Nothing much is a surprise to Owen Carragher after almost 40 years of working on old buildings.
But something did shock him before he and his team from Longstone Pty Ltd started on Goulburn's Saint Clair villa.
"It has no foundations; it's just sitting on clay," Mr Carragher told The Post in his still rich Irish brogue.
His firm is undertaking conservation work on the 1840s villa, which is usually the home of Goulburn and District Historical and Genealogical Society.
The council has allocated just over $1 million for project. Longstone won a tender in May to complete the stage one phase.
Since May, Mr Carragher's team of four has demolished rear sheds and a balcony, removed asbestos, installed new drainage cells and made major inroads into damp proofing and mould removal.
They have also addressed termite and white ant damage, implemented prevention measures and started restoration of a rear coach house into an archives and exhibition space.
Currently, a crew is replacing the weathered roof using traditional methods, replacing guttering and ensuring that water can properly drain away and not cause further problems.
"Dampness and the ventilation have been the biggest things," Mr Carragher explained.
"It causes a lot of ongoing problems."
Water had been leaking from above into down-pipes and then below the building.
Only a small part of Saint Clair has foundations. In order to remedy this, the crew dug out 90 tonnes of dirt by hand, owing to the confined space.
They then inserted piers, bearers and joists and raised the floor 500mm, out of the dampness. Four ventilation shafts were installed and pipes fitted to suck out stale air and recycle clean air. Damp courses were inserted throughout, along with white ant barriers.
The work was all the more challenging because the villa was built on a slope.
"The problem was that it was built in a hole. There was no natural water proofing and no damp course," Mr Carragher said.
Along the way, he discovered work that was done with the best of intentions but in fact had made matters worse.
The project is the largest restoration in Saint Clair's long history. It was designed by and for James Sinclair in the about 1843, used as a villa and later an accommodation house. The council bought it in 1969 for the Historical Society.
The council's manager of marketing, events and culture, Sarah Ruberto, said a working party was formed after the villa was closed for safety reasons in 2016. Heritage architect Peter Freeman then formulated a conservation management plan to guide work.
"It's a priority list of works that has been adapted and changed as things come to light," Mrs Ruberto said.
One of those is a disability access which will be built through the front garden and curved into the veranda.
Electrical and fire safety upgrades, rendering and painting will be undertaken next, as well as new internal stairs. Mrs Ruberto said it was vital to deal with the building's structural integrity first.
Longstone isn't cutting any corners. Mr Carragher said the measures were long-term ones.
In the process, the crew is keeping as many original materials as possible, including floorboards, and employing traditional methods such as soldering on new guttering and hand nails in coach house flooring. Installed Cyprus pine floorboards in some sections are a natural ant barrier, due to the perfume.
Archaeologists examined the site before any work started but only found an old butter knife and a police button in the coach house, Mrs Ruberto said.
She told The Post that some repairs to Saint Clair had been undertaken several years ago, including fascias.
"But certainly they haven't been to this level of investment," she said.
"They are long overdue but they go to the building's longevity...Owen and his team have done an incredible job."
A grant will fund an interpretation plan for the vast local history collection, which includes items and archives, and determine how it can be best used.
The Society has relocated into temporary premises next door and has put items in council storage.
Mrs Ruberto said the aim was to complete all work and re-open by June, 2021.
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