SYED ALATAS MANSION
Methods and Techniques of Restoration

Restoration of Syed Alatas Mansion
by
A. Ghafar Ahmad, Ph. D.
School of Housing, Building and Planning
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang

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Roof Structures
Rainwater Goods
Plastering and Painting
Flooring on Ground Level
Preservation of Timber
Cleaning of Walls

Much of the restoration activities have been carried out on the roof structures, rainwater goods, plastering and painting, re-moulding, flooring (ground level) and preservation of timber. The main principle here is not only to recapture a sense of the past but to preserve, conserve and restore as much of the existing fabric of its original condition or situation to achieve this end. As every restoration or conservation project is tackled differently, the Syed Alatas Mansion project (located on Armenian Street, Penang, Malaysia) has considered several approaches including structural analysis, proven techniques, experiments and innovations of building materials.

1. Roof Structures

All roof structures including roof tiles, rafters, ridges and fascia boards were inspected and analysed. Old Marseilles tiles and ridges were decayed as some of them were damaged or cracked. Erosion of mortar joints found at ridges and tiles near the gutter allowed water penetration and created instability to the remaining roof tiles. As new roof tiles were required, the old ones have to be kept and salvaged for other conservation projects. A local roof company, Batu Arang of Rawang, Selangor, has been commissioned to produce new roof tiles under the old specifications (including shapes and measurements). Terra-cotta is used under the process of kiln seasoning to give a natural colour to the new tiles. Several experiments and tests were conducted to improve joining system of the new tiles. The underneath shape of the new tiles is manufactured slightly different to create a stable inter-locking system, particularly when two tiles overlapped. This requires improving the existing rafters. As a result, trapezoid-shaped rafters are used to accommodate the new tiles. Technically, the first two tiles (near the gutter) are nailed and then at every one meter. Tiles are overlapped at around 4.5 cm.

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Pre-treatment of termite attacks was applied to new trusses while the old ones have been preserved by a chemical process of applying special solutions on timber surfaces using brush or spray. Insulation wool and aluminum sheets were introduced above the ceiling to reduce the heat trapped under the roof. In addition, ridges were replaced and given a new mortar underneath.

Fascia boards were replaced by new ones but maintaining their existing pattern. However, the top part of the new boards follows the shape of the tiles above and the height has been increased to allow new gutters to fit in. Canvas sheets were used to cover the building during the restoration of the roof tiles.

2. Rainwater Goods

New gutters have been introduced to the roof to give a proper drainage and to avoid water penetration mainly to other building elements underneath the roof. A specially made material which is as strong as copper but cheaper is used for the new gutter. With a life span of more than 100 years and rust resistant, the new gutters were pre-fabricated and welded in at 30 cm perimeter. Copper rivets (at every 3 cm) and collars are used to hold the gutter to the fascia boards. Connections are usually at joints and near down pipes of 10 cm radius. The gutters can be painted if necessary.

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Flashing and capping are quite important and should be considered in preventing water penetration. Double-flashing is used to replace the existing cement. This is carried out by fixing one flashing to the wall and the other to the roof truss. This also prevents the movement of the roof tiles as the lower flashing follows their shape. Capping of pilaster bases with lead material prevents water penetration and protects from stains on mouldings and other surfaces underneath. Copper rivets and welding were applied to every corner.

3. Plastering and Painting

Plaster is used widely on the existing brick and mortar walls. However, some of the original plaster renderings were peeling off, cracked and debound exposing the brick and mortar walls. Lime wash had been used on the existing plaster. During the restoration work, only debound plaster was removed by using small tools of various shapes and sizes. It should be considered during this work that steady hand gestures and movements (from bottom to top) are important to scrap off the plaster. This requires skills and experience. Once the removal of plaster was completed, the brick walls were left exposed for a certain period of time to allow the materials and soil to breathe. This would also reduce the moisture content and allow the walls to dry naturally. In some cases, injection of liquid lime was applied to fill up any gaps in the mortar. This also includes re-pointing of any cracks.

There are two types of mouldings used in the restoration of the mansion. Firstly, the in-situ method which is basically for any broken parts of the existing mouldings. This is carried out with either using basic tools or specially made frames. Secondly, the on-table technique which uses latex model to recreate the missing parts. For example, latex models were used to form keystones and other decorative mouldings around windows and doors. Lime wash has been reapplied to the existing walls to allow the building to breathe. Two coatings of lime were used on the walls including white colour for the first coating and lime wash with pigment for the second one. Based on the existing coatings, it was decided to use light blue colour for the interior and yellow for the exterior. The walls were then allowed to dry naturally for two months. A bluish colour was applied to the pilaster mouldings.

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4. Flooring on Ground Level

Almost all existing floor tiles have been removed leaving the floor exposed for a certain period of time. This allows the floor to dry naturally. Pipes measuring 10 cm in diameter were placed beneath the 20-25 cm floor filled with layers of gravels. Then terra-cotta tiles were placed on top to complete the flooring. The main purpose of the pipes is to allow natural ventilation underneath the floors.

5. Preservation of Timber

Timber has been used for roof structures, staircases, doors and fanlights. Chengal and Balau timber were used mainly for doors and fascia boards. It is important to mention that the floorboards and beams at upper level are in good condition and that there is no necessary work to be carried out. However, preservation of timber was only applied to decayed timber including roof trusses and door jambs. For instance, door jambs were decayed due to the existence of high moisture content. This was carried out by cutting and removing the decayed parts (at an angle of 45) and fixing them up with new timber. Then, the door jambs were repainted with dark green colour to match with the existing ones.

6. Cleaning of Walls

No chemical nor water is used to clean the existing walls. Instead, a dry cleaning system using mechanical tools and scrappers was applied. All scrapping were carried out by hands in a flat motion from bottom to top. This is to avoid any further damages to the existing plaster.

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Copyright 1996 HBP of USM
Last Updated on 14 January 1996