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Welcome to SAHC

27 December, 2019 4 min reading
Ellen Key, Advanced Masters in Structural Analysis of Monuments and Historical Constructions

Welcome to SAHC

In the fall of 2017, as I started my last year of college in California, I brainstormed plans for my future. I was finishing up a bachelor’s in civil engineering, and I knew I liked structures. But I couldn’t imagine myself working locally, on new building design. I had dreamed of working with historical buildings when I visited Europe and became captivated by the architecture. So I searched the web for a master’s program in this field and found SAHC. As I mulled it over for a few months, my excitement and interest grew, and I finally put my dreams on paper and applied.


SAHC is a unique program, hand-crafted by the most knowledgeable authorities in conservation engineering. It’s designed, therefore, to provide the most vital information as efficiently as possible. The course structure is unusual, with instruction in only one subject at a time for approximately one month. This allowed us to focus our efforts on studying just one topic, which I found helpful. In my undergraduate studies, I had always had four classes to worry about simultaneously. 


Group work was integral to the SAHC program. Although we all came from different countries and universities, we somehow developed ways to communicate and work together. We usually summarized our work with a presentation. This helped us build up our confidence in public speaking, a very important skill. We completed at least ten presentations throughout the coursework.

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When there was a chance to gain a better understanding for a topic by leaving the classroom, SAHC got us out in the field. One of my favorite field trips was to the national palace in Mafra. We gained access to the two bell towers undergoing restoration and saw the works being done to restore the timber bell housing. We later visited the carpentry workshop where the damaged portions were removed from the existing timber members and replaced carefully with new wood. Another field trip took us to Braga’s Bom Jesus do Monte, where we saw the dangers of damp climates and pervasive vegetation for structures — the chapels leading up to the church had heavily damaged paintings and vegetation threatened their roofs. I was inspired by the care and attentiveness of the restorers who peeled back individual layers of paint, sanded wood, and scrubbed roof tiles clean. 

Riding the elevator up to the top of the bell tower in Mafra, inspecting the work in the belfry, watching a carpenter restore a wooden door in Braga

In April, we split up to pursue our thesis projects. Arriving in Barcelona to a new apartment in a massive and completely unknown city was quite shocking after seven months in quiet Guimarães. The transition was difficult and the thought of conducting my first research project completely on my own was daunting. But I found the professors helpful as all of us anxious students worked through our research. Creating a daily schedule for my work, I also arranged time to find the supermarkets in the new city and cook for myself. While in Barcelona I took advantage of opportunities to take dance lessons, learn Spanish, and explore the architectural works of Gaudí with my friends. 


My dissertation was the study of seismic vulnerability of Romanesque churches. In order to inspect the churches, a fellow student and I took a road trip around northeastern Spain. At each church, we inspected the stone masonry for cracks and noted all interesting architectonic features. We were able to confer with each other when making engineering judgments — just as we had done in our many group projects in the SAHC courses. Though the thesis period had its ups and downs, it ended successfully for all of us.

After SAHC, I spent some months traveling in Spain. Now I am searching for a job. I have interviewed with preservation engineering companies and hope to join one. SAHC is known within the preservation engineering community, even in the United States, and it is well-respected. Slowly, SAHC grads are infiltrating many important companies across North America and across the world and bringing important knowledge to companies that may or may not be specialized in conservation.


SAHC changed many of my American perceptions about conservation. When I tell Americans that I am interested in restoration, most assume it is just an architectural or artistic endeavor. But in fact, it is engineering — finding a solution to a problem, balancing appearance, economy, structural integrity, and much more. Near my hometown in California, there are very few historical landmarks and most places are less than 150 years old. Although some old houses have been spared or converted into restaurants, many have been demolished for residential expansion. Through SAHC I learned about valuing the history and community identity of cities and towns, which are retained in their structures. I hope to improve the culture of preservation in the United States. 


And finally, I must say that I made some great friendships this year in SAHC, which I hope will last throughout our lifetimes. Thank you to everyone who made me laugh, inspired me, and challenged me this year, especially my roommates! SAHC was an experience I’ll never forget.


SEE ALSO: My experience as a SAHC Student

Click here if you want to know more about SAHC advanced masters