by Elaine Picotin, Abbate Charpentier Traditionnel
When a passion for architecture is combined with the deep values of heritage conservation, it is easy to fall under the spell of this redevelopment project that showcases ancient construction techniques on one of the oldest urban buildings in Old Montreal.
It all began nearly two years ago, when a businessman, very interested in Quebec heritage,became the owner of a Montreal building dating back to the early 1700s. Over time, the building was transformed into condo units. But motivated by the goal of redoing everything as it was originally, the owner took on the challenge of converting the building back into a single family home according to the construction techniques and practices of the time.
He therefore began researching with municipal archivists and organized in-depth archaeological studies. He then discovered that the current building was built in the 1710s on the original French colonial foundations. As a result of literary research, he also learned that the roof structure was completely destroyed in a fire and that it was rebuilt as we see it today.
For the owner, this contemporary reconstruction had to be rethought in order to restore the original appearance to the whole building. In 2018, the masons and stonemasons began the first repair work. Finding contractors and professionals with a thorough knowledge of traditional practices was quite a challenge.
In 2019, during a Heritage Architecture trade show, the owner met Jérémie Abbate of Abbate Charpentier Traditionnel, who specializes in stereotomy or “the art of the line.” After long discussions, the two enthusiasts aligned themselves with the project and it was at this point that the adventure of Maison Berthelet began for the timber framer.
For more than six months, the Abbate team worked on a thorough analysis of the building. Reconfiguring a building and roof structure that was more than 300 years old was a serious challenge. Many criteria had to be met, standards had to be studied, and it was at this time that Mr. Abbate noticed the gaps in references and a lack of knowledge of Montreal’s heritage culture. Although several works presenting the construction techniques of rural houses of that time were available, historical references to urban construction were virtually non-existent.
RESEARCH AND TECHNIQUES
Extensive research was conducted on the history of architecture to reconstruct the roof structure as it was originally in the early 1700s. Mr. Abbate’s motivation for the project and the excellent collaboration with the owner allowed him to obtain enough information to finalize his analysis and propose 3D plans.
The first step was to restore the floors by replacing the joists on the different floors. The second challenge was the structure work, where many technical challenges were encountered. Due to the peculiarity of the angles of the walls, the art of line was the only way to reproduce the structure perfectly. For the needs of the project, hemlock was the main wood species used.
However, to respect traditional work, Mr. Abbate’s team had to square the planks and finish the corners with the adze, one of the tools regularly used by traditional carpenters. To facilitate the work, all the components of the frame were cut in the workshop using the methods of stereotomy.
The most technical part of the project was the roof structure. After months of searching for the original roof design, historic conservators, architects, and professional carpenters discovered that the roof was originally constructed as a sloped ridge roof with ridge hips and dormers. They found that wood-frame trusses were designed according to a typical Quebec principle called purlin. The trusses were built according to the classic model of Ferme sur Treteau, in the shape of an easel, to facilitate manual lifting with a goat.
During the demolition of part of the roof structure, the team made the happy discovery of a remnant of the old house which, according to laboratory research, dates back to the late 1600s. A structural adjustment was therefore necessary to highlight this magnificent heritage treasure.
CHALLENGES AND CONSTRAINTS
Such a project usually holds many surprises. However, apart from some technical challenges, the Abbate team has not faced any major constraints. Working in the city requires some adjustments, but generally speaking, at the time of writing, the work is going smoothly.
An important question arises. Where is the next generation? What are the skills of the current workforce in traditional construction? Throughout the project, Abbate’s team had to juggle different trade professionals that had no expertise in the rehabilitation of heritage buildings. To meet the various requirements and standards, traditional methods for each stage of construction is essential to the success of the project. The team worked with the various outside craftspeople to make sure all understood and were able to meet these requirements.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE PROFESSION AND HERITAGE
Since his arrival in Quebec, Jérémie Abbate has been continually looking for solutions to ensure the succession of traditional trades. A project like Maison Berthelet is the ideal learning ground for professionals who wish to deepen their knowledge of traditional carpentry. Mr. Abbate turned to an Ontario school and offered to accompany students in their learning of stereotomy and its different techniques.
In collaboration with the school, he organized a unique workshop, where students had to reconstruct a section of the actual roof structure. The experience benefited a dozen students from different countries.
Although this project has been the personal initiative of a history lover in love with Quebec, it has also helped to highlight the richness of Montreal’s heritage. Because a great city is often defined by its ability to revive its history through its architectural decorations, it is essential to highlight the talent and dedication of professionals working in the world of traditional trades.