It is easy to think that if the look of a historical building is maintained and the appropriate types of materials are used, then the building has been successfully preserved. But preservation is not just about preserving how something looks, it is primarily focused in preserving how something is so that it remains as original as possible for future generations.

As important as it is to preserve how our historical buildings actually are, inevitably replacements will need to be made when features are so deteriorated that stabilzation, conservation, or restoration are simply not viable options.

One example is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (the smallest National Park at the corner of 3rd and Pine Street in Philadelphia). We worked with the National Park Service to restore the exterior of the building including to repair and restore wood windows, doors, and a cedar shake roof.

To accurately preserve the Kosciuszko house, we needed to match not just the size, shape, and textures of the shingles themselves, but also the craftsmanship details added during the manufacturing and installation that characterized the roof. To do this, we ordered hand-split cedar shakes and had our detail-oriented artisan craftsmen recreate the original installation.

Video of shakes being hand-split for our order.

Without this attention to detail, the Kosciuszko house would not have been preserved as an accurate testimonial to our architectural heritage. It would have been easier and less expensive to replace the shake roof with any number of other options, including some that are commonly considered “historically accurate,” but they would have not been historically accurate on this house. Even if they were considered “period appropriate,” when we choose a different treatment than what was there originally, we are altering, not preserving, the very things that make the building historic.

In order to avoid significant and sometimes irreparable damage to your building, consider replacing only the deteriorated or missing pats of your building’s features. Use materials that match old in design, color, and texture (both physically and visually). Also, document the original material, the replacement process, and materials used, for future reference and research.

Things to ask yourself about the materials on your building:

  • Do I have documentation of all former replacements, including documentation of original features?
  • Have I had my building evaluated by a qualified contractor to identify any inappropriate replacement materials or approaches?
  • Do I document all replacements I do, including written and photographic documentation, noting the materials, details and tooling on both the original and the replacement?
  • Are there any parts of my building’s original features that are deteriorated or missing and need replacement?
  • Is it possible to replace the deteriorated parts instead of replacing the whole feature?
  • Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if remediation is needed for any not-in-kind replacements previously performed on my building? 
“We regret much of what we’ve built; we regret much of what we’ve torn down. But we’ve never regretted preserving anything.” -Daniel Sack

Original windows serve a dual purpose of providing ventilation and light while being an important part of the buildings architectural design. These windows are constantly under attack from the marketing forces of the replacement window companies.

Window Restoration

Window Restoration in Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia

 

Here’s a horrifying experience recently shared with us:

I was one of those stupid people who put new vinyl windows in my old 1883 farmhouse. I had already spent a winter fixing the old, broken, and cracked windows since no one had lived in my house for seven years. I did show significant saving (on) heating oil the first year since I had storm windows as well.

Fast forward ten years and I am already seeing the gas between the windows escaping. Some of the locks have stopped being cooperative as well. And the warranty? Well, the company no longer makes windows.

And ever since installing the windows, I have had peeling paint on my siding. I didn’t know about siding vents – the kind you stick up under the clapboards – until earlier this year.

This is one decision I wish I could make again – I’d never get rid of my old wooden windows!

Sadly, we hear these kinds of stories all the time (so much in fact we make traditional windows to replace modern replacement windows).

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen House in Washington, DC

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen

House in Washington, DC

However, we also know that your wood windows are the prime targets for replacement window companies.

The information homeowners are taught to believe, is that original wood windows are substandard and the only viable solution is to replace them with their very own superior product. Chances are you’ll probably even get a guarantee too!

The original windows are part of your home and integral to the historic fabric of it. Windows are one of the most significant architectural elements, and they serve as both an interior and exterior feature.

Windows that are not properly maintained can become more than an eye soar. The functionality of their original design begins to falter, chilly winter air seeps in and humidity becomes the deciding factor if the window will open this time or remain jammed shut for perpetuity.

Window Lead Magnet Ad

You can be assured that the trusted replacement window sales representative will make sure you are well educated on the seemingly endless array of benefits that can be attained by purchasing their product.

The sales pitch will include such ‘facts’ as your existing single-pane wood windows cannot perform as well as replacement windows!

This incomplete information continues to be perpetuated by the replacement window industry with the goal of you buying their window. Homeowners accepting this information are often being provided data comprised to affirm the idea that original and historic wood windows are inferior to their replacement counterparts.

Single-pane wood windows in disrepair and poorly maintained, cannot perform as well as intact replacement windows or any window in optimum condition.

Wood windows that are not adequately maintained, neglected and in poor condition are often used to base conclusive assessments of the efficiency of replacement windows verses original windows.

It should not be surprising that replacement windows fair better in this scenario.

These comparison studies and their findings are used to influence homeowners, but they do not tell the entire story. In fact, a properly maintained single-pane wood window, weatherized, in conjunction with a storm window (interior or exterior) is equal to a replacement window in energy usage according to numerous engineering studies.

A replacement window may save a few dollars in heating and cooling cost, but to recoup the cost in the investment of a whole home window replacement, it will take you fifty or more years at less than a $1.00 a year in heating and cooling savings according to the University of Vermont study.

Yes, replacement windows do offer double panes (sometimes triple), low U-Values and Low-E glass. The really cheap ones offer a low price point too.
It doesn’t make them better.

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Another ‘fact’ that will be citied during the sales presentation is that replacement windows are “maintenance free”.

Maintenance free may imply a solution to a home’s rundown windows, but the solution is not found in mass produced and disposable windows.

Maintenance free means it cannot be maintained or repaired, with the average life span under twenty years, those very same replacement windows will find themselves in a land fill along with their nemesis, the original windows, they replaced. Every material and every part of a window wears, breaks down and needs some type of repair to continue proper functioning.

Fact is, that a replacement window cannot be repaired and cannot continue to work at the same level it was when installed. It is not comprised of the same individual components as traditional windows, it’s a single unit design and constructed as such to make it impossible to disassemble and repair.

When a replacement window fails, its maintenance free selling point becomes the reason you need another replacement window. It also becomes another opportunity for a replacement window company to sell you the latest and greatest ‘maintenance free’ window. The notion that replacing supposedly substandard wood windows with modern replacement worry-free windows, is certainly a misnomer. As in the case study above, homeowners are often disillusioned when the integrity of ten or twenty-year-old replacement windows deteriorate to level where they inevitably need to be replaced – again and again – welcome to the replacement cycle.

Original windows can be repaired and preserved because they predate the era of planned obsolescence. An era when buildings had to work with the environment to keep its inhabitants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An era in which fixing things was preferred to replacement. An era before the skilled tradesman become product installers with an assembly line mentality of the building trades. The individual components of these windows can each be repaired, maintained or replaced in sections as need be. They were built for longevity, not for replacement.

Window Lead Magnet Ad
They can be preserved and their historical significance doesn’t need to be sacrificed for energy efficiency or functionality.

When an original wood window fails, it can be repaired and repaired again and it isn’t as daunting of a task as you just might think. Replacement window companies cannot make a profit if homeowners routinely maintain their historic windows. The replacement window industries’ goal is to sell as many windows as possible. Our goal is to help you understand there are options that preserve the integrity of your historic building and to arm you with information and facts.

Maintenance measures can be taken to keep historic windows energy efficient, properly functioning and able to last another 100 years:
 Painting
 Caulking
 Weather stripping
 Re-glazing
 And more…

Replacement windows will however permanently alter your homes interior and exterior appearance. Losing the detail and elegance found in the workmanship of true divided lights, wavy single pane windows, rails, muntins, profiles, depths and sills will be lost and replaced with flat and shadowless details, meant to replicate what was once there. Understanding the materials and traditional joinery used to build your original windows are superior to any replacement window is an important factor in deciding whether to restore or replace.

Challenging conventional knowledge on what it takes to maintain historic windows isn’t as daunting as it may seem. However, it requires shifting the paradigm of thought – understanding that maintaining your original windows can be a simple task and the reason to replace your windows is not to save energy costs or have zero-maintenance. 

Watch the video below to learn more options for your original wood windows.

We are currently working on a window replacement project at the United Arab Emirates building in Washington D.C.  Built in 1912 in the Beaux-Arts style, the  embassy is part of the former grounds of the National Bureau of Standards in Cleveland Park that became a high-security enclave just outside of Embassy Row.  This enclave houses 18 embassies in historic buildings from the late 18th Century through the early 20th Century in an eclectic mix of Queen Anne, Georgian Revival, Tudor Revival, Beaux-Arts, and other  styles.

For this project, our windows were required to undergo testing procedures we haven’t gone through before.  We found the  experience so interesting that we’re highlighting the results here.  (Don’t worry – we’ll highlight our work on the building in a future newsletter, and we’ll post about the Beaux-Arts style in another post.)

First, the results…

Results Table

 

Danielle’s Thoughts

This was my first time experiencing the testing process and the whole thing was really interesting to me. They force the product through conditions I have never experienced in “real life” (which makes me wonder exactly what situations they are making the windows qualify for?).

Our fixed window surpassed all the testing and actually withstood F5 hurricane forces!! (And yes, we were there to witness those forces… behind safety glass of course.)

Our single-hung window performed well enough to earn the rating we “had” to achieve, but they stopped the testing at that point and did not push it to the limits like they did with the fixed sash because the window (understandably) did experience water infiltration at one point.  (Hey, it opens, so it’s got moving parts – you kinda have to expect iit.  Especially when there is a wall of sprinkler heads spraying water on it from every direction.)

Since you can only get a rating as good as the lowest test, they stopped the other tests when they passed the point they needed to for the rating we were required to have. It was kind of disappointing.

I would have liked to have seen the single-hung pushed to its limits as well.  But we construct them the same waY as the fixed sash, so I would assume the single-hung would have performed as well on the structural tests as the fixed sash if they had.

 

Moira’s Thoughts
Danielle was feeling under the weather that day, sick and surely contagious.  But none of us could convince her to stay home, so we headed out to the National Certified Testing Laboratories in York, PA.  (Hoping we weren’t setting a pandemic in motion with her germs.)

Two windows were going to be tested for air leakage, water leakage, and how much air pressure they could withstand structurally.  To test the windows, they clamped them to a large plexi-glass wall.  This structure was surrounded by a plastic box that was taped at the seams to eliminate any outside air flow from impacting the tests.

For the air leakage, forced air was directed at the window to measure how much air leaked through the window to the other side.  When they tested the damp-water penetration resistance mechanical spraying devices sprayed water at the windows in 5-minute cycles, with one minute between cycles for the wood to rest, that increased in pressure with each cycle until the window reached its fail point and water would fall over the lip of the sash.  During this test the window was constantly monitored by a testing technician who viewed the window from the back side of the testing wall where he visually inspected the joints for water penetration during the testing with a flashlight.

The last test was the structural load test and this was definitely my favorite.  Sensors were applies to various points on the sash to measure movement.  Both positive and negative pressure were increased substantially in cycles.  This test was simulating the kind of forces a window would experience during a hurricane and as the pressures were increased in each cycle you could visibly see the bowing of the window.  As it neared its fail point you could hear the cracking of the wood.

Factors

 

 

It is easy to think that if the look of a historical building is maintained, as well as the types of materials used, then the building has been successfully preserved. But preservation is not just about preserving how something looks, it is primarily focused on preserving how something is so that it remains as original as possible for future generations.

historic wood windows

As important as it is to preserve how our historical buildings actually are, inevitably re­placements will need to be made when features are so deteriorated that stabilization, con­servation, or restoration are simply not viable options.

In these instances, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties allow for “replacement in-kind” (replicating the original feature in all respects, except improved condition) if there are surviving features that can be used as prototypes. The Standards & Guidelines also notes that, “The replacement materi­als needs to match the old both physically and visually, i.e., wood with wood, etc. Thus…substitute materials are not appropriate in…preservation.”

One example is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial on the corner of 3rd and Pine streets.  The Thaddeus Kosciuszko house is a part of Independence Park and in 2011 the National Park Service embarked on exterior restorations of the building to repair and restore wood windows, doors, and a cedar shake roof that were deteriorated.

historic windows tops

Our company, Historic Restorations, was given the honor of performing this restoration work and to accurately preserve the Kosciuszko house we needed to match not just the size, shape, and textures of the shingles themselves, but also the craftsmanship details added during manufacturing and installation that characterized the roof.  To do this we ordered hand-split cedar shakes and had our detail-oriented artisan craftsmen recreate the original installation of the cedar shakes.Kosciuszko house is a part of Independence Park and in 2011 the National Park Service embarked on exterior restorations of the building to repair and restore wood windows, doors, and a cedar shake roof that were deteriorated.

historic restorationWithout this attention to detail, the Kosciuszko house would not have been preserved as an accurate testimonial to our architectural heritage.  It would have been easier and more inexpensive to have replaced the shake roof with any number of other options, including some that are commonly considered “historically accurate”.  But they would not have been historically accurate to this house.  Even if they are considered “period appropriate”, when we choose a different treatment than what was there originally we are altering, not preserving the very things that make the building historic.

It also alters a building’s historical fabric, some­times irretrievably. Original wallpaper that is often destroyed during the removal process can’t usually be replaced with in-kind period wallpaper. Replacing one species of wood with another sometimes can’t be undone if the original species of wood is not readily avail­able, or is priced so exorbitantly that it is not financially feasible for your project.

In order to avoid significant, and sometimes irreparable, damage to your building, consider replacing only the deteriorated or missing parts of your building’s features, use materials that match the old in design, color, and texture (both physically and visually), and docu­ment the original material and the replacement process and materials used extensively for future reference and research.

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″] Things to Ask Yourself About the Materials on Your Building

  • Do I have documentation of all former replacements, including documentation of the original features?
  • Have I had my building evaluated by a qualified contractor to identify any inappropriate replacement materials or approaches?
  • Do I document all replacements I do, including written and photographic documentation, noting the materials, details, and tooling on both the original and the replacement?
  • Are there any parts of my building’s original features that are deteriorated or missing and need replacement?
  • Is it possible to just replace the deteriorated parts instead of replacing the whole feature?
  • Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if remediation is needed for any not-in-kind replacements previously performed on my building? [/sws_grey_box]

 

Videos

Title: Designing a Sympathetic Addition to a Historic Home

Danielle Keperling talks about the importance of making sure your work is never something that can not be undone. Important tips included such as make sure your new addition is compatible and differentiated from the historical building, and best locations in a home to build sympathetic additions.

Title: Existing Building Code Impact on Current Projects

Danielle Keperling talks about Pennsylvania’s existing Building Code and Universal Building Code that was adopted in mid 2000’s. Existing building code is not often known by contractors and home owners, but it allows some variation and gives exemptions from modern code as long as the use of the building is not changed.

Title: Energy Efficiency of Older Homes vs. Newer Homes

Danielle Keperling talks about the energy efficiency between older and newer homes. If homes were built before 1950, the older homes are still as energy efficient as newer homes. The Federal Government has conducted studies of homes built between 1950 and 1970 and found they are the biggest energy users. You can improve energy efficiency by having an energy audit done by a historically sensitive energy auditor.

Title: Hiring The Right Contractor

Danielle Keperling talks about the importance and how to find the right contractor. Look for someone who specializes in historic homes. Any contractor should have license and registration, but for an historic contractor, check references and look at their portfolio work, compare size, and have a good relationship with them.

Title: How Do I Maintain My Older Home

Danielle Keperling talks about how to maintain an older home such as evaluation of all the systems of the home that can fail and then see what can be done by most pressing to aesthetic by preparing a semi-annually/annually maintenance plan. “Older homes” are considered homes built before WWII (mid 1940’s).

Title: Planning a Historical Building Project

Danielle Keperling talks about the best way to approach a historic building project such as creating a plan focused on your needs, know how space is being used, and create a wish list focused on the historic nature of the building. Next is project development which includes interviewing contractors, getting prints, investigating building codes, and having a budget.

Title: Advantages Of Using Lime Base Mortar

Danielle Keperling talks about the advantages of using Lime Based Mortar over Modern Portland Cement preventing irreversible damage to brick allowing water to escape during the freeze/thaw cycle.

Title: Maintaining My Non-Historic Older Home

Danielle Keperling talks about the stewardship of homes and preserving buildings such as removing extinct components, even though they are not officially historic and keeping historic fabric intact.

Title:Choosing Replacement Parts

Danielle Keperling talks about choosing replacement parts such as documenting deteriorating or missing pieces and replacement in kind (replacing with the same type of material, same/similar methods, same color, and same consistency.)

Title: Installing Synthetic Materials

Danielle Keperling talks about using synthetic materials for structural reinforcement (kept in a non-heavily trafficked area and non-visible.) When selecting a substitute material, make sure it has a proven track record and will not damage the historic fabric of the building.

Title: Vinyl Siding

Danielle Keperling talks about the damage of synthetic siding such as moisture causing deterioration that is unseen and the damage done during the installation process.

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When your historical home 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 simple: you hired someone to do the work.

Today the process is a bit more complex. Work of any kind on a historical home can involve multiple government agencies who grant and oversee construction and occupancy permits and sometimes even a historical board or commission who guides the restoration process and approves any changes, the materials, and methods used to make those changes.

(Not to mention the various building codes your project is subject to and the exceptions and regulations that govern construction projects involving historical buildings!)

 

 

Of course, there are plenty of horror stories about the HYSTERICAL Review/Commission/Boards. Knowing how to navigate the process helps to eliminate the potential aggravations (having a preservation contractor or design professional does not hurt either).

Typically, any property within a historic district or conservation area must be reviewed by a Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) or historic commission (there are over 439 historic districts just in Pennsylvania).

Usually the work the historic review boards are concerned with is the exterior (visible from the street) (included but not limited to):

• Replacement of doors and windows;
• Removal, enclosure or repair of porch;
• Replacement of roof;
• Cleaning and pointing of masonry;
• Addition of a roof deck; and
• Addition to the property.

The board also reviews demolition and any new infill construction within the historic district. Contact your local municipality to see if your property is in a historic district.

Usually you need the historic commission approval before a building permit can be granted.

If you are proposing a radical change that would alter the building significantly it is recommended to consult with the Historical Commission staff before you get to far into the design process.

Simple projects (requiring repairs and replacement in kind) using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards as guidance and usually be approved at the staff level (without the necessity to go before the entire board for an approval hearing).

More complex projects that require building plans (blueprints, specifications – usually prepared by a design professional) can also be submitted for approval at the staff level provided the proposed changes use the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards as guidance.

Projects that are less sensitive to the historic nature of the property are reviewed by the entire board (with recommendations by the staff using the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to explain their reasoning). The entire board then debates, hears input from the community, and then votes to approve or deny the proposed changes.

If the plans are denied they can be revised based on the input from the board (and then resubmitted for approval) or the decision can be appealed to a higher level (in Lancaster City, it is the City Council).

Hopefully this demystifies the historic commission review process.

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.

There are a variety of tasks that can be done on a regular basis to extend the life of a porch. In addition, a visual inspection of the porch should be made every spring and fall to determine if more in-depth repairs are necessary. Fortunately, ongoing maintenance significantly reduces both the need and cost for later repair work and represents good preservation practice. When properly maintained, a well-constructed porch can last for decades.

Routine Cleaning and Other Surface Work

Since many porches are essentially another living space, extending housekeeping to this space makes practical sense. Regular maintenance includes sweeping the wood porch decking, and, if needed, an occasional damp mopping. Removing dirt and leaves by sweeping is preferable to frequent hosing off the deck with water. The latter can saturate the woodwork, thereby promoting decay. Frequent sweeping will reduce the accumulation of abrasive materials, such as dirt and sand. While visually pleasing to some, vines and plants should be kept trimmed away and not be trained to grow onto or allowed to grow beneath porches. Plants and vines unfortunately reduce ventilation, promote a moist environment for insects and decay, accelerate open wood joints and impede cyclical maintenance. As an alternative, traditional freestanding trellises can be used to support plant growth away from the porch.

There are certain precautions that are recommended for wood floors. Rubber mats, rugs or indoor/outdoor carpeting can trap moisture and condensation on their underneath side and should not be used on a wooden porch floor. Keeping flower pots up off the wooden deck will help prevent moisture buildup and decayed spots – wood, clay or metal “trivets” that hold the pots an inch or more off the wooden deck are helpful, but the pots should be moved to different locations periodically. In colder climates, light snow can be swept off the porch. Snow shovels with a hard rubber leading edge or plastic shovels cause less damage to wood than metal, while paint in good condition helps ice to release more easily. Sand or clean kitty litter can be sprinkled on ice to prevent slipping; however, they should be later swept off the porch, as they are abrasive. Salt (sodium chloride) is not recommended for ice removal on older porches as it can promote corrosion and failure of nails and other fasteners. Magnesium chloride is an alternate de-icing salt that is less corrosive and less damaging to masonry and plants. If any de-icing salt is used, be sure to scrub and rinse off the porch deck in the spring. Boot scrapers and brush-mats at the bottom of the stairs are recommended for muddy areas.

Painting

45-painting-porch

Decay can start when wood is left exposed to the weather or where joints open up. An inexpensive way to extend the life of the existing porch paint without jeopardizing the historic material is spot paint and caulk where needed every year or two. This cost-effective procedure is particularly effective in maintaining wood porches where the exposure to weathering is high. Photo: John Leeke.

Spot painting and resealing of open joints should be undertaken at least every other year. Heavily used stair treads may require more frequent paint touchup. When peeling paint or bare wood is evident, inspect to ensure it is not signaling deeper problems, such as decay. With sound wood, scrape off the loose paint, sand, prime, and repaint the area. Where lead paint is present, appropriate lead hazard precautions and procedures apply. Only top-quality exterior primers and paints are recommended, selecting for the deck and stairs specially formulated paints. Where wood porch steps are exposed to moisture, grit added to the wet paint during application will help improve safety.

Repair

Many repairs may be successfully undertaken by property owners, while major projects often require the special knowledge and equipment of an experienced contractor. Repairs generally include patching and reinforcement of historic materials. The roof and foundation are particularly important to the preservation and the structure of a historic porch yet they often receive much less attention than ornamental features. Their neglect will usually lead to more costly work. Repairs to features such as a balustrade or flooring can encompass limited replacement in kind when the porch part is severely deteriorated or when a part of a repeated feature is missing altogether. Some common porch repairs are discussed in this section.

Filling Open Cracks or Joints

To seal open cracks or joints, start by scraping off the paint back a few inches from the opening and removing old caulk to expose bare wood. The opening should be examined for any signs of wood decay, and to determine if the joint is loose due to a loss of connection, such as rusted nails. After correcting any problems, apply a water-repellant wood preservative that can be painted. Such preservatives are either an oil-based or waterborne solution of oils or waxes with mildewcide, fungicide and pesticide added. Then apply a high quality exterior wood primer to the wood surfaces where a sealant or caulk is to be used. Most open cracks or joints then can be filled with a sealant or caulk, while larger ones may need the addition of a backer rod. In some cases, small metal flashing over the crack or open joint may be more effective and longer lasting but, when used, care should be taken with proper installation. The final step is painting.

Patching with a Dutchman Repair

end

The ends of porch roof rafters are often susceptible to moisture decay. When concealed by a soffit or ceiling, rafters can be repaired by adding new sister boards. Where roof rafter ends are exposed, splicing new wood onto the old (dutchman repair) and use of epoxy consolidants and fillers both preserve sound historic fabric while retaining the historic appearance. Photo: Paul Marlowe, Marlowe Restorations.

This traditional technique is often used to repair localized cases of decayed wood and, when undertaken with skill and care, will serve as a permanent repair. If the damaged area has a structural function, temporary bracing or other support will be necessary. Otherwise the first step after removing any paint around the damaged area is to chisel or mechanically remove the decayed wood. It is best to use the same type of wood being replaced and the new or recycled wood should be seasoned to avoid shrinkage. The repair procedure involves cutting a piece of wood, called a dutchman, slightly larger than the area of damage that has been cut out. The dutchman then is laid over the damaged area and an outline scribed into the original wood surface below. Next, a chisel or router is used to follow the scribed line to form an opening in the existing wood for the new piece. As a preventive measure, an appropriate fungicide should be applied to the surrounding old wood and allowed to dry. The dutchman is then glued into place with waterproof adhesive, such as an epoxy formulated for wood. The repair is finished by trimming or sanding the surface of the new wood down flush with the surrounding existing surfaces, priming and painting.

 

Patching with Epoxy or Wood Fillers

There are a variety of commercial wood fillers. Cellulose based fillers consist of wood fiber and a binder and have been available in stores for many years. Only those suitable for exterior applications should be used and they will require a protective finish. Epoxies are a more contemporary product, commonly used by experienced contractors and woodworkers. Epoxies are petroleum-based resins created by mixing two components in accurate proportions that result in a chemical reaction. The result is durable, moisture-resistant consolidants and fillers that bonds tenaciously with wood, and can be sawn, nailed or sanded. Epoxies are for use only in areas that will be painted, as they do not take stain and deteriorate under sunlight. Since epoxies are more difficult to work with than other wood fillers, experience working with epoxies is needed for successful repairs.

Repairing Railings and Balustrades

Balustrades and railings are not only practical and safety features, they typically are highly visible decorative elements. Unfortunately, balustrades and balusters are frequently altered, covered, removed or completely replaced even though in most cases they can be repaired in a cost-effective manner. To preserve historic fabric, the repair of old balustrades and railings is always the preferred approach. A broken baluster usually is one in need of repair, not replacement.

Loose railings and balustrades present unsafe conditions and need to be repaired as soon as possible. Start by examining the points of attachment to determine exactly why the railing or balustrade is loose. Common reasons include rusted fasteners, decayed wood, or physical stress that has broken the fasteners or split the wood. Paint and decayed wood must be removed. Where fasteners are broken yet the wood is sound, the balustrade can be re-fastened using hot-dipped galvanized or stainless steel nails or screws, setting the heads of the fasteners below the surface of the wood and using a wood filler to cover and seal. Next repair deteriorated wood by using a dutchman or wood-epoxy repair. The repaired joints then can be sealed and painted.

Replacing Missing Balusters

The balusters help comprise a wood balustrade and come in three general styles: simple rectangular shape; flat, pattern-sawn (usually a board with some decorative edge or cutout); and turned. It may be necessary to replace certain balusters that are beyond repair or missing altogether. Some are easy to replace with new matching balusters while others can be more challenging in terms of both design and costs. Finding or affording replacement balusters may take time since they should match the historic baluster as closely as possible. In the meantime, unsafe balustrades can be temporarily stabilized, introducing temporary new material that soon will be replaced.

In replacing individual balusters, simple, rectangular balusters should not be replaced with pattern-sawn or turned ones unless physical or pictorial evidence survives which indicate they previously existed historically on that particular porch. Such an alteration can change the historic appearance of the porch or be incompatible with the character of the building.

Determine the size and shape of the missing balusters either by examining adjacent ones or temporarily removing an existing baluster as a sample. Heavy paint buildup should be removed so that the original dimension can be established. Scrape and clean the joint locations and make repairs to any deteriorated areas. A new baluster is then fabricated to match the original in design and material, either on site or by taking a drawing or sample to a local woodworking shop. The new baluster should be made one-half inch longer than needed on both ends. Measurements are taken from the bottom surface of the top rail to top surface of the bottom rail. Joints on the new baluster can be laid out with a pencil, using a sliding bevel to transfer any angles, and the new baluster trimmed to fit with a handsaw. After test fitting, the ends and any exposed end-grain of the baluster need to be sealed with a high-grade primer or epoxy. Next, apply a paintable water-repellant coating to all exposed wood surfaces, and apply a primer. The baluster can then be fastened in place with hot-dipped galvanized or stainless steel nails, and the nails set. Finally, seal joints and fastener holes and paint the baluster.

Repairing Column Plinths and Bases

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This nineteenth century porch column is made of wood staves, similar to the way a wood barrel is put together. After replacing the torus and making dutchman repairs to the apophyge along the base, the column and pedestal are ready to be reinstalled on the porch. Photos: NPS files.

Columns not only enrich the historic character of the porch, they provide support for the roof structure above. Because of their detail and complex construction they can be costly to repair or replace, making maintenance and minor repairs important. Column plinths and bases tend to deteriorate because of their exposed location on the outer edge of a porch. Leaking gutters can result in water draining into the entablature and down into hollow columns, while clogged or capped gutters can allow water to pour down and splash back onto the column bases. Open joints and limited wood decay can be repaired using methods previously discussed. Column repairs usually are undertaken by an experienced carpenter, since it may involve structural support of the roof above.

Repairing Floorboards and Ceiling Boards

Floors should slope down toward the outer porch edge for proper drainage. If drainage is inadequate, moisture buildup will cause deterioration of the floorboards. Flooring can also deteriorate due to movement in the supporting structure below. If a floorboard is soft or broken, the extent of decayed or split wood can be determined by probing gently with an awl. The existing floorboard can then be removed, cutting the length if needed so that the end will center on the next nearest joist or girder. Once the board has been removed, the structural framing beneath should be examined for deterioration and to ensure it is sound. A new floorboard is then cut to length, and the outer edge shaped to match the adjacent boards. After priming the replacement board, nail it in place and repaint.

If a section of the ceiling is deteriorating, it is likely that there is a roof or gutter problem. To determine the cause of deterioration, inspect the ceiling, gutters and roof, including the internal roof structure. After making necessary repairs, the ceiling boards can be repaired in much the same manner as a deteriorated floorboard.

Repairing the Porch Roof and Gutters

With roof leaks, the entire porch is at risk. Leaks can promote decay in roof rafters, ceiling joists, and columns as well as in areas more easily to detect such as the ceiling and fascia. Inspect the roof covering, gutters and flashing for deterioration and improper performance. They can then be repaired or replaced, as needed, to keep water out of the structure. Avoid having the gutters and downspouts on the main roof drain onto a porch roof.

Repairing the Foundation

Unstable foundation supports can cause serious damage to a historic porch. There are numerous causes and solutions. If the posts supporting the porch deck rest on stones or brick set directly on the ground, there can be seasonal shifts due to the changing moisture content of the soil or freeze/thaw conditions that will require regular attention. Under certain conditions, it may be advisable to extend footings for the posts below the frost line. Where moisture problems exist, improved drainage may be necessary. It is not uncommon to find that masonry joints in the foundation wall or piers have deteriorated as a result of rising damp, where moisture from the soil percolates up through mortar joints. This condition may lead to the eventual breakdown of the mortar and even old brick and soft stone. In such cases, it will be necessary to replace the areas of damaged masonry and repoint the mortar joints.

With wooden posts, insect damage or rot may necessitate corrective measures to strengthen the foundation. Techniques can include one or more of the following: epoxy consolidation; dutchman repair; or the addition of supplemental supports to the foundation posts and joists. In some cases damage may be extensive enough that the only real solution is rebuilding the foundation.

Repairing a Porch Apron

The apron, skirt, or latticework is a highly visible and functional porch feature. An apron keeps animals out from under the porch, while at the same time allowing air to circulate, preventing unwanted moisture buildup. Aprons typically are made up of a wood frame, surrounding either a simple lattice or a repetitive pattern of decorative sawn boards. Because the frame is so close to the ground, decay is common. Other causes of decay include plantings around the house that are growing too close to the latticework and improper water drainage. An apron may require partial or complete disassembly for proper repair. One or more of the apron frames should either be hinged or secured with turn buttons for easy access to under a porch for inspection and maintenance.

Replacement

When individual porch parts are deteriorated beyond the point of repair or missing altogether, replacement is necessary. To retain the historic character of the porch, the replacement parts should match the historic component as closely as possible in material, design, color, texture, and other qualities. To achieve this, existing evidence of the historic design, such as a baluster or column detail, or a tongue and groove floor design, should serve as a pattern for the replacement part. When replacing an element, it may provide a good opportunity to upgrade the wood to another species that is more decay resistant, or to one with a vertical grain that is more resistant to cupping or splintering. In limited cases, it may be appropriate to use a substitute material for the replacement material as long as it conveys a close visual match. Before replacing a deteriorated historic porch component, it is important to understand how it was constructed and installed, and what lead to its deterioration. If the replacement part does not sufficiently match the historic part, the character of the porch may be diminished, or even lost. If the cause of material failure is not addressed, the replacement will also fail.

Replacing Porch Floorboards

If a large section of the porch floorboards is deteriorated, the framing beneath may also be damaged and should be assessed. Replacing floorboards can often expand into repairing the structural sills, girders, and joists beneath. Complete floor replacement will likely require the removal of floorboards that are under structural posts or columns. This may necessitate the careful stabilizing in place or the removal of the posts or columns and the installation of temporary support for the roof structure. If the floor failure was caused by inferior wood, the wood quality can be improved at this time. However, the new wood flooring should match the existing in thickness, width, shape and texture. The slope of the floor should be maintained, or a slope may need to be created if none exists. A slope of ¼ inch per foot or greater, away from the house, is needed for adequate drainage. Boards are usually laid in the direction of the slope, sloping down to the outer edge of the floor.

Replacing Steps

Porch stairs receive heavy usage and are close to the ground, making them predictable candidates for deterioration. Stairs should be repaired or, if necessary, replaced by an experienced carpenter who understands the safety codes and is experienced in fabricating custom stair parts to match original detailing without depending only on store-bought parts.

shaft

The lower shaft of the porch columns had decayed as water wicked up through the end grain (top). The column shafts were repaired in place by cutting out the deteriorated wood and making repairs using epoxy consolidants and fillers. (bottom). The column bases were replaced. Photos: Paul Marlowe, Marlowe Restorations.

Replacing Column Plinths and Bases or Entire Columns

When plinths and bases are deteriorated beyond repair, they can be replaced without replacing the column shaft, which may still be in good condition or require only minor repairs at the bottom. Such replacement will involve temporary shoring for the roof. One-story columns and shafts are often more easily removed during this work, while taller columns are sometimes supported in place. If only a few plinths or bases are deteriorated, it is often economical to have new ones made of wood to match. If numerous plinths and bases are deteriorated, replacing with bases made of rot-resistant materials can make economic sense; however, care must be taken to ensure that all the visual qualities including design, size, shape, color and texture of the historic part are matched.

Entire columns may need to be replaced, but an owner should first consider all repair alternatives. Some contractors routinely recommend complete replacement of one or all columns due to the challenge of a clean repair (particularly with stave-built columns), or because they see the potential for more profit in complete replacement. If a contractor recommends complete replacement, other opinions should be sought to ensure repair is truly not feasible. Preserving the historic appearance of old columns is not the same as preserving historic columns.

Where a replacement turned or staved column is needed, a local millwork may be able to match the profile or pattern. Alternatively, the Internet is helpful in identifying potential sources of replacement columns that can match the appearance of the remaining ones.

wood

Replacement Materials

Wood

When selective replacement is necessary, the key to success is the selection of suitable wood. Dimensional stability, decay resistance and paint holding ability are wood characteristics that effect durability. Wood that expands and shrinks too much can cause paint to crack. Substances found naturally in certain kinds of wood repel fungi and insects that destroy wood. Selecting wood that is relatively stable and naturally decay resistant helps avoid problems.

The wood from trees cut one and two centuries ago was much different than most wood available today. The mature trees in older forests grew very slowly and, as a result, the annual growth rings were very close together. Today, trees grown by commercial companies for their lumber are fast growing so they can be harvested sooner. As a result, commercially farmed trees have annual growth rings much further apart, resulting in the cut lumber being less strong and decay resistant than older timber. These differences in quality are one of the reasons it makes sense to save old wood when possible.

Wood Selection: When choosing wood for repair and replacement work, the species, grade, grain and environmental impacts should be taken into consideration. This is especially applicable to historic porches because of their high exposure to the weather and vulnerability to decay. The best species are those with good natural resistance to decay, such as redwood, cypress, cedar or fir. A clear (knot free) grade of wood is best; however, if clear wood is not readily available or too expensive, a grade with small or tight knots is acceptable. Finally, the use of more stable vertical grain lumber is preferable to flat grain boards. Vertical grain lumber expands and contracts less with changes in moisture content, resulting in reduce warping and checks. Paint thus will hold better. The downside to using vertical grain boards is the cost, which tends to be as much as two to three times the price of flat grain lumber in the same grade and species. However, this expense is typically recovered through lower maintenance costs over the years. Thus, a decay-resistant, high-grade, vertical grain lumber is the best choice for the replacement of deteriorated porch elements, particularly flooring, stairs and milled elements such as balusters and moldings.

The best species to choose will vary depending on the region the house is located. For example, in the South, cypress is more available, making it the selection of choice in the region. Because of this wood’s relative ease with which a carpenter can shape it, cypress is a good choice for replacing brackets and trim boards on a porch. In contrast, vertical grain Douglas fir is less workable, but is a very good choice for the replacement of porch floorboards in most climates. Although Douglas fir is from the Northwest, it is generally available throughout the country. For most protected trim boards on porches, white pine is a good choice as it is easy to work and is moderately decay resistant, especially if the wood is back-primed before installation. Availability of any specific wood will change annually based on market supply and demand.

Chemically Treated Wood: Chemical wood preservative treatments are available to resist insect and fungal attack, but care should be taken to avoid using ones that may cause environmental or health risks. Borate preservatives can be applied to surfaces or injected to penetrate and protect the entire volume of the wood. Preservatives with zinc napthenate can be applied to the wood surface, where necessary, especially to protect hidden joinery and the end grains of wood. Water-repellants can also be used to help seal out moisture. Finally, primers and paints should be applied to both protect the wood and to maintain the historic character of the porch. Note that these treatments are different than those used on most pressure-treated wood, which is typically a plantation-grown southern pine of lower quality that is impregnated with chemicals. Pressure-treated lumber can be effective when used for hidden structural members like posts, joists and sills. However, because typical pressure-treated wood is very susceptible to the deterioration of checks, warping and splitting, especially when left unpainted, it is not a good substitute for the better quality wood that is needed for visible finish porch parts.

 

Stock Components

For over a century, prefabricated architectural parts have been sold through catalogues or at home improvement stores. Some companies still make generic, stock architectural components in the same general sizes and designs as those that were first manufactured. These components can be available in both wood and substitute materials. Thus, it may be possible to replace a historic stock component, such as an architectural grade column, with a new prefabricated column that matches the original. Unfortunately, these replacement parts are not designed to match the historic parts of any particular porch. Because traditionally there were many different porch elements, a wide range of styles and considerable regional variations, stock replacement parts available today are not often found to match what is needed in a specific porch repair project. When faced with deterioration of a few porch parts, all the historic material should not be removed in favor of a readily available stock design that does not match the historic appearance. The expressed goal may be to create a porch with a “consistent look,” but this approach diminishes the building’s historic character and authenticity.

Plastic and Composites

A variety of modern materials are marketed today as a substitute for wood. They are usually composite materials typically in the form of plastic resins, including vinyl (PVC), fiber-reinforced polymers and polyester resin. There are other products on the market as well, including medium density wood fiberboard and composite fiber-cement boards. The market is ever changing with the introduction of new synthetic materials and the re-formulation of existing ones. The more costly synthetic products tend to offer the best potential for matching historic features while offering good durability. This means that potential cost savings over new wood tends to be more long term than immediate. Such products generally are not carried in local home improvement stores but rather are available from building supply companies or direct through catalog sales.

The historical significance of a particular property and its porch influences decisions regarding possible use of substitute materials. In general, greater emphasis is placed on authenticity and material integrity when maintaining and repairing individually significant historic properties. However, a front porch that is repeated on rowhouses may be one of the defining characteristics of the historic district and thus of importance to the entire streetscape. So, too, can the location and appearance of a porch influence material decisions, as with, for example, a prominent front porch with ornate detailing as opposed to a small porch over a rear door.

Thus, when the historic porch contributes to the historic character of a building, the particular substitute material that is being considered should accurately match the appearance of the wooden feature being replaced. Composite materials that can be routed or shaped in the field to match specific pieces being replaced have greater potential for use in repairing a historic porch. Materials that cannot be shaped to match the visual appearance of the historic pieces being replaced usually are not suitable for use on historic buildings.

Substitute materials need to be finished to match the appearance of the historic elements being replaced. In nearly all cases, this means that the material should be painted, or where historically appropriate, stained as with some porch ceilings. While there are substitute materials being marketed as pre-finished with either a plain flat surface or generic wood-grain texture, select those that can be painted or stained in the field.

When a substitute material is to be used in conjunction with existing or new wood material, it is important to consider the differences in expansion and contraction due to temperature and moisture changes. Before making a decision, it is also important to understand how a particular substitute material will age, what its maintenance requirements are, and how the material will deteriorate. For example, sunlight can break down exposed surfaces of plastic resins, so painting the surfaces is needed just as with wood. Low and medium density plastic foam parts are easily damaged by abrasion and physical damage, exposing the interior foam to weathering.

Wood porches are just that, porches made out of wood, just as a brick houses are made of brick and cast-iron porches are made of cast-iron. The type of materials used historically in the construction of a building helps define its character. Limited use of substitute materials that closely match missing or deteriorated features may not endanger this historic character, but wholesale replacement with substitute materials usually will.

 

Considerations for Contemporary Alterations

Enclosures

A porch

This old porch enclosure, located on the back side of a house, has acquired significance over time and is remarkable both in the appropriateness of its detailing for use by others today, as well as its high degree of maintenance. The enclosure is set behind the columns; the balustrade has been retained; and the light divisions and the size of the glass panes echo that of the windows above. Within each bay there are two well-crafted, inward swinging doors, providing for greater seasonal use of the porch. Photos: Charles Fisher.

Much of the character of a historic open porch is clearly its openness. Therefore, in most cases, a historic open porch should not be enclosed. If a porch enclosure is being considered, its significance and location—as well as the nature of the planned enclosure—play key roles in whether it can be done without changing the porch’s and building’s historic character. While it is almost never appropriate to enclose a front porch on a historic building to create interior space, enclosing a less prominent porch on a less visible elevation could have less impact. In addition, an enclosure should retain as many of the historic porch features as possible.

Insect Screening and Awnings

Traditionally, the seasonal use of porches was extended with screens and awnings. Screened porches have been popular since the advent of inexpensive and durable wire insect screening in late 1800s. Screens were often set unobtrusively behind railings and columns so the decorative components of the porch remained prominent and visible. Since screens can be damaged easily, the screening material was often set in slender, easy to repair, removable wood frames that could be installed during the warmer months, and stored in the winter. When screening a porch today, this historic precedent is recommended. Screened panels should have minimal wood framework painted either to match the porch or in a darker color to make the framing less visible. Decisions on whether screens should be installed inside the porch railings and posts, between the posts, or on the outside will depend on local traditions and on the design of the porch and trim. Screen doors on porches should be sized to fit proportionately with the porch, made of wood, and hung to swing out so insects are not brought inside with use.

Awnings, drop curtains, and valances were common porch accessories during the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries. Both functional and decorative, these canvas features helped shield porches from the sun’s direct rays, while their colorful stripes embellished and complemented the house’s exterior. Some awnings were fixed in place; others were of a roller assembly that allowed owners to easily lower or retract the awning, depending on weather conditions.

Today, modern solution-dyed acrylic fabrics—materials that resemble, but are more durable than canvas—are often used on porch awnings and drop curtains. When new awnings are installed on a historic porch, the selected awning should be appropriate in shape, material, size and color. Care should be used not to damage existing historic porch features such as columns or cornices.

Temporary Enclosures

Temporary enclosures allow a porch to be used in colder months while not permanently altering its appearance. In fact some have become historic features of buildings. Particularly in New England, there is a continuing tradition of installing relatively substantial glass and wood panels on porches during the winter, especially around an entrance door. These tended to have small divided lights. Sometimes porches were fully enclosed with a divided light glass door for entry, creating an enclosed vestibule that reduced the amount of cold air entering the house when the door was opened. Others consisted of simple sidewalls perpendicular to an existing entrance door, serving as a windbreak. Such enclosures were generally removed in the spring.

In recent years, some porches have been enclosed during the winter with plastic sheeting (polyvinyl) for perceived energy conservation or for creation of an enclosed space. Such a treatment generally diminishes a building’s historic character and is not recommended for highly visible porches.

oldporch

Particularly in New England, there is a cold weather tradition of installing temporary glass and wood panels at entrance doors, thereby creating an enclosed vestibule. These enclosures with their small divided lights were generally removed in the spring. Photo: John Leeke.

New Permanent Enclosures

Enclosure of a historic porch can result in significant changes in the appearance and character of the building. When considering the possible enclosure of a porch, a number of questions and concerns should be successfully addressed.

Is the porch on a significant elevation of the building? A porch on a prominent elevation was there to be seen and its open qualities are visually important. Enclosing such a space should be avoided.

aoldporch

The enclosure of a prominent porch can dramatically change the historic character of a building. The L-shaped porch on this 1896 Shingle-style New England residence was later enclosed with aluminum windows and screens. Recent owners elected to reopen the historic porch. Among the other work, it was necessary to correct structural damage, as with this post, where beneath the wood casing carpenter ants had done serious damage. In reopening the porch, the historic character of the residence has been brought back and the traditional use of the porch is once again enjoyed. Photos: Mark Landry, Landmark Services.

Is the enclosure necessary?An enclosure will undoubtedly change the porch as a historic feature and may result in damage or loss of historic materials. Depending on the significance of the porch and the nature of the building, a new porch enclosure may also change the historic character of the building. Consideration should be given to alternate solutions such as recapturing underutilized space in an attic or basement .

Is the porch a highly distinctive feature of the building? Even porches on secondary and rear elevations can be distinctive, such as a two-story porch on the side ell of a farmhouse. Porches ornamented with decorative trim that embellishes the house can also be distinctive. Enclosing these features should also be avoided whenever possible.

Is the porch a feature repeated on a row of buildings in a historic district?Open front porches on a block of row houses can be not only important to an individual building but can also make up a significant feature of the streetscape. Enclosing such a porch usually is inappropriate even if a porch on an adjacent building already has been enclosed.

Will the proposed enclosure encompass the entire porch? History has shown that the enclosure of a portion of a porch on a secondary elevation does not always alter the character of a building. In the past as indoor plumbing was introduced to old buildings, the partial enclosure of a one or two-story porch on a secondary elevation was a convenient means of providing new bathroom space while limiting disruption to the building’s interior. Since early bathrooms were traditionally small in size, most of the existing porch could be retained as open space. It was common to create new walls set either between columns or behind them, since the columns usually served a structural as well as decorative purpose. Where sleeping porches with full-length louver shutters were present, the new wall could simply be set behind and the shutters retained and fixed in place. In both cases the resulting effect minimized the impact of the partial enclosure on the appearance of the building. This also provides us with an approach that may be appropriate for a particular project today.

Will the enclosure result in the loss of considerable historic fabric? Unless the historic porch is so deteriorated that it is beyond repair, any consideration of enclosing all or part of a porch should incorporate retention of historic fabric. This may mean that the existing structural system needs to be augmented but generally not replaced. Distinctive features such as columns, brackets and balustrades should be retained and the new wall set behind them.

Is the foundation adequate for the enclosure of the porch and the new use of the space? Porches were often built on simple posts or piers, some with only minimum footings. Such structural supports may be inadequate to carry the added load of the proposed changes and the typical low space beneath a first floor porch may make installing a new porch foundation difficult and expensive. Such installations may result also in an extensive loss of historic fabric.

How will the proposed enclosure be viewed from the outside once the interior space is furnished? One of the approaches to enclosing a porch is to utilize near full glazing set behind existing columns in an attempt to retain a feeling of transparency. Whether such a treatment is successful depends on how it will look once it is constructed and how will the appearance on the outside be impacted by interior lighting, mechanical systems and furnishings. The traditional use of plantings and porch awnings for shade also provided extended privacy. If historically appropriate, an existing or new awning and plantings may help to reduce the impact of a porch enclosure on a secondary but visible elevation.

45-glass-enclosure

A traditional technique of porch enclosures still used today involves the insertion in each column bay of one or more glass enclosures set in wood frames . This enclosure is properly set back an entire porch bay from the front of the house and utilizes traditional light divisions and wood frames. The balustrade, added here for illustration purposes, shows the importance of retaining this linear feature within the enclosed bays. Photo: Charles Fisher.

Is the design of the proposed porch enclosure in keeping with the historic character of the building? Where the enclosure of all or part of a historic porch is appropriate, the selection of a compatible design and materials is important. Windows, doors, and wall material selection, along with how the new infill fits within the existing porch, are all factors to consider. A traditional technique of porch enclosures still used today involves the insertion in each column bay of one or more glass enclosures set in wood frames. The enclosures are located between or behind the columns, depending upon the nature of the porch, and mimic the pattern or size of glass panes found in historic windows on the building (Figure 15). An alternate treatment involves the use of much larger sheets of clear, non-reflective glass recessed behind the porch supports, balustrade and railing. This more contemporary treatment may be appropriate, depending upon the historic character of the building, location of the porch, and other factors. Windows, doors, and wall material selection, along with how the new infill fits within the existing porch, are all factors to consider.


It’s June. Summer’s seasonal activities and fine weather beckon us outdoors. This, combined with renewed desire for calm, traditional, home-based activities (as well as some necessary lifestyle adjustments secondary to COVID-19), invite us to turn a more appreciative eye to an old friend: the porch. Or veranda. Or portico. Whatever the preferred moniker, porches are synonymous with nostalgia for Americana. But, their history and evolution stems from intercultural influence and practical necessity. They span cultures and time periods. They also act as a bridge between the inner sanctum and the outside world. Noted landscape architect and influential 19th-century tastemaker, Andrew Jackson Downing, had this to say about a porch.

“A house without a front porch is as insignificant as a book without a title page.”

Porches are so much more than makeup for the face of our homes. Read on to learn more about their history, revival, and preservation.


Porch we rebuilt at the former Iron Horse Inn

 

WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF A PORCH?

Answering this question necessitates examining the history and evolution. According to The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45, “porch” comes from Medieval English, and the French word “porche,” which stems from the Latin “porticus.” The linguistic influences obviously betray cultural influences by their synonymous existence: if there’s a word for it in another language, that culture also probably has it. The cultural heritage of the American porch mimics that of its people; a veritable melting pot of style and language that evolved into something uniquely American. The Preservation Brief No. 45 provides a historical evolution of porches as well.

 

Early years. Porches often served a practical purpose, in terms of a protected entryway. They also served to define a distinctive style, denoting cultural associations as well as the wealth of their owners. Before the United States became independent, in the original 13 British colonies, porches mirrored British design, French colonies followed French design, Spanish colonies borrowed from Spanish design, etc. These influences continued after the establishment of the United States. At the same time, styles evolved to echo classical inspiration – the Greek Revival style often distinguished by elegant columns – which reached the height of popularity in the 1830s and 1840s.

 

Social and other roles. From the late 18th into the 19th century, inns, hotels, and resorts served as natural social-gathering places and by their very social nature demanded porches be included in their design. They also emphasized a property’s state of grandeur. Homeowners understood those social benefits, and also referenced practical porch-uses; they opportunistically enjoyed the fresh air and connection with nature that porches afforded. Andrew Jackson Downing (landscape designer, horticulturist, and writer) is often credited with the popularization of the front porch, due to his widely publicized assertion of the porch as an essential connection between one’s home and nature.

 

Golden Era. These general porch roles subsisted as the 19th century matured, although porches evolved further in terms of style and purpose. The industrialization of America allowed transport of materials via canal boat and train that previously were not accessible to some buyers. It also meant that total reliance on skilled craftsman (craftspeople = greater cost and longer time) was no longer necessary when manufactured and pre-fabricated mass-produced parts increased availability and affordability to a growing middle class. The role of the porch became so significant it acted essentially as an “outdoor parlor.”

 

The hygiene movement. This early twentieth century movement touted health benefits of fresh air to address or prevent diseases like tuberculosis. Sleep’s influence on health also meant that fresh-air while sleeping was revered, and sleeping porches surged in popularity. Screens were typically added to protect against disease-spreading insects. These provided the additional benefit of natural air conditioning on uncomfortably warm evenings.

 

Decline. By the mid-twentieth century, the pendulum of innovation swung in the opposite direction, as pendulums do. The effects of the automobile boom (meaning more opportunity to travel from home for entertainment), greater telephone ownership (meaning decreased need for in-person “calls”), and increased value placed on private back-yard parties (including back patios), and the advent of air conditioning and TVs collectively sounded the death knell for porches. Porches became obsolete, outdated, and even were considered pejoratively as unsophisticated or agrarian.

 

Resurgence. Luckily, porches are rising from the proverbial ashes, at least in terms of existence and popularity, if not actual use. According to Lynn Freehill-Maye, some of the Baby Boomer generation initiated focus back on porches over 30 years ago, due to nostalgia and a push toward the New Urbanism movement, to increase a sense of community. In recent years, new builds have often included porches, and more movements have arisen encouraging actual use of front porches. 

 

HOW CAN I PRESERVE AND MAINTAIN MY PORCH?

We know regular readers of our blog are already preservation-minded. However, we can’t assume that if you’re reading this you fall in that category, so we’ll take the risk of “preaching to the choir.” In that vein, we must stress that porch maintenance is essential the same way that interior housekeeping is essential. The porch serves as protection for the front of your home, as much as it affords the previously-mentioned benefits. Therefore, it requires regular maintenance. 

 

Regular maintenance. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 recommends basic housekeeping such as sweeping frequently and mopping occasionally. These should be employed in lieu of hosing with water (for wooden porches or wooden porch accents) to prevent saturation and promotion of rot. Plants should not grow directly on the porch due to their encouraging moisture (and consequently insects and rot, both of which lead to open wood joints), but can be near the porch on free-standing trellises. Mats, rugs, and potted plants also trap moisture and condensation and should be avoided or moved frequently. In the winter, ice melters such as sand or litter are abrasive and should be swept away as soon as possible. Salt is not recommended due to its corrosive consequences, and magnesium chloride is considered a more appropriate substitute as it is less corrosive. Relatedly, only rubber-edged or plastic shovels should be used for ice and snow on wooden porches. 

 

Involved maintenance, repair, and replacement. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief No. 45 provides an extensive overview of the more involved steps for maintaining and repairing (or even replacing) porches and their parts. The 2001 publication on porches by the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also highlights the main tasks for maintaining and preserving your historic porch. Keeping wooden porches painted is not only visually appropriate for maintaining the historic fabric, but also acts as a preservative measure. Replacement, when necessary, should be in-kind. If rebuilding something, only rebuild if its historical existence can be documented. Porch enclosures should maintain visual qualities of an open porch, and should not be on porches that are at the front of the building. If new porches are added, they should preferably be added only to the side or rear of a building.

 

If you have a porch and you don’t already love it, hopefully this post will inspire you to consider the benefits you’ve been missing out on all along and start enjoying your “outdoor parlor.” 

 

For further resources and reading:

PART 4 PRESERVATION MONTH 2020 SERIES

LAST WEEK WE PRESENTED PART 3 on the Economic Benefits of Preservation. Part 4 of this series focuses on substitute materials. “Substitute” may not be the first word that comes to mind when we think of preservation, and anyone who knows us knows that we try to preserve, maintain, and repair existing structures and features whenever possible. However, the use of substitute materials in building is not new (even George Washington used wood painted with sand to simulate stone). And, although one of the primary goals of preservation is the retention of original materials – preserve, maintain, repair, and replace is the “order of operations” according to the Secretary of the Interior – sometimes replacement is necessary when the preceding steps are no longer an option. Read on to find out more about deciding when and what substitute materials to use.

 


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

REPAIR OR REPLACE:

It is easy to think that if the look of a historical building is maintained and the appropriate types of materials are used, that the building has been successfully preserved. But preservation is not just about preserving how something looks, it is primarily focused on preserving how something is so that it remains as original as possible for future generations.

The National Park Service considers repair preferable to replacement, to save as much of the original material and historic fabric as possible. 

  • REPAIR. The following are some of their reasons for repair vs. replacement: 
    • Cost. It may be more costly in some cases to use substitute materials, depending on the situation, so using the original material (even if it is harder to find) may be more cost-effective in the long-term.
    • Durability. Substitute materials are typically less durable than original materials, rendering originals far superior. Do not fall for the “maintenance free” trap
  •  
    • Skill and knowledge. If you or the person doing the work on your building are not knowledgeable about original or substitute materials and their appropriate installation, you might run into several issues that make problems worse. A typical example of this is old brick and new mortar

 

If repair is not sufficient, the National Park Service reports that the purpose of replacing is to “match visually what was there and to cause no further deterioration.”

  • REPLACE – The following are 4 circumstances described by NPS as warranting replacement: 
    • Availability of material. It can be difficult to find a good match for historic material, particularly masonry materials due to uniqueness of color and texture. Also, some material is unavailable or may take too long to arrive, in which case a good substitute should be considered.
    • Availability of craftspeople. There may not be as many skilled craftspeople as there were in the past. However, there are people available, and it is important to make every effort to find someone to make the replacement as accurate as possible.
    • Poor original material. Just because something is historic does not always mean it is of good quality. Some materials were poor, naturally incompatible with their building, or have inferior modern substitutes. Examples of such materials include historic soft sandstones that are prone to erosion, or poor quality modern tin coated steel roofing. These might be replaced by precast concrete and terne-coated stainless steel, respectively.
    • Code-related changes. One example is buildings in earthquake zones, which are now subject to laws requiring that heavy overhanging masonry and unsecured urns be re-anchored or removed. Appropriate replacements include lighter replicas (although this may interfere with National Register status and loss of Federal tax credits for rehabilitation).

 


REPLACEMENT TYPES

  1. Replacement in-kind. This is a gold-standard level of replacement, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for treatment of historic properties indicate this is the first choice when things are damaged beyond repair (e.g., replace “marble for marble, wood for wood”). We’ve discussed this in the past as well.

 

  1. Replace with substitute materials. The National Park Service outlines the Secretary of the Interior’s points on how to address this. They suggest that if replacement in-kind is not possible, substitute materials may be considered. Circumstances warranting substitute materials include:
    • Original materials have performed poorly
    • No source for original materials
    • Craftspersons are not available to replicate the historic element in its original material
    • Current code requirements do not permit the use of the historic material.

 

STEPS TO REPLACEMENT:

  1. Is replacement necessary? The Secretary of the Interior’s standards encourage assessing if replacement is necessary (see steps outlined above in this article, as well as the replacement types).
  2. Assess amount/location of replacement material. The standards state that the amount and location of replacement material must be evaluated in relation to the building’s historic character –  which NPS defines as a combination of its history, materials used, and degree of craftsmanship. The degree of contribution to character by the building feature in question may require a closer replacement match, compared to another building part that contributes less or is not as visible or distinctive. Excessive reliance on substitute materials is cautioned against.
  3. Consider appropriateness of substitute material. The standards state that the appropriateness of a particular substitute material must also be considered in regard to its appearance and other factors, such as the location of the application, and the known physical compatibility of the substitute material relative to the historic material. Substitute materials must closely match the original feature. They must also be physically and visually compatible in context of nearby features and the entire building (e.g., new mortar does not work with historic brick due to physical incompatibilities).

 

Although this is our final post in the PRESERVATION MONTH 2020 SERIES, we hope that you will continue to put preservation first every month hereafter. To get you started, you can find further, more in-depth information on substitute materials from the following resources: