Jamie Harris talks to Tom Billington, facilities manager at Durham Cathedral, on the challenges of FM in a 1,000-year-old building, and plans to bring it into the 21st century.
20 May 2014
The scene is quintessentially English.
A tiny North-Eastern city, cobbled streets and cafés tucked away and a gorgeous Romanesque structure - two, in fact - Durham Castle, and next to it, Durham Cathedral. Within the confines of the cathedral walls, facilities manager Tom Billington is hard at work.
Six months into the job, Billington has found the role a drastic change from his previous role at the Olympic Park in London. His office, for example, is in a converted barn. He is, however, revelling in his task.
"It is a huge conservation job," says Billington. "'Urgent' here is nine months. I'm used to things that need doing yesterday. There is so much planning and project management involved here. We have a 25-year stone conservation programme, where we can keep on top of what areas of the cathedral need taking care of."
Out of the office
On some of the walls the faint marks of multi-coloured murals remain, giving a glimpse of how the building looked 1,000 years ago. Billington's task is to bring the FM process into the 21st century, while preserving the architecture and feel of such a delicate building.
He is grateful to be working with Iain Wilmshurst, the works yard manager, and Phil Abson, the building services manager, who have been working at the cathedral for 40 and 36 years respectively. Their experience, as well as the knowledge of an on-site archaeologist (required by law) and a variety of consultants - including neighbours Durham University Archaeological Services - allows Billington to take minute aspects of the building's condition into account.
The site's maintenance and conservation team comprises a number of skilled labourers. Cleaning and restoring the stonework, for example, must be carefully managed.
"We have six stonemasons on site," says Billington, "as well as two joiners and a cathedral architect and surveyor, who is required by law.
"On top of keeping the building clean, we must replace some of the facades because the structural integrity is dropping. One of the bigger jobs is rebuilding one of the pinnacles over the next few years."
Billington is used to demolition and rebuild jobs. The pinnacle must be carefully taken down and as much of them as possible conserved.
The site is also composed of surrounding buildings, all Grade I listed, and the adjoining woodland areas down towards the river, which are maintained by two full-time grounds people. The Chorister School - the Preparatory School where the Cathedral's choristers are educated - also sits on site.
As this part of Durham is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Billington and his team must abide by the 'Care of Cathedrals Measure', which outlines a number of approvals requirements that must be met before any significant works can be carried out.
Each cathedral is also issued with a Quinquennial Inspection Report. Within the Church of England every church building must be inspected by an architect or chartered building surveyor approved by the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) every five years. This details any necessary repairs and conservation works that must be undertaken.
Each cathedral must also appoint a non-executive fabric advisory committee.
"It takes a long time to get things approved," says Billington.
"Before you can actually get on the ground and do it, you've got a few months of talking to the right people."
However, Billington does not have time to be frustrated by these approval delays when work is also being undertaken to suppress spiralling maintenance costs. Billington estimates that the building costs up to £60,000 per week to run, with the majority of this cost coming from under-floor heating that was installed in the 1960s and a 'theatrical lighting scheme', implemented in the 1990s.
"It's all very old, but it works very well. We also have convector heaters in the towers that need replacing."
"We've had a lighting consultant in to see how much of the costs we can cut. Any money saved is money to spend on conservation and repairs."
The cathedral's operation is one big juggling act. Billington's job is to prioritise which part of the building's conservation is most important, allocating funds and planning for the future.
"We are a charity, and much of this work is paid for through donations and grants," he explains. There is a full-time development team to focus on the source of income.
The role of the FM
A large part of bringing the cathedral's operation into a more process-driven setup was the introduction of Billington's role itself. Before he arrived in November, the role of facilities manager at Durham Cathedral did not exist. Says Billington: "The cathedral architect suggested appointing an FM as we needed someone to take a strategic overview and project manage the works on site."
Billington is now in the process of gathering information on the site. The cathedral is currently undergoing a site-wide fire risk assessment, as well as other surveys before any major conservation work. The position was created to make additional capacity to work with the Head of Property and the existing team, as well as the Cathedral Architect to meet ongoing conservation and maintenance needs of the building.
Billington has big plans for the next few years. The cathedral has recently been equipped with Wi-Fi, and he explains that what was once a plan to install an information screen at one end of the cathedral, without a series of network cables running up pillars, has snowballed into a multi-purpose project.
"For the security side of things, I wanted to do it, because it would give us the infrastructure to have an IP CCTV system, a wireless alarm system and sensors in the cathedral," he says.
"We've put enough access points in so that the education department can go around and give tours with iPads in the near future. Eventually we'd like people to come in and download the Durham Cathedral app."
The increased network coverage on site allows the possibility for Billington to introduce a building management system a fully integrated fire alarm system and a security network.
Security is a particularly complex issue for a place of worship. By its nature, a cathedral adopts an 'open-house' policy. The intricate security planning is made more complex throughout the year with a number of events, from university congregations to Christmas services, Royal visits and TV and film crews working on site (the cathedral was extensively used in the Harry Potter film franchise, and the BBC TV Antiques Roadshow programme will be recording on site in September).
With ancient relics and a boarding school to take care of on top of that, as well as a structure that is a millennium old, there is a lot to keep an eye on.
"We have 24-hour manned guarding, and our head of security lives on site," Billington explains.
"But we hope to move to a more modern approach with new security systems."
Billington, like any FM, is the curious type, always looking to learn more at every turn.
"I'm considering doing a Master's course at Durham University in international cultural heritage management."
"Any time I'm in London, I like to go around and have a look at how they do things. Recently I was at the Natural History Museum, where the inside is clay and terracotta, not stone, so it's dealt with differently."
For now, the team in Durham has a plethora of areas on which to focus.
"I want to make things as efficient and modern as possible, but we don't want to lose sight of what the point of the place is."
A lot of cathedrals are still very 'old school', says Billington, while others re run in a much more modern manner.
As a structure voted 'Britain's Favourite Building' a number of times in recent years, retaining Durham Cathedral's characteristic appeal is of paramount importance. Combining this reuirement with the modernisation of its operation is where the challenge lies.
Evolving project - Open Treasure
The collections at Durham Cathedral are extraordinary. Copies of the Magna Carta, and ancient relics of St Cuthbert and books dating back to the 6th century reside on site. First editions of works such as Darwin's On The Origins Of Species, and Sir Isaac Newton's Principia, published in 1713, are also in the collection.
The cathedral is in the midst of a major development project called Open Treasure designed to transform the way visitors can enjoy the cathedral and be inspired by it. Completed projects include the creation of a new Cathedral Shop and the refurbishment of the restaurant in a medieval undercroft that for the first time in over 100 years now has all 13 bays of its vaulted ceiling visible.
An archaeological excavation has just been completed in the 14th century priory kitchen ahead of it becoming part of a series of gallery spaces to display the cathedral's collections and loans from other institutions - a project part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
In the developed space, St Cuthbert's tomb is to be displayed, along with other remnants and the copy of the Magna Carta.
The team must take great care with any loaned items. "If someone is loaning their most prized possession to us, they will tell us what conditions it must be placed in," says Billington. "In a new building, it is easy to take control of the atmosphere. But maintaining a constant temperature in the cathedral is difficult. We cannot just heat it - if the humidity rises, the stonework will start to deteriorate, costing millions in restoration work in the long term. "We have got to look after the building as much as what is on display."
There will be an increased security operation too, as well as a requirement for more gallery attendants.
"If someone comes and steals the Magna Carta, it's not just Durham Cathedral that gets upset - it's the whole country."