In celebration of the Warwick East State School – The National School Building shortlisting for an Australian Institute of Architects Award, we spoke with our project lead Heritage Architects Senior Associate Michael Scott and Architect Yolande Vorster to hear how Queensland’s oldest known remaining school building was carefully restored, one brick at a time.
Why is the National School Building so significant?
Michael: It’s arguably the oldest remaining state school building in Queensland. All other school buildings of that era have since disappeared that we are aware of. With this one still here, it is of particular high significance for Queensland and the Queensland Department of Education. It was also a National School Building which predates the State School System.
Yolande: As the National School Building has been around for close to 160 years, it is highly valued by the community, with many of the local people attending the school over the years. It is also a good intact example of the work of early Queensland architect, Banjamin Backhouse.
How was it built and what did it serve as?
Michael: The Darling Downs settled before other parts of Queensland, and after the original building burnt down, a 1860s brick building was desired. They essentially dug a trench, filled it with rubble and then built a hand pressed brick school building – it’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. It is a very elegant yet simple space – 6m wide x 15m long which started as an all-Boys school then turned into separate Boys’ and Girls’ schools – boys on one side and girls on the other.
Yolande: The school steadily grew around this National School Building, and was later renamed to Warwick East State School. The building’s most recent use was as a music classroom, but our brief was to allow it to be used as a multipurpose space for both the school and the community.
What were the big issues?
Michael: The site floods periodically and has very deep and highly reactive clay soil which swells when it is wet and shrinks when it is dry, so the building has endured a lot of movement since it was built. It was in terrible shape – there were large cracks across all of the walls, and the brickwork had been painted in layers of plastic paint which resulted in substantial deterioration of the original bricks.
The building had also experienced rising damp since the 1860s with the brick walls constructed on top of rubble filled troughs resulting in salts in the soil moving up through the brickwork, which then crystallised and made the surface of some of the bricks break away. This was exacerbated by the addition of early cement render dados both internally and externally.
How did the project begin and how were you able to address the main challenges it presented?
Michael: The project started more than 10 years ago – we were commissioned to do a Conservation Management Plan for Warwick Central and Warwick East State Schools. As the building is State Heritage Listed, we had to show that the work would have little to no impact on the building’s significance – the State Heritage Department have been very supportive and we have maintained a good working relationship.
We enlisted the help of heritage brick restoration specialist, Maurice (Maurie) Potrzeba very early on to investigate the damage to the bricks. When we took the cement render off the bricks to enable the wall to dry out, the protective face of the bricks also came off which meant they were ruined and needed to be turned. The other bricks had been painted in about four to seven different kinds of paint, including waterproof plastic paint and cement paint. We started stripping the paint right back to allow the building to breathe, which required multiple different paint strippers to remove the different paint layers. In the meantime, Maurie’s team discovered that turning the bricks was rather efficient due to the lime rich mortar – that’s when Maurie came up with an ingenious idea of taking the rest of the building apart and turning almost every brick.
I have been doing this for 35 years and had never come across that idea. You’ve actually got hand pressed 19th century bricks with lime mortar that look like they were laid yesterday. The 159-year-old bricks can now have another 100 or so years of life.
Turning the bricks meant that all of the cracks were repaired without the need for reinforcing bars. To prevent future cracks in the brickwork, the building had to have new footings and underwent a major underpinning process, with a contiguous raft slab. We went through a number of investigations and strategies which were adjusted as the work progressed.
What other work has been undertaken to make the building functional for modern use?
Michael: Every bit of the building is wildly different to the other – there are over seven types of windows and four varied doors. We added a new ramp and new door hardware to the door on the eastern side of the building to provide equitable access. We made sure that every window that used to open was made operable again, as well as the ventilation flaps that had been disused for 50 years. It’s fantastic to get them up and running again.
Because we had replaced the concrete veranda slabs with new concrete, we could insert new footings around the posts with galvanised stirrups to stop termites eating their way up into the building.
LED up and down lights have been subtly added which illuminate the beautiful 19th century timber trusses and tongue and groove ceiling.
We have ensured that the work wouldn’t have to be undone to accommodate future requirements such as air-conditioning, data and electronic system upgrades, which are already planned for future stages. We have made sure the building is good for the next 50-100 years.
What has been the response to the newly restored National School Building?
Michael: I think it looks fantastic. It has been wonderful for us to be part of this fairly unprecedented process to get a great result. It was a very uplifting and cooperative team effort – Maurie’s advice was very valuable and the builder also took a lot of care. Every job has its learning experiences but this has more than most – I never thought I would say yes to a bricklayer turning every brick on an entire building.
Yolande: For such a small building, so much work, attention and care has gone into it. It has been one of the most complex buildings that I have worked on, but the result looks so effortless and is loved by the school and local community. The adaptability of everyone on the team from paint reps, to the builder, to the heritage brick specialist, to us, to state heritage, and even the client, really supported the project. There were many things to reassess along the way and we learnt so much, but everyone was on board to achieve the very best for the building.