Preserving Wooden Heritage. Methods for monitoring and maintaining timber architecture.

Studying the past, the ancient and historical architecture has always represented theoretical and practical process of knowledge for understanding our architectural and environmental identity. The main reason has always been the need to get information from our ancestors about the specific background of a place, deepening styles, constructive solutions, traditions and better consciousness about the unsolved problems in order to operate in the present state in harmony with the existing reality.
Digital surveying methods can be used to preserve wooden historical and architectural heritage.

During the past centuries, wooden buildings and timber structures were often considered less important for many European countries, evidently due to a greater preference and attitude for the more ancient stone and brick architecture. However, thanks to its specific traditional technological solutions and constructive details, a substantial part of the historic wooden heritage still survived until now and is still present in many regions.

How to link the contemporary architectural practice with the tangible and intangible elements of a site is today the focus of the debate in our design operations. Concerning wooden architecture in detail, a huge reassessment in the use of this material has been going on, also because of its capacity in improving the quality of life it can guarantee better performance and faster construction. For all these reasons, a renewed interest in the study of historical wooden architecture has been born. The aim is to learn from the ancestors not only the practical solutions and technical measures but also to refresh the connection with a specific branch of the history of architecture.

A heritage, which still needs to be discovered…and preserved

Yet the state of the art concerning the Wooden Heritage in Europe is unfortunately not encouraging or supporting any scientific approach for preserving or restoration activities – due to the unsystematic ways of or lacking proper documentation. Today this unique wooden world heritage needs urgently to be surveyed and cataloged. Fires and abandonment are the main factors jeopardizing the preservation of this architecture; every year too many wooden buildings still disappear because of these main reasons.

Laser scanning technology and digital survey systems are representing nowadays one of the most efficient type of survey for measuring and documenting wooden heritage and timber structures. Historic wooden architecture is in fact characterized by complex constructive systems made up by unique pieces and detailed parts (as for example corners and carved ornaments) which appear always difficult to measure with a high accuracy just by using normal, simple measuring tools. Research activities and specific studies have confirmed that different cultures all over the world hold their own historic wooden architecture, different in constructive systems and compositions, but also rich of several common features.

Our mission and research actions

In our PresWoodenHeritage project we have started to answer to the evident and urgent need to keep and preserve wooden architecture by developing systematic and technical procedures of interventions based on the latest digital surveying techniques and scinetific methods of investigation. Detailed 2D and 3D representations, navigable models and diagnistic considerations represent some of the primary output that can be achieved by using the latest technologies. Together with careful analysis of the archival documentation and theoretical research, these ingredients can produce new important insight in the documentation and investigation of the historic architecture.

PresWoodenHeritage project is conducted by respecting and honouring the principles described and promoted in the main charters on restoration and conservation such as the Venice Charter and the more recent Madrid Document: from the treatment of a heritage, to the way of constructing an appropriate documentation up to the part of dissemination and involvement of the inhabitants of the place.

The mission is to operate within the ICOMOS Principles for defining new technical methods, procedures and protocols, fundamental for technicians and operators involved in different types of activities: restoration, documentation, re-assessment and re-designing actions, re-use, accessibility projects, preservation needs etc. According to the preface of the Conservation of Historic Timber Structures manual it is clear that the research key is that “There are no standard technical solutions which can be applied universally. Our experience is that repair approaches must be geared towards the specific cultural, architectural and environmental challenges in the country or region where the historic timber structure is located. With this background, one of our most important tasks […] has been the development of the Principles for the Preservation of Historic Timber Structures”.

Theory in Practice

The elaboration of the method is carried out through the selection and analysis of wooden case studies chosen because for their particular historical, architectural or urban aspects. The cases analysed belong to different historic periods and areas, some are group of buildings and others are isolated architecture. The main case studies are the protected settlement of Lamminaho in Vaala Region, the historic neighbourhood of Raksila in Oulu, the Fisherman Church and windmill at the Turkansaari Open air Museum and the neoromantic wooden villa Nylander in Haukipudas area. In addition to this, also some timber roof structures like in Louhisaari Manor, Askainen area, has been detected. They are first studied from the general features to the particular details, including analysis and surveys on different scales, experimenting different digital instruments and techniques. Accurate inventories and census activities support the description of the architecture and its environment by producing digital updated archives of new data. The combination between different levels of information define then an interdisciplinary approach giving the possibility to get a complete framework of updated knowledge. Second part of the work activities and results will be dedicated for promotion and increasing public awareness on the need of preserving the historical, architectural and landscape heritage.

In synthesis: Studying architecture and its environment, archival studies and historical analysis, should always start out with the digital survey on the site. According to the advanced digital technology, also the guidelines and methods for preservation need to be updated and implemented. This challenge concerns both research and the supporting technicians and operators involved in different restoration and preservation activities. Today the main damages to our heritage are created by the lack of education in understanding the cultural context.

Historical memory and preservation of a heritage passes also through a collective validation of the cultural significance that a heritage brings with itself. Spreading its documentation contributes to the formation of a common awareness of the cultural value of that object and therefore of the importance of its protection.

Sara Porzilli is Architect and Post-Doctoral Researcher with a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship (MSCA) at the School of Architecture in Oulu, Department of History of Architecture and Restoration Studies. Her research aims to preserve wooden architecture by developing systematic and technical procedures of interventions based on the latest digital surveying techniques and scientific methods of investigation. The combination between academic research work and experience with digital survey expert companies has helped her to improve both theory and practice of this specific sector of investigation, increasingly essential not only for supporting restoration and preservation actions, but also for guiding new urban design processes.