In the first of an occasional series, Elaine Knutt speaks to the man responsible for the upkeep of our heritage and woman who is combining site management with her PhD studies

Meet Rory Cullen FCIOB (pictured), head of building for the National Trust, who holds overall responsibility for setting policy and strategy on protecting the Trust’s portfolio of 30,000 buildings, including 228 grade-I listed mansions and 5,000 cottages. With that comes the enviable task of visiting one or two properties a week. ‘But I have to have a reason, I can’t just drop by for a day out,’ he says.

His favourites include the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, where a team of stonemasons has been in residence for 400 years to maintain its soft stone, Cragside in Northumberland, the first ever building wired for electricity, and Tyntesfield Hall near Bristol, a sprawling Victorian pile currently undergoing a £20m transformation.

For those of us who do visit National Trust properties for a day out, Cullen is promising a few changes to the experience. Where building works are in progress, his aim is to present projects as part of the historical interpretation with viewing platforms, explanatory guides and opportunities for visitors to try out craft skills.

‘We’re trying to make sure we’re telling the building’s story. At an NT property you’ll see gardeners with a badge saying “Ask me a question”. But the building department’s a bit more hands off, we’re very health and safety conscious and the natural reaction is to keep people away. But we are trying to improve interpretation by engaging with the public.’

A building surveyor who later studied for an MSc in Building Conservation, Cullen’s role is to co-ordinate the working practices of 100 building surveyors and a 200-strong direct labour force that protects the external fabric of the Trust’s buildings and structures. Each building is surveyed as often as possible, with mansions given a health check every five years.

Historic buildings seeped into his blood early, when he helped his architect father with surveys of historic buildings. ‘I liked their aesthetic qualities, and the different types of buildings representing different ages,’ he recalls. ‘And nothing is uniform – the vernacular materials give you different types of buildings across the country.’

Part of his role is to find adaptive re-uses for redundant properties, from cottages to outbuildings. ‘A lot of energy went into those buildings, so it’s not sustainable to have them sitting there idle,’ he says. ‘We’re not trying to follow the convention for residential use – we want to ensure that what we do in 2010 can be reversed in 2110, if necessary.’ At Blickling Hall in Norfolk, the Trust has converted an old warehouse into a textile studio, and at Brockhampton in the West Midlands it runs a micro brewery.

We’re not trying to follow the convention of residential use – we want to ensure that what we do in 2010 can be reversed in 2110

Rory Cullen FCIOB

Sustainablilty is now firmly on Cullen’s agenda, although the interventions are low-key and passive rather than eco-bling and active. Favourite green measures include sheep’s wool insulation, keeping interiors warm with thermally lined curtains or shutters, and switching from oil-fired heating to biomass or woodchip boilers and ground source heat pumps, with a few forays into technology such as solar panels at Dunster Castle in Somerset.

In the absence of any nationally-recognised sustainability benchmarks for refurbishments, the National Trust has drawn up its own Gold, Silver and Bronze standards.

Through Cullen, the CIOB and the NT have also forged a two year-old partnership agreement. NT staff can follow a fast-track route to membership, while the CIOB benefits from the NT’s conservation knowledge and experience, and assistance in arranging events and conferences. Groups of CIOB members can also arrange tours of NT properties – but Cullen admits that a discount on annual membership rates for CIOB members is sadly beyond his control.

Meet Fred Rawlinson ICIOB (pictured), a Laing O’Rourke site manager who’s also pursuing a part-time PhD on construction site culture and health and safety. Instead of arriving on site with a clipboard and an outsiders’ point of view, the combination means Rawlinson can conduct observational research as she works. ‘Being a site manager puts me in an unique position to carry out this research,’ she says. ‘I am part of the site culture, but am also examining it from an academic viewpoint at the same time.’

Her project – which is supported by the CIOB’s Tony Gage Scholarship, Laing O’Rourke and the University of Bolton – is an ethnographic study of the roles, characters, and behaviour found on construction sites, with the aim of finding out whether there is an incompatibility between health and safety messages and the predominant site culture.

Rawlinson, 32, who has used the name Fred since she was 12, is certainly steeped in construction culture, having first experienced the banter, backchat and blokeishness of the site cabin as an 18-year-old school leaver.

At the time, she was working for Laing as a secretary through an agency, before her computer skills took her into an IT support role outside the industry.

I had more harassment working in it support than I’ve ever had in construction

Fred Rawlinson ICIOB

From there, she chose to return to construction, working her way up at Laing O’Rourke from secretary to document controller, then assistant planner, planner, and finally construction manager. In between, she studied for an HNC and a degree in construction management at the University of Bolton.

So how does Rawlinson define construction site culture? ‘It’s full of characters, isn’t it?

It’s an industry of extroverts, and maybe you need that confidence in yourself when you can be out of work one week and in work the next. And you need to be slightly braver than the average person when you’re climbing tower cranes.’

Rawlinson herself, with her flaming red hair and go-for-it attitude, typifies the expansive character type she describes.

As a women site manager with a masculine touch, she seems to get results. ‘Being a woman helps with some things. For example, health and safety. I can tell someone off, then say: “You do realise why I’m doing this, don’t you? It’s because I care about you.” A bloke saying that might feel like a bit of an idiot, but I can say that and it’s understood.’

In last month’s CM, a column from consultant Chrissi McCarthy argued that many women fail to progress with what started as promising careers in the industry. But Rawlinson says she doesn’t recognise the discrimination described in the article.

‘I had more harassment in IT support than I’ve ever had in construction, when someone once said “can a man not come and deal with this?” No one has ever said that to me on site, no one has ever doubted that I can do what I’m there to do.’

When it comes to Rawlinson’s research, there is little doubt she will produce a study of site culture and health and safety that’s as challenging, straight-talking and thoroughly grounded as she is. ‘There’s been a lot of stuff done on safety culture at management level, but this is very operative based – because it’s at operative level that the work is done, and where the accidents happen,’ she says.