France will need an army of specialists to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral and the UK is on standby to send over architects and archaeologists, conservators and craftspeople.
Stonemasons and carpenters, as well as authorities on stained glass and drying out saturated buildings, are ready to cross the Channel to share their expertise on conservation and salvage.
Historic England is among heritage bodies offering help, based on lessons learned from fires in UK historic buildings, including Windsor Castle, Clandon Park and York Minster.
But they also warn of a shortage of certain traditional skills and that action must be taken to train a new generation before crafts die out altogether.
Ian Morrison, Historic England’s director of policy and evidence, said: “We have direct experience of what to do in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. We have experts in remote survey, who can record and inspect high-level masonry. We have conservation engineers with decades of experience of analysing the movement and stability of historic buildings … wall-painting specialists, stained-glass specialists, experts who understand how to dry out saturated buildings. All the water that went into the Notre Dame fire will be a big issue …
“The French heritage sector has some of the best craftspeople in the world, as do we. Until they’ve assessed the damage properly, it’ll be difficult for them to come to any conclusions about the skills they require. We’re offering whatever’s needed.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, wants the cathedral to be rebuilt within five years. Morrison said that, while Windsor Castle was largely restored within that time, he advised not to rush the project.
He said: “You can see the urgency to rebuild Notre Dame. You need to build momentum and inspire people. But within the debris, there is an enormous amount of valuable material. You have to sift through it. Otherwise you lose vital evidence.
“That’s one of the things we learned from Windsor Castle. You could restore the stone fabric and put on the roof within five years. That is feasible. The detailed reconstruction will go on for decades.”
A skills shortage is taking its toll, however. While there are stonemason apprenticeship programmes, for example, areas such as leadworking, stained glass and ironmongery are struggling.
In 2017, a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said historic buildings were at risk because of a restoration skills crisis. The Heritage Crafts Association now lists dozens of “critically endangered” crafts such as bell founding.
Morrison is calling for action across all sectors: “It’s an issue for the art schools, the education system, the construction industry, for government, for cathedrals. Everybody. We’re only going to solve these shortages by working together.”
But Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, the conservation watchdog, said the Notre Dame fire “was not an act of God” and was so far assumed to be linked to a restoration programme. “That is part of a pattern,” he said. “In 1992, the Windsor Castle fire occurred when picture restoration was taking place. In 2007, the Cutty Sark was gutted by fire during restoration. The 2018 second burning down of Charles Rennie Macintosh’s Glasgow School of Art occurred during restoration work that followed the fire in 2014 ...
“There’s a lack of supervision of the most elementary kind … Waste shouldn’t be allowed to accumulate, checks should be made on all the electrics, there should be no loose connections, no appliances left on unattended.”
Responding to criticism, Morrison said: “There have been a number of incidents where fires have occurred whilst renovation work is going on and we must learn from those. But actually, fire risk is one of the greatest threats to historic buildings per se.”
Allan Brodie of Historic England, who has made an in-depth study of Notre Dame, is on Rochester Cathedral’s fabric committee. Fire was “a constant worry”, he said. “There’s work going on all the time, so it’s very high risk to the building’s safety.”
He too lamented the shortage of craftspeople. “In Britain, cathedral-quality stonemasons and carpenters are thin on the ground. The thing that will undermine Macron’s promise to get the cathedral reopened in five years is just trying to find enough skilled manpower.”