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If These Walls Could Talk

Dr. Norbert Hoepfer is a conservation expert who wants to be a “Building Psychologist” in his next life. At the end of the month, you can join him on a guided tour In the past decade, Dr. Norbert Hoepfer has been dividing his life between Israel and Germany. Hoepfer, a doctor of geology and mineralogy, specializes in mineralic mortar development, restoration of lime plaster, cornice, water damage problems, and woodwork. He serves as a consultant to the Liebling House conservation project.


When did you become interested in conservation?

“My father and grandfather were both carpenters, and when I was a little boy they renovated my grandfather's house together. When I finished high school I didn’t quite know what I wanted to study; I thought of becoming a priest or perhaps studying design, but I chose mineralogy. I felt that it was the basis of everything, that these were the materials of life. After 10 years in the lab, surrounded by microscopes, I decided to go out.” 11 years ago he made another transition, geographical. “I received a phone call from an Israeli contractor who heard that I was an expert on plaster and asked me to work on the Tamar House on Nahalat Binyamin Street. It took me about a year to reply, but I eventually joined the reconstruction and worked on the cornices that adorn the facade. I stayed in Tel Aviv ever since. In Germany, I lead a nomad's life. I don’t really have a home, and I visit mainly for work and to meet friends. Now, for example, I’m involved in the production of hemp-based bricks. Last year, I worked on a new Venetian terrazzo flooring of a neo-classical Catholic Church. I transfer my professional knowledge from Germany to Israel and back.”

In Israel, he was involved in the reconstruction of the Templer houses at Sarona, the Station (Hatachana) complex, the railway station in Jaffa, as well as several historical and international style buildings in Acre.

Psychologist, researcher, educator The conversation with Dr. Hoepfer, a tall, bespectacled man who cycles around town dressed in workwear, swings from matter to spirit, from practice to poetics. “In my next life I would like to be a building psychologist,” he said. “I see myself as someone who deeply understands buildings and can mediate between the architect, the craftsman and the project manager. One of the things I do in the Liebling House project is interpreting the different languages ​​spoken by those professionals so that the work is streamlined.”

What is your role in these projects? “I'm a researcher, a developer, and an educator. I’m usually responsible for the first stage of the restoration. In Sarona, I was involved in repairing as well as restoration work, including the preparation of wood molds for casting the cornices and ornaments above the openings. I teach the workers how to proceed to the next stage.” During the interview, Dr. Hoepfer looks at one of the walls of the Liebling House and examines the pointing, a mixture of lime and sand used to fill the joints between bricks or tiles. “I once spoke with the Imam of the Sidna Ali Mosque about the new cement pointing,” he recalls. “I told him this might be the thing that could bring down this mosque, that had been standing there for 500 years. The Imam didn’t understand, so I explained to him that our bones were made of chalk (calcium) - not cement, iron or plastic. And Allah wasn’t wrong.” According to him, limestone is a living material able to absorb water. “Concrete can’t handle water, it doesn’t absorb moisture and takes a long time to dry. In Israel, where the weather is dry, it's still possible to use it, but in Germany, it’s more problematic; especially since cement doesn’t provide insulation. On the other hand, cement makes it possible to build tall buildings and modern construction - including international style buildings - took advantage of that.”

What is the lifespan of a modern building? “Modern construction is only a hundred years old and we don’t know enough about it. Reinforced concrete has a built-in failure, it self-destructs: the steel begins to rust, the rust swells and breaks the concrete. The lifespan of reinforced concrete buildings is 100-150 years; without restoration work, they will collapse after 150 years. In this regard, it’s easier for me to go to Sidna Ali and immediately know what needs to be done to save the building. International style buildings are more complicated, some have been renovated and the various layers, their nature, and potential damage must now be decoded. You can say that the walls are telling the story.” When we ask him which kind of dwelling will last the longest, he replies: “A tent - there are no problems with flooring or plaster, and potential problems with neighbors can be solved.” Dr. Hoepfer will lead an English-guided tour of the building on Friday, December 29 at 10:00; Free admission