Choosing a contractor with adequate skills and experience to complete a job is always important, but it is particularly important for restorations and renovations of a historical building. To avoid permanently damaging the historical fabric of your building, you need a contractor who is well-versed in historical products and materials, can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that created your building’s unique characteristics, understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions, and values preservation of our built history as much as you do. 

Any project done on your historical building changes it, and most projects result in some irreversible changes. Change can be a good thing … if your contractor knows which materials are appropriate to use. But when you pick the wrong contractor, incompatible materials and installation methods can result in permanent damage to your building. 


Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO IS WELL-VERSED IN HISTORICAL MATERIALS

Historical construction products and materials are drastically different from modern building products and materials. Some differ in the materials used to produce a particular product. Even when these materials look the same, they can be dangerously incompatible with your historical building – mixing modern and historical materials can not only be detrimental to your building’s aesthetic value, it can destabilize your building’s structural foundation. Many new facade treatments focus on moisture-proofing, while historical buildings functioned as “Breathing” buildings that expelled excess moisture – if you combine a new facade material (even one that looks exactly like the original) with an old facade material, you can set the stage for dangerous moisture issues that threaten your building’s foundation and air quality. 

Sometimes the same (or similar) materials are used to produce a replicate product, and are “merely” fabricated in an entirely different manner than the original products were, producing a finished product that may look the same as the original (or may not; look close – does it really?), but isn’t an accurate replication and does not truly preserve the historical fabric of your building because of the manner in which it was fabricated. For example, historical bricks are not soft because people preferred softer bricks 150 years ago. They are softer because of the process used to fabricate them – the historical, hand-crafted process involving lower firing temperatures resulted in softer bricks than the modern, mass-production process.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR THAT CAN IDENTIFY AND REPLICATE TRADITIONAL TRADE TECHNIQUES

Maintaining the historical fabric of your building is about more than replacing worn materials with the same kind of materials and products or making sure the paint colors match what was originally used. Craftsmen styles, approaches, and techniques were as diverse as the architectural styles they created that make up our built history. When your historical building was originally built, these craftsmen all influenced the final look of your building. Geographic region also influenced the way craftsmen completed their work on a building. Even today, contractors may have differing methodologies to complete the same work, and work is completed slightly differently from region to region. 

When working on your building, you need a contractor who will not only know the appropriate materials to use, but the appropriate method to install them – a contractor who preserves the kinds of materials that are original to your building and the traditional trade approaches that created it as well.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO KNOWS THE REVIEW, PERMITTING, AND APPROVAL PROCESS

When your historical building was originally built, the process was simple. You bought some land, hired some contractors, and raised the building that met your budget and design needs. Work on an existing building was even simpler: you hired someone to do the work. 

Today, the process is a bit more complex. Work of any kind on a historical building can involve multiple government agencies who grant and oversee construction and occupancy permits, and a historical board or commission who guides the restoration process and approves any changes and the materials and methods used to make those changes. Not to mention the various building codes your project is subject to, and the exemptions and regulations that govern construction projects involving historical buildings. 

Choosing a contractor who isn’t familiar with the unique demands of meeting the needs, requirements, and timelines of several different building codes, government agencies, historical boards and commissions can result in serious delay of your project, outright denial of your project, and skyrocketing costs to redo, backtrack, and resubmit. 

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO VALUES PRESERVATION AS MUCH AS YOU DO

You haven’t spent the time, money, and energy on your historical building because its history and unique contribution to our cultural and built heritage isn’t important to you. Why choose a contractor who doesn’t value your building and its historical fabric as much as you do? Look for a contractor who not only works on historical restoration projects, but who practices a traditional trade themselves and supports organizations and guilds that promote the traditional trades. Find out which contractors do this because preservation is their priority, and which contractors do this merely to make money. 

Quick and easy ways to assess whether or not your contractor values preservation as much as you do:

  • Do their website and blogs offer non-sales content related to preservation and/or the traditional trades: how much is self-promotion and how much is preservation-promotion?
  • Does their social media activity include more than just what they’re doing, such as sharing general preservation information?
  • What organizations do they support, participate in, or have they helped found? 
  • Do they practice a traditional trade and do they understand the historical methods of the traditional trades?
  • Can they explain to me what the appropriate materials and methods for my project are and why, or do they know of acceptable substitutes if exact replication isn’t feasible?
  • What references do they have and do they have a record of historical restoration projects?
  • Do previous customers feel that the contractor’s priority was preservation or the bottom line?
  • Do they freely share their credentials and are they properly insured and licensed as applicable?
  • Do they understand the permitting, review, and approval process for the project, and have they worked through this process in my area for previous projects?
  • ABOVE ALL ELSE, your contractor should be someone you are comfortable with, who listens to your needs and wants, and who understands historical restorations and has a proven and specialized track record of work on historical buildings.

 

Did you know that approximately 40 percent of home improvement projects today are the direct result of the poor workmanship or improper materials installed by a previous contractor? You need to arm yourself with the knowledge to research, interview, and weed out the well-intentioned but inexperienced firms or the simply rogue contractors.

A few warning signs are:

  • Credentials that cannot be verified
  • Use of high-pressure sales tactics
  • No references
  • No written contract
  • No guarantee on work

Make sure you are asking the right questions, like: Have you ever operated under any other name?  Are you properly licensed in this state? These are simple enough for a qualified contractor to answer, while a rogue contractor will struggle, indiciating that they are not the right person for you or your home.  

A preservation-based contractor is the difference between a generalist and a specialist who knows what it means to craft a home from traditional materials.  General contractors may be very good at what they do, but if they are not well-steeped in the art of preservation, they are not the right fit for your home.

Investigate to determine whether a prospective firm is suitable.  Verify that they have completed a project of the same size and scope as yours.  The best contractor for you will have also worked on projects with similar styles and time periods.

Take time to visit jobsites that potential contractors are working on or have done in the past.  Ask to see a portfolio of their work.  Request a list of references to verify quality of work and warranty/customer-service practices.

You can also take a look at their website, blog, and social media sites.  What do they post? Is it self-promotion or is it preservation promotion?  Spending time researching and choosing the right preservation-driven contractor helps avoid the potential headaches and damage that hiring the wrong contractor can cause.

 

Historic restorations contractors, qualified historic restorations contractors, how to pick a contractor for historic buildings

Picking a contractor with adequate skills and experience to complete a job is always important, but it is particularly important for restorations and renovations of a historical building.  To avoid permanently damaging the historical fabric of your building, you need a contractor who is well-versed in historical products and materials, can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that created your building’s unique characteristics, understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions, and values preservation of our built history as much as you do.

A Qualified Contractor for Historic Restorations has Thorough Knowledge of Historical Products and Materials

Historical construction products and materials are drastically different from modern building products and materials. Some differ in the materials used to produce a particular product. Even when these materials look the same, they can be dangerously incompatible with your historical building – mixing modern and historical materials can not only be detrimental to your building’s aesthetic value, it can destabilize your building’s structural foundation. 

Many new façade treatments focus on moisture-proofing, while historical buildings functioned as “breathing” buildings that expelled excess moisture – if you combine a new façade material (even one that looks exactly like the original) with an old façade material you can set the stage for dangerous moisture issues that threaten your building’s foundation and air quality.

Others materials use the same (or similar) materials to produce a replicate product and are “merely” fabricated in an entirely different manner producing a finished product that may look the same as the original (or may not, look close – does it really?), but isn’t an accurate preservation of the historical fabric of your building because of the manner in which it was fabricated.

For example, historical bricks are not soft because people preferred softer bricks 150 years ago. They are softer because of the process used to fabricate them – the historical, hand-crafted process resulted in lower firing temperatures than the modern, mass-production process.

Any projects on your historical building changes it, and most projects result in some irreversible changes. Change can be a good thing…if your contractor knows which materials are appropriate to use. But when you pick the wrong contractor, incompatible materials and installation methods can result in permanent damage to your building.

A Qualified Contractor for Historic Restorations is Able to Identify and Replicate Traditional Trade Techniques

Maintaining the historical fabric of your building is about more than replacing worn materials with the same kind of materials and products or making sure the paint colors match what was originally used.

Craftsmen styles, approaches, and techniques were as diverse as the architectural styles they created that make up our built history. When your historical building was originally built, these craftsmen all influenced the final look of your building. Geographic region also influenced the way craftsmen completed their work on a building. Even today contractors may have differing methodologies to complete the same work and work is completed slightly differently from region to region.

When working on your building, you need a contractor who will not only know the appropriate materials to use, but the appropriate method to install them – a contractor who preserves the kinds of materials that are original to your building and the traditional trade approaches that created it as well.

A Qualified Contractor for Historic Restorations Knows the Review, Permitting, & Approval Process for Historic Buildings

When your historical building was originally built, the process was simple. You bought some land, hired some contractors, and raised the building that met your budget and design needs. Work on an existing building was even more simple: you hired someone to do the
work.

Today the process is a bit more complex. Work of any kind on a historical building can involve multiple government agencies who grant and oversee construction and occupancy permits and a historical board or commission who guides the restoration process and approves any changes and the materials and methods used to make those changes. Not to mention the various building codes your project is subject to and the exemptions and regulations that govern construction projects involving historical buildings.

Picking a contractor who isn’t familiar with the unique demands of meeting the needs, requirements, and timelines of several different building codes, government agencies, historical boards and commissions can result in serious delay of your project, outright denial of your project, and skyrocketing costs to redo, backtrack, and resubmit.

A Qualified Contractor for Historic Restorations Values Preservation of Your Historic Architecture as Much as You Do

You haven’t spent the time, money, and energy on your historical building because its history and unique contribution to our cultural and built heritage isn’t important to you. Why choose a contractor who doesn’t value your building and its historical fabric as much as
you do?

Look for a contractor who not only works on historical restoration projects, but who practices a traditional trade themselves and supports organizations and guilds that promote the traditional trades. Find out which contractors do this because preservation is their priority, and which contractors do this merely to make money.

Ways to assess whether or not your contractor values preservation as much as you do:

Peruse their website to see if they offer non-sales content related to preservationand/or the traditional trades.

Read through their blog and decide how much they post as self-promotion and how much is preservation-promotion.

Browse through their activity on social media and see if their posts and updates are about more than just what they’re doing.

Ask for credentials and find out what organizations they support, participate in have help found, etc.

Ask their previous customers what they felt the contractor’s priority was – preservation or the bottom line.  

But perhaps above all else, your contractor needs to be someone who you are comfortable with and who listens to your needs and wants for your historical building – you are building a team for the work on your building together, choose wisely.

Skilled craftsmen and knowledgeable contractors are critical to preventing permanent damage to your historical building during a project. More importantly, you need a qualified contractor for historic restorations and has a proven and specialized track record of work on historical buildings.

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″] How to Evaluate a Qualified Contractor for Historic Restorations:
• Is my contractor properly insured and licensed, as applicable?

• Can my contractor explain to me what the appropriate materials and methods for my project are and why? Does my contractor know acceptable substitutes if exact replication isn’t feasible?

• Does my contractor practice a traditional trade? Does my contractor understand the historical methods of the traditional trades?

• Does my contractor have a record of historical restoration projects? Are any of them similar to mine? Have I asked for references?

• Why does my contractor work in historical restoration?

• Does my contractor understand the permitting, review, and approval process for my project? Have they worked through this process in my area for previous projects?

• Do I have good communication with my contractor? Does my contractor listen and respond to my questions, concerns, needs?[/sws_grey_box]

Robert Chickey of Bespoke-Finish, his wood-finishing company, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss information about his consulting business and his specialization in creating accurate, long-lasting wood-finishing work for restoration and preservation projects. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • His background in the construction industry and how dissatisfaction with modern techniques and finishes underscored his contrasting desire to reveal the natural grain of wood
  • His process for accentuating wood grain and the years of study and technique that resulted in this niche-skill
  • His current work primarily as a consultant to architects and designers
  • Trends and challenges in preservation related to wood-finish
  • Tips for homeowners to know before they buy products or hire contractors

 

Contact/Follow:

Website

Instagram

 

More info:

Robert is also in the process of writing a book that will include in-depth information on his wood-finishing techniques. Follow him online to stay up-to-date. 

Choosing a contractor with the right mix of skills and experience to work on your historical building can be a daunting experience.  Especially considering the potential for permanent damage to the historical fabric of your building, you need to select a contractor who: is well-versed in historical products and materials; can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that create your building’s unique characteristics; understands the modern review, permitting, and approval process for historical buildings with applicable government agencies, historical boards, and commissions; and values preservation of our built history as much as you do.

Many of you have likely had work completed on your historical home or building. Consequently, many of you have also likely felt the impact of labor shortages in the construction industry. This article focuses on the skilled labor shortages and how they affect your project. The skilled labor shortage in the trades has been a major concern for over a decade, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2008. In March 2019, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) described the shortage – based on a survey of its members – like this: 

“More than four out of five builders expect to face serious challenges regarding the cost and availability of labor in 2019 … Just 13% of builders cited labor issues as an important concern in 2011, with the rate steadily rising over the ensuing years and peaking at 82% in each of the last three years (2017–2019).” [NAHBNow]

The number of shortages vary based on skill-specific trades, but broad shortages are higher in recent years. This presents a conundrum to leaders in the construction industry, but also to you, the homeowners. We have attempted to outline the breadth of the issues as well as possible solutions and strategies to cope, both from a societal stand-point and an individual homeowner perspective.

If you aren’t interested in how we got here, specific action items for hiring a contractor and dealing with the labor shortage are here

 

 

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WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABOR?

We already know that there is a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry. The question is: How did we get here?

  • Historical contributions. Clayton DeKorne provides a detailed overview of some of the likely factors that contributed to the shortage. For example, he noted that in early America, especially prior to the Revolution, the predominant view of skilled laborers in the construction field was a venerable one, and these craftsman enjoyed involvement in a cooperative community of workers, as well as esteem by and support from society at large. A prime example of this, as noted by DeKorne, is The Carpenter’s Company, the oldest trade guild in America. It held its first meetings in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, right among major centers for government and business. The building and the guild both hosted and provided for government and business in substantial ways. As time passed, the predominant views in America about construction and skilled labor culminated in Charles Ham’s book, Mind and Hand, which viewed industrial arts as a necessary precursor to children’s moral and intellectual development, rather than simply vocational training. DeKorne reports that another characteristic of these historical time periods was that traditional craftsman often passed skills on to their children, maintaining and ensuring traditional skills through the generations. However, as innovations in technology emerged, including “retail product manufacturing,” the need for skilled craftsman declined as the press for manufacturing workers increased. This included the children and youth who previously learned trades alongside their parents. But by 1917, child labor was increasingly frowned upon. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was a federal law passed with the intention of education reform, triggered in large part by concerns related to ethical issues and lack of safety for children in the workforce. DeKorne notes this Act, while beneficial in limiting child labor, was a driving force behind the fall of vocational education in America. Although this bill provided significant federal funding to educational avenues, including vocational education, it set into motion policies and practices that eventually resulted in a distinct separation between college-prep and vocational education, the educational tracks we see to this day. The unforeseen and possibly unintended consequences of this have been a class or social divide, or at least a perception of one, that is still present.

 

  • Recent issues. McKinsey and Company wrote an article that reports that there was a 70% decrease in new housing projects from 2009-2011, resulting in many in the construction industry leaving the workforce, following the 2008 recession. In the years since, the demand for skilled laborers in the construction industry has significantly increased as construction needs have increased. However, workers are not filling those gaps.  DeKorne and homeadvisor.com conclude that a large part of the growing shortage is because of younger generations’ negative perceptions of the industry, including deeply-held beliefs that trade skills are associated with a lower or under-served-class of people. They have held onto the belief that a 4-year degree or college is more respectable, per the standards developed by the educational system throughout most of the twentieth century (noted earlier), and schools have phased out vocational programs and encouraged students to focus on college, perpetuating the idea that it is somehow better. This also reduces students’ exposure to the construction field as a potential option. Many of these people are more interested in innovative, technological careers. These problems are compounded by aging workers retiring from the field. 

 

HOW CAN WE ADDRESS THE SHORTAGE?

There are several things that experts suggest that leaders and professionals in the educational, vocational, and construction fields do, as well as suggestions for homeowners like you.

  • For professionals. Homeadvisor.com proposes that professionals make the most of the maker movement and foster people’s interest by offering alternatives to a 4-year-degree, harness their motivation to be entrepreneurs (since many surveyed indicate owning a business is a big motivator, and create mentorships and apprenticeships.  They also recommend labor automation, hiring temps, using overtime with current staff, and expanding hours of staff availability.

 

  • For homeowners. If you read most of this article prior to this section, or if you’re already abreast of the issues of labor shortage in the industry, you might be feeling discouraged as to any possible immediate solutions. However, we have compiled a list of things that you can do as a homeowner to navigate this issue, from our experience and that of other sources (Homeadvisor.com, thisoldhouse.com, Jon Gorey at realestate.boston.com, Marni Jameson of The Mercury News, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation).   
    • SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE – call before problems happen so you are more likely to get things addressed when they are problematic. This also builds rapport with contractors and laborers.  
      • HAVE A MAINTENANCE PLAN – find examples and ideas here
      • BE FLEXIBLE – Due to uncontrollable aspects of the current circumstances, it’s best to accept them as they are and be flexible with them. You can do this by allowing more time for projects to be completed, considering simplifying your projects, or moving your own schedule around to match that of contractors’ schedules. Also remember that subcontractors often prefer to work with general contractors or well-known companies, so they may not consider small home projects to be a priority. Consider contacting someone you have an existing relationship with for smaller projects, or a handyman service that specializes in smaller projects.
      • BE AWARE OF COST – The reality is that this shortage will impact the cost of your project. As the demand for highly skilled workers increases (especially for workers who have specialized skills in restoration/preservation rather than general remodeling) and the supply of highly skilled workers decreases, the demand on these contractors and workers also increases (usually beyond capacity) which will drive up the costs. 
      • HAVE A LIST OF PROS – Create a list of people with whom you build relationships. If they know you are a reliable customer, you are more likely to find them to be reliable professionals. They may be more likely to be flexible with you compared to unfamiliar, possibly demanding customers. 
      • DEFER TO A NATIONAL ASSOCIATION – NAHB and the National Association for the Remodeling Industry have pro-finder tools that will help you discover professionals in your area. Ensure that the contractors have experience in historical restoration and/or preservation.
      • DO YOUR OWN BACKGROUND CHECKS – High demand in a limited labor market is a breeding ground for less-than-satisfactory work from certain contractors, who may take advantage of the situation and be less reliable because they feel they have the freedom to do so. Also, many contractors are desperate for subcontractors and no longer requiring screenings, allowing this to fall to the homeowner. Make sure they are a licensed contractor, ask for proof of insurance, call references, and check out websites like court records to make sure no suits or complaints are filed against them. Particularly, make sure they do not have numerous claims against them regarding workmanship or breach of contract.
      • DON’T SETTLE – Although this checklist may seem daunting, don’t settle for sub-par work or possibly unsavory workers, despite all of the seeming barriers. 

IN SUMMARY: 

Unfortunately, even choosing a reputable contractor is not always the solution you would assume it would be and much onus is put on the homeowner or property owner as a result. Recently, I saw a job posting for a large, well-established contractor advertising 3 positions: construction site manager, field superintendent, and entry-level field assistant. The fact that they have the 3 levels of position available does not surprise me. What shocked me was the fact that they were advertising that they do NOT complete or require drug screens or background checks. I can tell from personal experience  that the number of applicants dramatically decreases when you add those qualifiers to the help-wanted ad. This concerns me not only from a safety standpoint, but also from a customer service angle. Someone who is abusing drugs will not be reliable (drug abuse is a huge problem in the construction industry). Just having a body show up is not the same as someone who is there to work (not to mention the liability implications). I am not opposed to second chances in regard to background checks; depending on the circumstances I would consider hiring someone with a blemish on their record, but I would want to know about it and evaluate it from a risk-assessment standpoint. As some contractors are lowering their standards to hire workers, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the labor force and the type of screening that is completed. 

In addition, you can hire for speed, cost, or quality choosing 2 of the 3 priorities, but the 3 cannot be accomplished on the same project. One question we are often asked is: what is the best way to find a reliable skilled contractor who won’t be too expensive? My answer is: It is hard to find an inexpensive skilled carpenter because the cost of labor goes up as skills are learned, and you are paying for the knowledge that has been previously acquired so they are not making expensive mistakes on your property. As a strategy, I would look at what work is unskilled/semi-skilled (it typically follows the 80/20 rule for window restoration, for example). With minimal training, you can either self-perform or pay a college student to do the unskilled work, bringing the skilled carpenter in for the repair work without having to pay a high hourly rate for the unskilled portion of the project. 

Ultimately, there is a lot required of you as a homeowner to find the right contractor and skilled laborers, but it will be worth it in the end.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The weather is warming up a bit as we move into the Spring Season. In the 19th century, before vacuums came into common use, early spring was a time to open windows and sweep homes from “top to bottom” to herald the coming of warmer weather. Your spring maintenance projects can be handled the same way – from roof to foundation. Given that many of you are likely restricted to your homes during the crisis related to the Coronavirus, it might be helpful to think about maintenance as a means to manage boredom and anxiety until some normalcy returns. Afterall, maintenance is preservation for the long haul. Read on for our overview of the benefits of maintenance.

Photo from the National Park Service’s guidelines for maintenance of historic buildings.

 

WHY IS MAINTENANCE IMPORTANT?

I know you have heard us talk a lot about maintenance over the years if you have followed us for any period of time (certainly if you read our blog post on painting your home’s exterior from last week), but we cannot emphasize its importance enough, especially for owners of historical homes: MAINTENANCE IS PRESERVATION. To drive this point home, preservation is defined by the Secretary of the Interior’s standards as:

“to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of an historic property.”

Preservation is also the first step of “intervention” based on the Secretary of Interior’s standards and guidelines. Having a maintenance plan helps to preserve the building, slows the natural deterioration cycle, and helps maintain a budget of planned projects rather than major emergency projects (that can cause hasty decisions to be made that may permanently damage the structure).

 

INITIATE YOUR MAINTENANCE PLAN

You can begin to develop your maintenance plan and schedule by following the checklists in the National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 47 “Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings.” The goal of the checklist is to ensure that the structure is sound and that water is kept out of the building. Having a regular routine looking at the exterior of the building – during a light rain or after a freeze – can help to determine where the water is coming in and can highlight problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.

 

REPAIR vs. REPLACEMENT

Once the maintenance plan is made, the decision to repair building components that have begun to deteriorate is an important preservation decision. Repairing rather than replacing helps to retain more of the historic fabric of the building (an important preservation goal). As we’ve noted in the past, and as the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitation recommends, replacement in kind  is preferable. Replacement in kind means to replace with materials that are the same as what you are replacing: wood for wood, stone for stone, etc. There is a little bit of wiggle room for “compatible substitute material,” such as epoxy. We choose replacement over repair in cases where 50% or more of something is deteriorated, based on guidelines. However, this is a judgment call as there is no hard or fast rule for this. Usually someone who does not work on older buildings or someone that has a replacement mindset will set this bar much lower. Another factor in replacement in kind is the material selection. For example, old-growth wood is much more rot resistant and durable than the second-growth wood available now. We typically use a tropical hardwood or salvaged wood (from an architectural salvage dealer) to ensure that the replacement wood is going to be durable. Make sure the wood components are solid wood, not finger jointed (finger jointing is the process of making smaller wood lengths into longer pieces – most trim and modern window and door frames are finger jointed). This allows water more access points into the wood. And, because modern finger-jointed wood is (usually) inferior second growth pine the deterioration process is accelerated. Ensure that all replacement wood is treated with a preservative (like BoraCare) and prime-coated with an oil-based primer on all sides. If you are using epoxy repair (which we do for smaller repairs and non-wood repairs such as metal and masonry) make sure you remove ALL rotten wood, use consolidant, and then the wood fill epoxy. Most epoxies can be sanded, molded (if necessary), and then finish painted.

 

THE “MAINTENANCE FREE” TRAP

Many of you have likely seen ads for maintenance free products for your home, promising you that you will gain a lot of time by installing their product on your building. Sadly, many maintenance free products are maintenance free because when it comes time to maintain them you just replace it for the new version of the product. This may save time, but it also keeps you stuck in the cycle of replacement: continually buying replacements to keep the product manufacturers in business. Meanwhile, traditional materials are “greener” and more cost-effective in the long run because they are repairable. Cost and eco-friendliness aside, there are other issues with maintenance free products in older buildings. The National Park service’s Preservation Brief No. 47 “Maintaining the Exteriors of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings” offers the following cautionary notice for historical building owners:

“It is enticing to read about ‘maintenance free’ products and systems, particularly water-proof sealers, rubberized paints, and synthetic siding, but there is no such thing as maintenance free when it comes to caring for historic buildings. Some approaches that initially seem to reduce maintenance requirements may overtime actually accelerate deterioration.”

Often times, we will see water and moisture trapped behind these maintenance free products causing rot that is unseen until replacement is necessary.

 

FURTHER RESOURCES:

  • Links to our Facebook live video series from last year regarding maintenance of your historical home.

 

  • Link to our Podcast from last year with more answers to older home maintenance questions posed by our listeners. The podcast included discussion of water infiltration through masonry walls, paint-related questions, as well as wood repair and preservation.
Paint is probably on a lot of homeowner’s minds right now (and if you listened to last week’s podcast you have definitely thought about it). With the warmer weather allowing us to step outside and breathe fresh air, we’re also afforded the opportunity to see what the weather and time have done to the outside of our homes. Updating the paint on your home’s exterior might be an obvious need, and is a task best completed when temperatures are mild and not too humid. Spring is a good time to plan and prep for that, so read on for pointers on painting your historical home.

Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash

Painting a historical home can be quite a challenge. Proper preparation, risk of damage, quality and cost, safety, color choices, and maintaining it all must be considered. Read on for tips to navigate this process.

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TIPS FOR PAINTING YOUR HISTORICAL HOME

  • Preparation. One of the key elements to a successful, long-lasting project is the surface preparation. For the different types of paint that may already be on your building, each has its own preparation requirements. If you are not sure what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor  to obtain a paint analysis, providing you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint. Determine if paint is failing, and possible causes – moisture is usually the reason paint is failing. Once you have addressed the underlying cause, you can move on to preparing the surface for the paint. Make sure that the surface is clean and free of loose paint (you can remove the paint completely, but this is not always necessary to get to a sound surface). Never use abrasive methods (see next bullet regarding damage avoidance below) to remove paint. Listen to one of our previous podcasts for tips on one option to safely strip paint. After the paint is removed and the surface is cleaned, make sure that the wood has a chance to dry out before the prime coat is added. If the wood is very dry (e.g., the paint has peeled off and it has been allowed to weather with no coating) you can pre-treat with 50% boiled linseed oil and 50% turpentine prior to the oil-based prime coat. Using good lead-safe habits is important for any building pre-1978 (we assume it has lead paint unless it has been abated)

 

Because paint removal is a difficult and painstaking process, a number of costly, regrettable experiences have occurred – and continue to occur – for both the historic building and the building owner. Historic buildings have been set on fire with blow torches; wood irreversibly scarred by sandblasting or by harsh mechanical devices, such as rotary sanders and rotary wire strippers; and layers of historic paint inadvertently and unnecessarily removed. In addition, property owners using techniques that substitute speed for safety have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, or the misuse of the paint removers themselves.

Being too aggressive with paint removal can damage the historical materials. Never use abrasive methods, mostly because of the public safety and lead paint, but also the potential to damage the wood. Using heat can also be dangerous. Open flame torches and even heat guns can cause a fire to start. There are infrared systems that do not get as hot as heat guns, if you wanted an option beyond chemical strippers.

 

  • Quality and Cost. The temptation to save money by using cheap paint can be alluring. Many contractors, and even homeowners, mistakenly think that paint choices need only match historical colors, but this is not so. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true for your paint. Investing in quality paint will save you money in the long run. For a limited time, The Real Milk Paint Co. is offering a “3 FOR FREE” deal; Buy 3 samples of product of your choice for $3.50 each, and they get shipped to you for free.

 

  • Safety and Handling Lead Paint. The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children, etc. But, did you know that lead in dust – such as the dust created while sanding and prepping surfaces for new paint – is the most common route of exposure to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling. There is also general information from EPA for homeowners. 

 

 

  • Maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Briefs No. 47 on Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings indicates that exteriors of the home should be inspected at least annually to determine if paint should be repaired, otherwise corrected, or exteriors need re-painted. You can also view our video on general maintenance plans and paint maintenance. 

 

Ask yourself these questions before beginning any painting project:

  • Does my paint exhibit any peeling, crackling, chalking (powdering), crazing (small, interconnected cracks), mold, mildew, staining, blistering or wrinkling?
  • Does my building have an existing paint application that is inappropriate for its historic fabric?
  • Do I know what type of paint is currently on my building and what preparation is required before painting over that type of paint?
  • If I am using a contractor, are they “Renovation, Repair and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling?
  • Does that contractor understand which methods, tools, materials, and chemicals are appropriate for paint removal on my historical building?

FURTHER RESOURCES FOR PAINTING HISTORICAL BUILDINGS:

 

Winter may soon be coming to a close, but there’s still time during the tempestuous month of March for Spring to “come in like a lion,” as the old proverb goes. The uncertainty of weather related to climate change aggravates the issues we already see at the end of Winter as well, adding to the concerns of homeowners attempting to maintain the energy efficiency and temperature of their homes. With that in mind, we’re focusing on energy efficiency for historic buildings for today’s blog post. 


Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

First, let’s debunk a myth about old homes and energy efficiency. A common misconception about older buildings is that they are drafty, inefficient energy hogs. The truth is that the buildings with the worst energy efficiency were built between 1940-1970. Energy was cheap and there wasn’t a big push to conserve our resources during that time-period. Buildings constructed before 1940 were made with energy savings, thermal performance, and physical comfort in mind. By maximizing natural sources of heating, lighting, and ventilation, these buildings were comfortable in all seasons.

Still concerned about energy efficiency in your historic building or home? Read on for advice on improvements that will not sacrifice the historical integrity of your space.
________________________________________________________________________

TIPS TO INCREASE ENERGY EFFICIENCY

ON YOUR OWN:

  • Change your Habits.  Install timers or motion detectors on lights, attach self-closing mechanisms on doors that might otherwise hang open, install fans and raise your thermostat temperature, use LEDs in your lights and turn off “vampire” devices that use electricity in standby mode or that use electricity in standby mode or whenever that are plugged into an outlet.
  • Remove focus from Siding. Remember our previous post on siding on historic homes. Walls themselves are not a significant source of energy loss, so replacing original siding with new synthetic siding really does not cut costs or improve energy efficiency.
  • Caulking or Weather-Stripping. The easiest tip for increasing the energy efficiency of your building is to reduce the air infiltration using caulking and/or weather-stripping. You can do a self-audit of the envelope of your building (roof; walls and wall penetrations including doors, windows; floor, and foundation) to determine if these methods are necessary. If there are places that you feel cold air coming in you can add additional weather-stripping or caulking to the area and seal the crack. In warmer months this will also stop your conditioned air from escaping to the outside.           2 points of caution:
    • Only use the spray foam against masonry penetrations – it will cause any wood it is against to rot
    • Do not make the building too tight – older buildings were built for air to move and if all air movement is stopped it will cause problems with moisture accumulation
  • Combat the Stack Effect. The method above is helpful, but it does not give you the highest return-on-investment for making your home energy efficient because of the Stack Effect. To combat the Stack Effect, insulate at the basement floor (where the air comes in) and at the attic (where the air goes out). It’s also important to determine the R-Value (measure of thermal resistance) for your area to ensure you are most effectively stopping air leaks.  You can find your recommended R-Value here.                                                                                                                                                                Options for insulation:
    • “Green” or environmentally-friendly options (natural materials like cellulose and wool)
    • Fiberglass
    • Spray foam
    • Foam board (purchases can be made at big-box stores or SIPS)

WITH PROFESSIONAL HELP:

  • Seek Professional Assistance. Review our post on hiring the best person for the job. 
  • Have a Maintenance Appraisal Performed.  If you are concerned about identifying air leaks on your own, a maintenance appraisal performed by a qualified contractor will locate any source of air leakage and provide you with a plan-of-attack to remedy the problem without damaging the historic aspects of your home.
  • Schedule an Energy Audit.  Both the maintenance appraisal and an energy audit are absolutely essential things that need to be done BEFORE you implement any energy improvement measures in a situation where you do not have enough knowledge to take care of things yourself.  The energy audit will evaluate your home’s current energy performance and identify any deficiencies in both the envelope of your home and/or mechanical systems.

FURTHER READING:

THIS IS A RE-POST OF A PODCAST INTERVIEW WE ORIGINALLY POSTED February 2019:

John Goodenberger and Lucien Swerdloff from the Clatsop Community College’s Historic Preservation and Restoration program joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss:

  • The collaborative approach their program uses to deal with the contractor storage
  • Sustainable building (viewing historic buildings as resources to be preserved)
  • Their combination of teaching both theory and hands-on preservation (very practical)

Contact info and Bios:

Clatsop College

1651 Lexington Ave

Astoria, OR 97103

The Clastop Community College Historic Preservation Program, in Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River, prepares students for work in the building trades with an emphasis on the preservation and restoration of historic and vintage residential and commerical buildings. Students gain the knowledge and skills to plan and restore structures in historically accurate ways utilizing both traditional and modern materials and methods. The program offers classes in historic preservation theory and workshops in practical hands-on skills.

John Goodenberger is a preservationist and instructor in the Historic Preservation program. Educated in architecture at University of Oregon, John has guided the restoration of commercial and residential buildings in Astoria. Working also a the City’s historic building consultant, he has analyzed the integrity and historic significance of more than 1,000 properties. John was the chair of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation and is currently a regional representative for Restore Oregon, and is on the board of Columbia Pacific Preservation, a collaborative group promoting education and economic development through historic preservation.

Lucien Swerdloff is the program coordinator and instructor in the Historic Preservation and the Computer Aided Design programs at Clatsop Community College. He earned Master of Architecture and Master of Science degrees from the State University of New York in Buffalo. He has organized numerous preservation workshops throughout Oregon and Washington and worked on the restoration of many historic structures. Lucien is on the boards of Columbia Pacific Preservation, the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, and the Astoria Ferry Group, working to preserve, protect, and operate the historic Tourist No. 2 ferry.

Resources Discussed:

National Council for Preservation Education

Historic Preservation and Energy Efficiency Guide – Pacific Power

PART 3, THE FINAL PIECE IN THIS 3-PART SERIES of working on your old home explores using a good design. Using a good design refers to integrating additions, renovations, or even new construction into your historical building, not necessarily “copying” historical architecture contemporaneous to your building’s era. It simply needs to integrate with the historical representation of your building and the surrounding neighborhood. 


Photo by J. Remus on Unsplash

The development and evolution of historical neighborhoods over time follow their own rhythm and pattern, unique to each individual neighborhood. Often, the architecture is as well. Sympathetic or compatible additions and renovations that are right for one property might not be for another, and your project should start with an appreciation of the unique architectural character of the neighborhood of which your building is a part. This understanding should influence and shape the design of your project. A good design is not just about a solid understanding of the architectural character of a building, it should also address the marriage of old and new – styles, materials, and workmanship. If it does not, your project could ruin your building’s architectural character instead of augment it.

For example, many historical buildings have been carefully designed to address water and moisture issues by “breathing” the moisture out, as well as shed it carefully down the exterior of a house in a way that avoids water permeation as it moves down the house. If your project does not use a design that works in the same manner, water will begin to penetrate your building and lead to fungal deterioration, which in turn will lead to major expenditures and repairs, if not complete loss of some of your building’s features. Another common bad design seen during restoration on historical buildings is the use of non-sloping window sills that do not shed water, and can lead to maintenance nightmares. Having a design for your project that not only embodies the architectural character of your building, but also addresses critical compatibility issues (such as water-shedding) is key to preventing corrosive damage to your building. 

Ask yourself:

  • Has my design been created, or reviewed, by a qualified contractor who understands historical buildings and how their designs function?
  • Do I see any existing areas in my building where the design appears to be incompatible with historical integrity and/or physical functioning of the building?
  • Am I familiar with my neighborhood’s sense of place and how the local architecture contributes to that character?
  • Does my design include modern materials? If so, are they compatible with the historical materials existing on my building?
  • Do all of the materials, workmanship, or functional elements of my design work together in the same way?
  • Does my design take into consideration important aspects like scale, building form, setback and site coverage, orientation, architectural elements and projects, facade proportions and patterns, trim and details, etc.?