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Government House's R20m refurbishment

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14 Aug 2012

The 164 year old Government House building in Pietermaritzburg and now national monument is undergoing a major refurbishment and alterations.

The 164 year old Government House building in Pietermaritzburg and now national monument is undergoing a major refurbishment and alterations.

The 24 month project is scheduled for completion in December 2012.

The property that began its life as a five-roomed thatched cottage in the 1840s and has been added to over the years to become an 81 room structure, is today a national monument.

Lindsay Napier, Heritage chair of the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Architecture, explains that the life history of the building is told by the materials used to erect the original structure and then the subsequent additions and alterations.

After being acquired by UNISA, the building is currently undergoing complex repairs and restoration work to accommodate conference facilities, post-graduate study rooms, administration offices, a music centre and museum.

To preserve the various styles and materials used while incorporating modern elements, it was essential to appoint experts in the field of restoration and renovation.

For the task, UNISA commissioned specialist contractors GVK-Siya Zama whose expertise in construction, renovation, restoration and re-cycling of buildings has seen them being associated with a number of high profile, landmark projects including the restoration of the Central Government Offices in Pretoria, City Hall in Durban and Colonial Building in Pietermaritzburg.

They have also been awarded numerous contracts over the years involving prominent government and public buildings, national monuments, commercial buildings, churches and schools.

According to GVK-Siya Zama construction manager Gordon Key, the restoration has involved 'opening up' the building, which has revealed a number of building techniques and materials used between 1848 and 1970.

These reflect the different eras through which the building has lived and the uses it has served.

Lindsay Napier, Heritage chair of the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Architecture, explains that the life history of the building is told by the materials used to erect the original structure and then the subsequent additions and alterations.

Key says the Broseley Tiles used on the roof were among the many interesting materials with which they worked.

He notes that these were manufactured in their millions between 1870 and 1930 in Broseley, England and exported to the various British colonies.

With Durban being a port and the English expansion into KwaZulu-Natal during this period, it is understandable how these became the tile of choice used on many colonial buildings in the Province.

He explains that the tiles, though inherently fragile, were laid close together on battens made from Oregon timber with about 59 tiles per square metre.

This created a tightly-bound, water-resistant surface which, because of the weight of the tiles, prevented wind uplift and therefore water ingress - one of the main culprits for damaging these buildings.

While the tiles and battens comprised the bulk of the area, it was the flashings and valley gutters which kept the roof dry and protected, he says.

“Strangely, modern building materials have become a major problem in the maintenance of these roofs,” reveals Key.

Modern day timber available for battening has a short lifespan and conventional lead or copper flashings have been replaced with acrylic or fabric versions.

In addition, ignorance has led to insulation membranes being installed below the battens, which have trapped moisture in the roof spaces - speeding up the deterioration of the battens and fixing nails.

As a result, the roofs become deformed over time affecting the integrity of the roof covering.

“On this project, as well as on several others in the KwaZulu-Natal area, we removed, repaired and cleaned these tiles and then repacked large areas of the roof.”

According to GVK-Siya Zama construction manager Gordon Key, the restoration has involved 'opening up' the building, which has revealed a number of building techniques and materials used between 1848 and 1970.

The tiles had to be carefully selected when being re-laid to ensure that they interlocked correctly.

“Furthermore, we undertook the task of reproducing the lead and copper flashings as well as the gutter linings used originally - a specialist trade which has almost disappeared.”

On top of the extensive structural mending, waterproofing and tile restorations on the roofs, a new skylight has been installed.

The ceilings below have been stripped and delicate repairs made to their pressed metal embellishments.

The R20 million project has also involved intricate structural repairs throughout the building, the stripping of a large portion of the timber floors, restoration of the stained glass panels as well as the introduction of a period hardwood staircase and glass lift.

The building has undergone extensive termite control and has received new wiring along with the complete refitting and repair of all joinery.

“These, together with the provision of modern-day data and climate control requirements, will bring the heritage building up to date and service the client’s needs for many years to come,” says Key.

Once the renovations are complete, the Siya Zama team will redecorate the building, upgrade the surrounding roads and tend to the landscaping.

“It is by authentically restoring the original touches that we retain the history, dignity and respect owed to these grand buildings.”

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