How to Hire a Contractor for Your Historic Building


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Why does my contractor work in historical restoration?

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

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