By Brandon F. Thompson, UNC at Chapel Hill Facilities Services
A unique carpentry project will be taking place on campus in the coming days. At ﬁrst, it might just sound like a typical job for Facilities Services’ Carpentry Shop – repair a section of one of the campus’ historic buildings.
But the project to repair and restore the iconic cupola that sits atop Manning Hall does pose especially unique challenges. One of the biggest – its location.
While working on roofs or tall structures is not that uncommon in the construction ﬁeld – and at some point during any given day, someone from Facilities Services is likely working on a rooftop somewhere on campus – Manning’s slanted, slate roof makes accessing this particular “worksite” nearly 80 feet above the ground unsafe without a great deal of preparation.
Before actual work to the cupola commences onsite, another smaller related job will ﬁrst take place to ensure workers are able to safely access the roof and have a place to safely complete their work. An elaborate ‘tower’ of scaffolding will be assembled in front of Manning, and additional scaffolding will be hoisted by crane to the roof to be assembled around the cupola.
The 30 foot tall cupola, with its decorative columns, ornamental ﬁnials and weather vane sitting atop the dome, has been a distinctive and recognizable feature crowning Manning’s roof since the building was constructed in 1923.
Over time, extensive damage and deterioration has occurred to the cupola’s rails, columns and other wooden sections from years of exposure to rain and the elements. While it’s been determined that there is considerable damage that needs to be repaired, the crew from the Carpentry Shop won’t know exactly how extensive the damage is until the scaffolding is in place and they actually begin their work. Again, because of its precarious setting, they’ve only been able to access one section of the cupola by ladder.
Even with the scaffolding that will be in place onsite, working high above the ground and brick walkways is still hardly the most ideal workplace. Of course it is necessary for the majority of the work to take place here, but sections of the cupola will be disassembled, and tasks that can be completed back at the shop will be performed there. Some of the damage is so severe that sections of the cupola will be completely recreated in the shop, including many of the columns and one ﬁnial. Once all of these parts have been completed, they will also be painted in the shop as a time saving and efﬁciency measure.
While being in a fully equipped shop with feet ﬁrmly planted on the ground has some distinct advantages to performing carpentry work on a scaffold, it also creates another challenge – the crew must make sure everything is exactly right before it’s taken back to the rooftop. If a piece of wood is off by even 1/8 of an inch – which is normally an extremely minor problem for a carpenter – correcting it once it has been transported to the site and hoisted to the roof would be time consuming and more complicated.
With this project, which will likely take approximately two and a half months to complete, the Carpentry Shop will be duplicating the architectural heritage and craftsmanship of the era when the cupola was ﬁrst created 90 years ago, while preserving the structure for decades to come via modern materials and expertise. The crew plans to weatherproof and stabilize the wood, and use PVC materials, epoxy and composites, preventing the type of damage that has befallen this iconic feature over the years.
So you can expect to see a towering scaffold being erected in front of Manning in the very near future in preparation to repair this structure that has withstood decades of severe weather.