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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan
Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

How Olive Oil Might Save Our Oldest Buildings

Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan
Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

When the builders of York Minster—a huge gothic cathedral in a northern U.K. city—set to work, they weren’t thinking about the road traffic that would pass feet from its front door, spilling exhaust fumes onto its magnesian limestone walls. After all, when work began in 1230, even a horse-drawn cart was a luxury few knew.

And they weren’t thinking about the slowly corrosive rain caused by the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, either. Water, and the acidity in rain (about half of each month the city sees more than 0.1 millimeters of rainfall) can wear on even the best-built buildings. Those charged with building preservation try to keep moisture out of old buildings while allowing them to air from the inside to prevent decay. That’s easier said than done.

Conservationists need to ensure they don’t compromise the building’s look or structure; to do either would be to defeat the point of preservation in the first place. It’s easy enough to drape a waterproof tarpaulin over our oldest buildings, but that hides them from view. Something that keeps the building looking as it did when first built is the end goal of those involved in the preservation of historical sites, and those involved in York Minster’s upkeep have hit upon a novel solution. It’s likely to be found in your kitchen cupboard.

Virgin or extra virgin?

Olive oil drove the Greek and Roman empires. The remnants of ancient amphorae that once held the stuff have surfaced in all four corners of the world, showing the vibrant trade that existed thousands of years ago. Throughout history it’s been a medicine, a sacred liquid and a cooking ingredient—and we produce 3.4 million tonnes (3.75 million tons) of it every year.

Its chemical construction is what makes olive oil so useful for those trying to save buildings from disrepair. The liquid we use to cook with contains between 55 and 83 percent oleic acid, a key ingredient that has the unique quality of being able to let water out from the limestone it covers, while preventing water coming in with a coating a single molecule thick.

Oleic acid is a long chain fatty acid, with a great number of hydrocarbons all lined up in a row—the perfect hydrophobic (water-repellent) chemical construction.

The natural solution

Other solutions had been tried before: The Minster had been coated in other laboratory-made hydrophobic solutions, which stopped the water coming into the stone, but weren’t porous enough to let any pollutants already embedded in the walls come out. Before that, those charged with keeping the Minster healthy had tried linseed oil, though they stopped when they realised they were staining the bright white frontage.

For all it discolored the Minster, linseed oil did work. Which is why Dr. Karen Wilson, a reader in physical chemistry at the University of Cardiff, began experimenting with olive oil-based solutions to the problem of natural decay. By combining oleic acid with a Teflon-like compound called 1H,1H, 2H,2H-perfluoro-decyltrimethoxysilane, Wilson and her team think they’ve managed to find the perfect preservation tool: something that makes the Minster watertight while ensuring its architectural beauty isn’t compromised.

And it’s all because of olive oil.

Wilson’s excited about the solution’s potential. “Such coatings could have a significant impact on stone conservation,” she writes in her academic paper (check it out here), “affording readily applied, conformal barriers able to protect historic limestone from weathering by gas phase and particulate sulfur oxide pollutants.”

The people who built York Minster likely thought their handiwork would be protected by God and stand forevermore. Simple science—and the relentless march of technology—caused it to begin tarnishing. Now the advancement of scientific research might be able to stay the decline in our greatest buildings, using one of the world’s oldest commodities (and cooking ingredients).

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
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This Just In
For $61, You Can Become a Co-Owner of This 13th-Century French Castle
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, Getty Images

A cultural heritage restoration site recently invited people to buy a French castle for as little as $61. The only catch? You'll be co-owning it with thousands of other donors. Now thousands of shareholders are responsible for the fate of the Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers in western France, and there's still room for more people to participate.

According to Mashable, the dilapidated structure has a rich history. Since its construction in the 13th century, the castle has been invaded by foreign forces, looted, renovated, and devastated by a fire. Friends of Château de la Mothe-Chandeniers, a small foundation formed in 2016 in an effort to conserve the overgrown property, want to see the castle restored to its former glory.

Thanks to a crowdfunding collaboration with the cultural heritage restoration platform Dartagnans, the group is closer than ever to realizing its mission. More than 9000 web users have contributed €51 ($61) or more to the campaign to “adopt” Mothe-Chandeniers. Now that the original €500,000 goal has been fulfilled, the property’s new owners are responsible for deciding what to do with their purchase.

“We intend to create a dedicated platform that will allow each owner to monitor the progress of works, events, project proposals and build a real collaborative and participatory project,” the campaign page reads. “To make an abandoned ruin a collective work is the best way to protect it over time.”

Even though the initial goal has been met, Dartagnans will continue accepting funds for the project through December 25. Money collected between now and then will be used to pay for various fees related to the purchase of the site, and new donors will be added to the growing list of owners.

The shareholders will be among the first to see the cleared-out site during an initial visit next spring. The rest of the public will have to wait until it’s fully restored to see the final product.

[h/t Mashable]

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