Hands-on Construction Workshop of Guastavino Thin Tile Vaults

Posted by: Laura Buchner - Building Conservation Associates, Inc. on Monday, October 14, 2013 at 12:00:00 am

The Hands-on Construction Workshop of Guastavino Thin Tile Vaults offered the rare opportunity to construct a timbrel vault. This is the first APT Conference workshop that I’ve had the pleasure of attending, and it exceeded my expectations, providing insights into the challenges and art of building these elegant structures. Not only was it very informative, but it was also a tremendous amount of fun!

Kent Diebolt began the first day by asking the attendees to introduce themselves and describe their experiences with Guastavino vaults. There was a wide range of backgrounds amongst the attendees, and the enthusiasm and anecdotes that were shared set the tone for the workshop, as everyone appeared to relish the chance to spend the next two days with others who share their interest in this building technology. After a brief lecture on the history and engineering principles of timbrel vaults, the approximately twenty attendees were divided into two groups: one set out to build a barrel vault with lunettes and the other a groin vault 

Each group began by leveling and squaring the wood forms that marked the perimeter of our vaults. Following a brief tutorial on how to mix plaster of Paris to the appropriate consistency, apply it to the tile edges, and set the tile, we began building the perimeter arches. A second layer of tile was then laid on top of the arches in mortar. All the while, the workshop leaders circulated, providing guidance.

During lunch, we enjoyed an informative presentation by Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla, who discussed the geometry of the vaults at the New York Municipal Building and the connection between Guastavino's construction process and the techniques of Gothic master builders. During the afternoon we laid a third layer of tile on the arches and began setting tile in the center of the vault.

Day two began with the removal of the wood forms. As the first layer of the vault continued to be built at a rapid pace, the application of the second layer of tile began. This effort felt truly collaborative, as the attendees learned from each other and circulated as needed amongst the tasks of cutting tile, mixing plaster of Paris and mortar, and installing tile.

Each group finished the entire first layer of their vault just as lunchtime rolled around. After lunch, we completed the second layer of tile across each vault, feeling a remarkable sense of pride and satisfaction as the last tile was placed. As the mortar dried, we enjoyed a presentation by David López López and Marta Domènech Rodriguez about a beautiful contemporary structure they designed and recently built in Barcelona using this technique. This was followed by an impromptu talk by Megan Reece about her thesis work related to the structural analysis and assessment of Guastavino vaulting. Then came the moment we had all been waiting for, as the groups eagerly climbed on top of their finished vaults for photographs.

The workshop was well organized, with interesting and diverse lectures. I appreciated that the workshop leaders were passionate about the subject and eager share their vast knowledge about this building technology. I left having a deeper understanding of how these structures were built as well as a new level of admiration for the craftsmanship of Guastavino vaults.

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