Saving historic buildings from erosion

Supplementary content information

photograph taken of the outside of York Minster

Scientists and preservation experts joined forces to help save historic York Minster Cathedral from decay and erosion.

  • Advanced X-ray techniques determine condition of limestone and historic mortars
  • To fight decay, the team developed a single-layer water-resistant coating that also enables the stone to ‘breathe’
  • International collaboration supported by EPSRC, AHRC and US National Science Foundation
  • Findings could help conserve other historic limestone buildings around the world

An international research project co-funded by EPSRC has led to the development of a new way to protect limestone buildings and statues from the effects of atmospheric pollution.

The team was led by Dr (now Professor) Karen Wilson, from York University (now at RMIT University in Melbourne), and Professor Adam Lee from Cardiff University (now at RMIT University in Melbourne). They used advanced X-ray techniques to investigate the composition of the limestone and historic mortars used to build York Minster cathedral, an 800-year-old gothic masterpiece, and the ways in which these have decayed as a result of weathering and pollution over time.

Working with the Diamond Light Source synchotron, a facility run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) that enables scientists to study samples in incredible detail, the researchers gained an acute molecular understanding of the cathedral’s iconic magnesian limestone surface.

Armed with this knowledge, and with support from colleagues from the University of Iowa, the team were able to show how the limestone had been degraded through decades of exposure to acid rain, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants. This enabled them to advise conservation experts on how best to treat the stone to prevent further decay and on what materials to use in the restoration of the Minster’s East Front.

The team later developed a new treatment, utilising water-repellant surface coating, which protects limestone from erosion by acid rain and atmospheric pollutants, while allowing the stone to ‘breathe’.

The research, co-funded by EPSRC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the £8 million Science and Heritage Programme, was also supported by the US National Science Foundation. The project’s findings could now be used to help conserve other historic limestone buildings around the world.