Restored dome taking shape

2010-05-04 00:00

THE steel structure of the landmark dome now visible on top of Pietermaritzburg’s historic Colonial Building represents “a considerable feat of design and engineering,” says the restoration project’s architect.

Restoration work on the 109-year-old building was already in progress when parts of it were damaged by fire in June last year. This included the roof with its central and two side domes that collapsed, destroying parts of the interior including the first and second floors.

Nick Grice, project architect for the restoration said that designing the new dome was a considerable architectural challenge because there were no plans of the original. “To draw up plans we had to work from photographs and create a 3D model using CAD [computer-aided design] software. Reproducing the two smaller domes was not difficult because two exact replicas stand on the opposite side of the building, which was not affected by the fire.”

The steel structure now visible on top of the building was fabricated and pre-assembled on site at Midlands Industrial in Howick and then lifted by crane into place, piece by piece. “It fitted perfectly and is now bolted down and ready for the next phase of work. It’s quite an achievement to have designed and constructed it off-site and have it fit absolutely perfectly,” Grice said.

He explained that the steel structure does not look dome- shaped because it forms the sub-structure to a system of timber ribs and battens which will create the distinctive dome shape. This timber structure will then be clad in slate tiles, while the ribs, lantern and certain detailed mouldings will be clad in lead, to replicate the original.

Grice said the kind of skills required to fabricate the lead cladding are rare nowadays because people no longer work with the materials that were used at the time the Colonial Building was built, specifically copper and lead.

“However, Pietermaritzburg is fortunate enough to have several skilled sheet metal workers who are capable of doing the work required.”

The restoration of historic buildings has to be done in accordance with guidelines set by the Heritage section of the national Public Works Department, and the local Amafa office has also had input. “There’s also an international philosophy of restoration and reconstruction, which holds that you need to be as accurate as possible. Obviously if you can’t find some of the original materials, you have to make another plan, but the general approach is to be as faithful to the original as possible,” Grice said.

City residents who have missed the familiar landmark will be able to watch the progress of the restoration project as the next phases of work are done to restore the building to its original grandeur.

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