Our site managers at Chester Farm are a shy bunch and I only have to mention the prospect of an interview to see them flee to the far corners of the site. So when I managed to corner four of them I seized the moment!
On a project as large as Chester Farm it is commonplace for the site managers to specialise in particular areas such as the new build, the refurbishment and the groundworks.
Garry Fryer from Coventry is site manager for the refurbishment and restoration and has been on the project from early 2017. He has much experience of working with historic buildings and he tells me that he has learnt the hard way what a challenge they can be. He never knows what the day will bring and since working on site has encountered bats, barn owls, Himalayan Balsam, archaeology and Roman skeletons.
"What makes each day so challenging is that your plans have to change according to what you find and this makes it very different from new build" says Garry," always interesting but sometimes very frustrating."
His favourite building on site is the farmhouse, Chester House because to him it is the most difficult. "It will look stunning when it's done" Garry says and goes on to suggest that it will be a brilliant venue for events.
I remark on how impressed I am with the quality of the stone masonry repairs that have been done. Garry explains that the Worker's Cottages have been a big challenge as they were structurally very poor and internally had been much changed over the years. The wall on the east side was so bad that it had to be taken down and rebuilt.
He goes onto explain the importance of using traditional techniques and particularly the use of lime mortars. This can be dangerous stuff when mixing as it can burn the skin. The colour of the mortar is dictated by the particular quarry that the lime comes from, but they trialled various recipe mixes for the architect to find the one that would look best.
The joints between the stones are hand raked and the local limestone here is thankfully pretty strong. There are also patches of ironstone on some of the buildings and this is weaker than the limestone. The Threshing Barn has big sections of ironstone and this has needed much repairing.
Callum Scott is a civil engineer from Coleshill who has been with Shaylor Group for six months and on the Chester Farm project for three weeks. Ground works including roads and drainage are his speciality and he has been in construction for seven years. He has not worked on many heritage projects, so that was particularly what attracted him to working on Chester Farm.
His first thoughts on visiting the site was looking at what has to be done to make the new and old work together. His challenges have been the working areas and the archaeology. Callum tells me that "it’s a very congested site" and there is so much scaffolding everywhere that it becomes hard to get the open ground to do the necessary work. I ask him if he will be sorry when the project completes, but no he "likes to see a job finish – it's so satisfying".
Paul Clements from south Staffordshire is overall project manager for both the new and old elements of the Chester Farm build. He has 20 years' experience in the construction industry and has worked for Shaylor Group previously, working on a series of prison builds. He left to widen his experience working on schools, universities and heritage projects such as Dudley Castle and has now returned to Shaylor Group to lead on Chester Farm.
I ask him what his first thoughts were on visiting the site and like the others he talks about how challenging it is and that it comes down to "all the unknowns". He runs through a few including contamination in one building when he couldn't allow anyone in until it was sorted and the difficulty around getting all the services in, particularly as the nearby A45 is about to undergo both electrical and bridge strengthening works.
Both new and old build present their different challenges and he shows me a picture of the underpinning of an ancient wall that had to take place because it had no foundations. As he says, "You wouldn't do that on every job!"
Two months ago Paul had around 30 construction workers on site and this is now around 60 and he thinks that very soon this will rise to 80 or more. He says that this is because the more they uncover, the more that they bottom out what the unknowns are and can proceed accordingly.
All this talk of 'known unknowns' is beginning to sound like the start of a complicated political speech so I decide to beat a hasty retreat as they all clearly know what they're doing and are in charge of the situation!
Mary Powell, web editor