Adventures on Ascension Island

Just after Christmas, six of our surveying team – Jordan Clarke, Oli Davison, Luke Field, Tom Little, Lauren Nelson and director Paul Brownsell – travelled out from RAF Brize Norton to Ascension Island, a volcanic landmass 34 square miles in total, to work alongside the local government to create a database of assets so that the local authorities can make evidence-based decisions on the maintenance of their buildings.

Paul Brownsell, director, London City

We had some very capable and excited young surveyors who took on board the task with full gusto and represented us professionally and responsibly.

It was great to make the most of a tough challenge to broaden our junior staff’s knowledge and experience.

Lauren Nelson, assistant building surveyor, Glasgow

Why did you put your hand up for the job?

Initially, I wasn’t going to volunteer. The opportunity looked amazing and I wanted to put my hand up straight away but with other commitments, I decided against it. However, many of the Glasgow office staff encouraged me to entertain the idea. They hit home on the fact that this would be a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for me to experience working in such a remote location and environment. Eventually I thought just ‘go for it’. The rest is history!

Did you have to adapt the way you usually work?

Massively! I was initially appointed as liaison manager for the team, ensuring access had been arranged to each of the properties and planning work ahead each day for each member of the survey team – this proved to be a bigger task than anticipated. The team comprised of five male surveyors and myself. Spending almost all hours of the day with the same people can be hard but we worked very well as a team and Paul, our team leader and the other surveyors were a great help in assisting me, and latterly I conducted some surveys too.

Oli Davison, building surveyor, Leeds

How did you go about planning the job?

The brief was to prepare 30-year planned maintenance schedules including wholesale replacement and major repair items. To prepare, we had conference calls and group meetings prior to the trip. Then, once on the island, we split into two teams and standardised our approach on properties and data collection in conjunction with GoReport.

What surprised you during the trip?

How much I missed fresh food! As anyone who knows me will understand, food is my main hobby and with only one shipment arriving whilst we were there, access to fresh food was limited. I’ve never been so excited than when a tenant kindly handed me a bag of mangoes that had been grown on the island.

Jordan Clarke, building surveyor, Birmingham

How did the buildings on Ascension Island compared to those in the UK?

Most buildings in Two Boats village were prefabricated units, made from lightweight steel and strammit board panels. These materials had their benefits given the constraints on shipping and labour on the Island, but they did require modernising due to the deleterious nature of strammit board.

What was the most interesting building you surveyed?

A now derelict building known as Rock Cottage (below left), situated in Green Mountain National Park. The building was constructed of locally sourced volcanic rock and boasted spectacular panoramas of the island. I prepared a planned maintenance schedule detailing the necessary repairs to restore the building to its former glory.

Tom Little, building surveyor, London City

What were you most nervous about? Did you have right to be?!

I was most nervous about working in the heat and how it would impact our schedule. The heat was oppressive at times – the heat went up a few degrees at about 11am every day, only mad dogs and Englishmen would be out in it pretending that it was not an issue. So, we would start early in the morning and take shelter from the midday sun.

How would you prepare for this kind of project if you were able to do it all again?

I would want to have a better understanding of the historical building materials that had been used on the island. Some of the old commercial buildings were constructed using scoria rock (black lava), which I had not encountered before and so had to research before reporting on its properties.

Luke Field, building surveyor, Bristol

How did you do the surveys on what is essentially a volcanic landmass in the middle of the Atlantic?

During the first few weeks, we struggled with the heat. We started working earlier to avoid the hottest part of the day. Also, the internet connection was very weak but expensive. So, on several occasions, we had to stay up past midnight to upload our reports, when the WiFi was free on the island.

I was assigned residential accommodation to survey. Most of the buildings assigned to me were 50+ years old and in significantly poor condition, suffering from major structural defects. The most common defect was defective timber, caused by insect attack due to a termite infestation, causing considerable damage to anything timber on the island.

What was the most memorable experience during the project?

Having wild donkeys accompany me on some surveys and then getting locked in a room for 30 minutes as the door handle had snapped from the inside. Outside of surveying, fishing in the Atlantic and playing golf on the second worst golf course in the world was amazing.

Most Januarys are spent in the gym, staying out of the cold and trying to maintain fad diets. The Ascension Island team really stepped it up this year. Keep your eyes peeled for their next quest!

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