual or basic care of the buildings in their portfolio, others, such as Sydney’s authorities and federal and state government departments, usually take the long-term view and understand the need to keep the building in good condition for as long as possible, which means doing a thorough, if somewhat more costly, job.

There are in fact several linked companies within the business, notably Traditional Restoration and its contracting arm, and Traditional Stonemasonry (Consulting). In addition, a separate company was formed in New Zealand in 2010 to carry out a project in the capital Wellington; this company was updated in 2013 and is being retained in order to provide consultancy advice and to assist with the rebuilding of Christchurch. The consulting arm produces exceptionally detailed analyses of the state of buildings and stonework and lists required and recommended treatments. A sizeable proportion of the work listed in these consultations comes to the contracting arm of the company, but a lot doesn’t, usually because it is beyond the budget of the client. However, a client who uses the consultation as basis for a contract is at a considerable advantage as James and his team can – as he himself points out – hardly claim to find any surprises or come across conditions that would give rise to variations, because they wrote the reports.

Many of the requisite skills, including metalworking, are available in-house, but external suppliers must be chosen with care. First, stone is sourced within Australia wherever possible to match the original – in many cases the original supplying quarry will have long since closed, but there are surprising stocks of stone around that may match. China can supply, but rarely to the right quality as yet, though James foresees that this source will improve. With external contractors, the story is simple – it doesn’t matter if it’s scaffolding, electrical, or other services, they have to learn how to work in the very rarefied atmosphere of restoration.

Like James’ own team, suppliers must all learn to be exposed to the public gaze. Many readers will recall the recently finished $7.4 million Sydney Town Hall clock tower renovation, with its decorative hand-carved capitals and urns. Traditional Restoration altered its usual site screens to incorporate Perspex windows so passers-by could actually see what was going on and – importantly – how much superb craftsman’s work was going into the project. For some time it was one of the sights of Sydney.

And there must be no mistakes. James reminds that a piece of stone sitting on the banker might already have cost $30,000 before a chisel goes near it; once carved, it may now be worth more than twice that. “It’s something for the crane driver to think about when he is lifting it into place,” says James. “If it arrives on site and it’s chipped or scratched, it can be rejected, which would be a very expensive situation. We believe it is better to spend a little longer on a project and not worry about damaging anything.” Clients are often impatient, he adds, and the company will always try to fit to schedules, but “the memory of how long the project took will fade extremely quickly once the last bit of scaffolding comes down. But the result, the outcome of the project, will remain with you for the next 150 years.”

James and his team evidently enjoy their work. Founder Kris Krawczyk is still working, and together with Nicola Ashurst, one of the world’s foremost authorities on materials handling in this context (she has worked on many of the foremost restorations in Rome), they can advise on how to restore, renovate or sensitively replace just about anything you can think of that is in stone. But only if you want it done well.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 4:58 AM AEDT