Seventy some years ago, carpenters working on the construction of the NIH campus in Bethesda made a mere $1.62 per hour.  Carpenter apprentices made even less.  Fast forward to 2011 and carpenters working on the restoration of Building #3 on the campus were paid a prevailing wage rate of $17.44 per hour. 
That’s a big difference at first glance.  Though when we thought about the fact that 1938 was almost one hundred years ago, we might have expected a bigger difference in wages between now and then. Which made us wonder: which was really worth more?
On their face values, the current prevailing wage of $17.44 certainly appears to have the greater value. But what of inflation?  It is tempting to quickly (and fairly reasonably) assume that the two incomes are probably fairly comparable in value, given that the cost of living would have risen along with the hourly rate.  But did income and cost of living rise equitably?
And what about the Great Depression?  1938 was at the tail end of the Great Depression and it’s full effect would have been felt deeply across the country.  Would the vast numbers of people looking for work, desperate to bring in the income needed to house, clothe, and feed their families, have driven down labor wages?  On the other hand, perhaps the lack of funds, creating a lack of demand, equally drove down the cost of goods and services?
So which wage rate truly had more buying power: $1.62 per hour wages in 1938 or $17.44 per hour wages in 2011?
The US Department of Labor provides an inflation calculator on their Bureau of Labor Statistics website that answers this very question and inputting our historical data gave us a surprising answer:
Carpenters working on the NIH construction project in 1938 earned wages that were worth more than our carpenters working on the NIH project in 2011.
Which could be read to imply that our current economic climate may have had a more sobering effect on incomes than the Great Depression did.  Which is a thought that had a sobering effect on us.
Your house is a money pit, you know it, I know it and there is no way to get around the fact. So what do you do, when you discover that your largest single investment requires you to constantly tend to it with your time and money.
A quote from my childhood, “a stitch in time saves nine” referees to mending your garments -while a small repair takes a few minutes, if you let it go the repairs will be much more extensive- cost increases. Now what do you do, do you look for the least expensive solution? A little paint, some caulk and a prayer?

May is preservation month the theme of this year is, “Old is the New Green!”. With most people looking for ways to minimize their impact on the environment in their corner of the world it is important to not do anything to a historic building that will damage the historic fabric of the structure.

Historic buildings are “green” because their materials are repairable, durable, and contain embodied energy (energy already expended in construction). Many of these attributes cannot be found in modern “green” solutions.

As part if the National Park Service Technical Preservation Services there is a series of interpretations of The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/tax/ITS/itshome.htm). These are divided into compatible and incompatible treatments with explanations and pictures. If you are going before an historic review board – this is how they will evaluate the changes you want to make.

An interesting article in this section is #54 “Installing Green Roofs on Historic Buildings” – as long as the foliage is not visible from the street scape installing the green roof is acceptable. And somewhat encouraged to enhance the energy-efficiency and sustainability of the building. Interesting thoughts and ideas to join new construction with old buildings in a sensitive manner.

The April/May 2010 issue of Old-House Journal listed the top ten restoration mistakes. Following these tips can help to save time and money (in the long run). The entire article can be found at: http://www.oldhousejournal.com/top-10-restoration-mistakes/magazine/1673

  1. Cheap Paint (good paint is hard to find – we are trying linseed oil paint on our house available from http://www.solventfreepaint.com/)
  2. Poor Paint Prep (paint will not adhere to dirt or loose paint)
  3. Mixing Metals (unlike metals can react)
  4. Epoxy Overuse (I would also add using the wrong type of epoxy, such as, marine or automobile filler on wood)
  5. Waterproofing Exteriors (houses need to breathe and moisture trapped behind the coatings can cause the underlining materials to rot)
  6. Waterproofing Interiors (use holistic building approach when solving water infiltration – look at source of water and ways to direct away from the house)
  7. Removing Masonry Finishes (removing paint or formstone from a brick wall is often not recommended because of the likelihood of damaging the brick by removing the veneer)
  8. Removing Wood Finishes (take care that the paint prep does not damage the wood underneath)
  9. Using the Wrong Mortar (use soft lime-based mortar with older brick to stop the damage from the thaw-freeze cycle – a good source is http://www.limeworks.us/)
  10. Bad Design (use water-shedding designs for all exterior repairs)

On Thursday, April 22nd, any contractor working on a building with lead-based paint will have to be a lead-safe certified firm. The EPA is has written guidelines to help protect homeowners from lead dust and contractors have to complete a 8 hour training course. Helping to protect homeowners is important – the downside is the increased cost to each project (we will have to see what that is once we have set up a few projects with the new protective barriers).

For more information on lead and how to protect your family visit the EPA website: http://www.epa.gov/lead

Help Your Cause

American Express along with Take Part are promoting a contest in which people can vote (once a week) for the charity of their choice. The categories are:

  • Arts and Culture (in which the National Trust for Historic Preservation is included)
  • Community Development
  • Education
  • Environment and Wildlife
  • Health and Wellness

There a lot of worthy organizations trying to win the $200,000 – I am using my vote to help preserve our built history. I will not pressure you to vote the same way I am. You can vote at www.takepart.org.

Trick or Treat

This time of year people become a little more curious about supernatural happenings – going on in strange and normal places, looking for a sign or some kind of message , that to this point may have gone unnoticed as we live in our own worlds.
It seems appropriate that on Monday of this week I took a call from Harrisburg Area Community College, that informed us of a class offering with five people signed up for it, the class name “Dating Your Older Building”. The four people who showed up for the class were eager to learn what to look for when trying to determine the time period of a building, how the region influenced what materials were best to use in their construction, how prosperous the community was, trends in the style of architectural detail that notes an era in our collective built history. Many of the earliest homes no longer exist, as they were intended to be temporary, what we see today are second homes that were built to last.
Before the call we were unprepared, by the end of our class time, Chuck and Danielle had presented a capsulized examination of house history and had engaged the ‘students’ in discussion
beyond our nine o’clock ending time.
When you pause and look at our built environment you can begin to see past the shadows of what is accepted as ordinary and notice the nuance of the story in our homes, tell tale signs…just waiting to be discovered.

Sometimes I find gems buried in the piles of papers on my desk. This is from the Winter 2008-2009, HARBnews, published by the Historic Architectural Board of Review of the City of Lancaster.

The speech was given on December 22, 1905 at the opening of the Stevens High School (corner of North Charlotte and West Chestnut – now converted into apartments – adaptive reuse). The project was being criticised for running $91,000 over budget and this was in response to the critics. The discussion of quality materials, true craftsmanship, and sustainability are all issues we regularly deal with – it just goes to show the more things change the more they stay the same.

“With the scientific and commercial development of our people comes the ever increasing necessity for better and larger high school buildings that shall adequately meet in all their parts the necessities of these schools; and they should, like all other important civic buildings, be erected in the most thorough, substantial manner, fundamentally sound in all their parts, with the polish of fine workmanship, to the end that they may not only exert an elevating and refining influence upon the scholars within their walls, but also represent the intelligent, liberal, and progressive spirit of the community.

The modern high school is, therefore more complex in form and more elaborate in appointments than like buildings of some years ago, and necessarily more expensive in its cost. In the construction of this building we have employed the best of what we deemed reasonably necessary to fully meet not only the demands of today, but of many years of the future.

We have not attempted to build with cheap materials and poor workmanship, but rather to build strong and substantial with the best material and workmanship, and at the lowest possible cost. Solid and enduring work is the basis of true economy, and time will prove the wisdom of building well.

I also desire to refer to the great fidelity and honesty of purpose with which the builder performed the work he assumed in the erection and completion of this building. The thought uppermost in his mind seems ever to have been, not how he might realize the greatest profit from this undertaking, but how the greatest strength, durability and beauty of finish might be secured.”

– C. Emlem Urban

Lancaster, Pa is the oldest inland city in the United States. Lancaster City also boast itself as the largest designated historic district in the U. S. with it’s four square miles of structures that tell the story of this settlement’s life since 1730.
We live in the city and enjoy the urban feel of a downtown area stepping over the cusp into revitalization and neighborhoods that tell how the citizens prospered and moved away from the city center, yet remained connected through the grid of streets layed out like the spokes of a wheel. In our neighborhood homes were built with brick and mortar in the late Victorian Architectural age 1870-1910. A middle class community mix of professional trades people, doctors, attorneys and middle management of local industries. Getting to my point. The past four months I have watched a beautiful home be ravaged by people who I am sure have good intentions. Before the recent remodel the home was divided into two separate living spaces, O.K. the use of this building did not change. The goal of the homeowners is to create income producing units at an affordable price – Great Idea. Here’s where I start to have “issues” with what I’ve seen as the answer to the question of housing that is considered “affordable”. All of the original double hung solid wood windows were removed from their openings and replaced with an “inexpensive” plastic replacement window. The original windows, weights and sash cords were tossed into a dumpster. Solid wood exterior and interior doors were last seen stacked on the front porch. Interior trim that surrounded the original windows, doors, original base boards in the house has been removed and sent to a landfill. Plaster walls have been covered with drywall. If you were to walk into this house today you would see freshly painted walls- white, new wall to wall carpet – covering hardwood floors, modern windows, masonite exterior doors and hollow core interior doors, trim purchased from Home Depot.
My question is, why must a place be cheapened so that the house will be considered affordable? What does that say about the attitude of the person who has made the offer of this space to the people who will live there?
I believe that the goal could have been achieved without losing the architectural detail of the original house parts, parts that could have been repaired with some knowledge and thoughtful care. Now the material that was put into this house was designed to be destroyed or obsolete in just a few years. The house will never be the same, the future holds more neglect and destruction in the wake of creating “affordable housing”.

Last Saturday, Chuck and Lois went to lunch at the Preservation League of Staten Island to receive an ‘Encouragement Award’. Recognizing the work underway (but not yet completed) at the George W. Curtis house – we have completed the front facade restoration including the front porch, missing architectural details (aluminum siding installers love straight edges to work toward), and working louvered shutters. There will be a final award once the work is completed.

The Preservation League of Staten Island works to preserve Staten Island’s historic architecture. More information about their work can be found at: preservesi.org/plsi.htm.