Building houses. A lot, quickly and for not too much money – that is the concise summary of the plans that the provinces signed with housing minister Hugo de Jonge (CDA). 900,000 homes are to be added by 2030, the majority of which are new construction. Construction companies and provinces are short of hands to get the job done. But where the large new construction plans offer a future with certainty for many construction companies, contractors in the restoration sector are actually concerned. The Netherlands has more than 62,000 national monuments, roughly three quarters of which consist of residential houses, farms, mills and historic business premises. The current focus on new construction threatens to jeopardize the quality of care for these types of monuments, according to three trade associations representing more than 460 companies in restoration construction. The sector organizations GA Platform, VAWR and the Restoration Department sent a burning letter to the standing parliamentary committee of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) last week. State Secretary Gunay Uslu (Culture, D66), who is responsible for the conservation of monuments, also received a report in September. The main objections of the trade associations: there is too little knowledge about the preservation of monuments among owners and authorities, permit processes are unnecessarily long and complicated and restoration construction is ageing. There is a fear that soon no one will know how to restore a monument. Sensitive to extreme weather According to the sector, more attention to the preservation of monuments is desperately needed, because a lot of maintenance is expected on historic buildings in the future. “Monuments are extra sensitive to climate change and extreme weather, and we will only see more of that in the coming years,” said chairman Ramon Pater of the Association of Architects Working in the Restoration (VAWR). According to the sector associations, more than eight in ten municipalities do not have sufficient knowledge, expertise and capacity to properly care for monuments and inform owners. As a result, monuments are damaged and sustainability is broken. For example, according to Pater, it is a persistent misunderstanding that monuments can hardly be isolated. “There is much more than you think, but it has to be done properly so that no damage is caused.” According to the industry, monuments also offer many opportunities to contribute to solving the housing shortage, which are currently not being used. “In all the plans we have heard from the cabinet, the word ‘restoration’ has not yet been used once. And we think that’s a shame,” says Pater. “There are thousands of monumental buildings empty that can easily be repurposed into apartments. Think of church buildings, business premises and factory halls.” Although buyers are often willing to pay a substantial amount for a monumental house, the repurposing of property developers often fails because of fear of high costs and long permit processes. Restoration work on the church of H. Maria Immaculate Conception in Leerdam, by the company Kool Bouw en Restauratie. Photo Walter Autumn Photos Walter Autumn Tropical hardwood The procedures are there for a reason. The Monuments Act stipulates that little or nothing can be changed about the appearance of a monument. Although you as an owner are not allowed to change everything, every contractor is allowed to carry out the work. “You don’t have to have a diploma to have a monument, or to be allowed to renovate it.” Hans Kool cannot suppress a sigh. He runs a construction company in Leerdam that does monument restoration and comes across all kinds of things. „Skewed floors due to poor constructions. Mold due to poor insulation material. Old woodwork that has been replaced by tropical hardwoods – which did not exist here at all when the houses were built.” When asked how bad that is, Kool laughs. “Compare it to buying an old Beetle, and someone puts a plastic cover on it instead of chrome bumpers. No face.” According to Kool, restoration construction is inherently different from new construction. “You are constantly weighing up what is possible and what is allowed. You need a good set of brains and a lot of knowledge for that, and you will especially find the latter with specialized contractors.” Aging lurking And now there’s a shortage of that. While the construction industry as a whole is already struggling with significant staff shortages, these will become even more acute for the restoration industry in the long run. Specialized restoration construction companies are relatively often family businesses that are passed on from generation to generation. According to the sector, aging is already a problem for half of the affiliated companies. The intake from the courses leaves much to be desired. Stonemasons, thatchers for the roofs of monumental farms, glaziers who still know how to restore stained glass; they often no longer come from the courses. “This kind of specialization has been removed from the curriculum,” says Wim van der Maas, chairman of the GA Platform of specialized contractors. “Nowadays, everyone is trained as a prefab or industrial builder, but will people soon know how to repair masonry from an old wall or lay a joint like they did in the past?” Contractor Hans Kool still entered the trade the old-fashioned way. At sixteen, he apprenticed as a carpenter on a construction site. By later working on restoration jobs at the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, he also learned monument restoration. “Education focuses too much on knowledge, and too little on practice, according to Kool. “Smart guys go to college and university, but never work in construction at a young age again.” The proposed solution of the restoration sector is to give specialized construction companies a priority position in tenders. In addition, extra money must be made available to give restoration construction a place in the courses. Contractor Kool believes that the sector itself should also take action. “Instead of turning to the government, our sector should also get to work by inviting more young people and letting them work.” Kool also has a young employee who is helping to restore an old church roof in Leerdam. “In the restoration you can build a great career.” A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of October 24, 2022