A little time spent now on a building “M.O.T.” can save parishes from having to spend a great deal of money later. Good maintenance begins with a good inspection, but the inspection of the high level elements of a church building can be a daunting, and perhaps prohibitively expensive or risky, thought for many select vestries.
However, a pilot scheme, undertaking a series of high level inspections of churches across Northern Ireland using drones, is showing that this emerging technology could provide an answer. The scheme over two years 2017/2018 was backed by the National Churches Trust, partnering with the Ulster Historic Churches Trust and looked at a range of different church buildings by denomination, location, size, scale and height. The scheme also aimed to raise awareness of the importance of maintenance of church buildings, as well as helping those charged with their upkeep to understand the particular maintenance issues associated with their building.
McCollum Conservation working with a professional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone operator, provided the service and looked at 16 churches, chosen to fully explore the maintenance potential of the technology. The surveys concentrated on high level, difficult to reach elements including roofs, parapets, finials, rainwater goods, towers and spires. The subsequent reports provided photographic evidence of the defects uncovered, together with a detailed appraisal of the structure and clearly identified future maintenance works and repairs.
The first step was to work with church wardens to ensure that the path of the drone would capture all the difficult to reach areas. These can be areas of the building that are entirely inaccessible or sections where there is a known problem, such as dampness below. Wardens can continue to contribute, as images from the drone are transmitted to a ground station during the survey. Furthermore, these can be interrogated, or the path of the drone tweaked as the survey proceeds. In this way, defects can be tracked until the source of the problem is identified. High definition stills and video shots allow detailed photos to be added to a written report, which will augment and explain what the issues are for the short, medium and long term maintenance of the church building.
A drone inspection can be a one-off to pick up the cause of a symptom, such as dampness which has been noticed by the congregation. Alternatively, it may be commissioned on a periodic basis so that a known deterioration can be monitored, such as slipping slates or stone and pointing failure, for example, to a spire. Most often, it will identify a mundane issue, such as a missing roof slate or blocked high level gutter that is causing an exponential problem further down in the church building’s fabric.
The operator of the drone must use it in a responsible manner and is subject to safety rules that are underpinned by law. The pilot must be qualified and have permission to undertake commercial work from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). On the day of the survey, the pilot should have alerted neighbours if required and must not fly at a height above 400 ft from ground level, unless specific CAA approval has been obtained. There are restrictions on flight paths according to the grade of air space in which the church sits and additional permissions might be required.
High parts of any church or cathedral can be difficult to access for inspection to a point where proceeding is prohibitively expensive or even potentially dangerous. Drones – coupled with a knowledgeable building expert – can help a parish seeking to get to the root of a problem, or wishing to understand the very complex structure it is charged with maintaining. The reports generated by the drone operator and professional can allow a meaningful periodic inspection to take place with much reduced cost, time and risk to the parish.
This article written by Chris McCollum appeared in January 2019 issue of the Church of Ireland Gazette