PART 1 OF THIS SERIES of working on your old home explores options for property owners to save the home’s historically relevant aspects specific to when and how it was built, versus mixing time periods and styles. Maintaining your home’s historical relevance necessitates preservation and restoration tactics that honor the home’s appropriate time period. If too much of the historic fabric is lost (e.g., removed or replaced), the methods and materials that make a historical building special are also lost. At a certain point so much may be lost that the property becomes “just” an old building.


Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

There is over 400 years of architectural history in the United States, including a diversity of styles as rich as the diversity of our people. Early Colonial architecture still intact today displays magnificent examples of the Spanish and English influences prevalent when European settlers first immigrated here. Revolution period buildings demonstrate the forging of a new nation with Federalist and Jeffersonian features. Homes and buildings from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s capture the two “moments” in American time that define the experience of our culture’s Revival Period and Gilded Age.

Every historical building has a period of significance that determined how that building was constructed and the features it would have that, together, define its architectural importance. Maintaining your historical building in keeping with the period of significance that defined it as an important piece of our built history, is essential to its historical integrity. Mixing and matching period styles can permanently alter your building to the point of historical insignificance

Historical materials, and the craftsmanship used when working with those materials, are easily damaged by modern renovation attempts – even when your intention is focused on preserving your building’s features. For example, using a power sander while restoring original wood that was hand-planed will result in woodwork that can never again reveal the same character as the original woodwork did. Painting wood flooring in a house from a period when a wooden floor would never have been painted is something typically considered reversible, but isn’t always if the wrong paint is chosen or when the removal of the paint causes significant damage to the original flooring. Original porches (and other projections), building footprints and materials, period layouts and unique features can all be altered to the point of no return while adding living space meant to bring a historical building in line with more modern functional style (i.e., failed reconstruction attempts). Removing original wallpaper, or installing wallpaper on a house from a period when wallpaper wasn’t used, isn’t just affecting the aesthetic integrity of a historical house – it can permanently damage the original plaster walls behind it.

If your ultimate goal is to maintain the historical integrity of your property’s time period, focus on preservation (focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time), restoration (depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods), or even reconstruction (re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes) if possible or necessary. Essentially, avoid making changes that may try to make it appear older, newer, or fancier than what it really is. Even small, subtle changes can permanently damage the integrity of your building. The National Park Service details these options further in terms of standards and guidelines for treatment of historic properties (https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/four-treatments/treatment-restoration.htm).

Ask yourself:

  • Do I know my building’s period of significance?
  • Do I know the architectural features common during my building’s period of significance?
  • Have any of the architectural features original to my building been altered, removed, or renovated?
  • Has the interior layout of my building been changed?
  • Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if any changes to my building that I want to make are incompatible with my building’s architectural integrity, or can it be done in a more compatible way? Consider professional help given the potential for such a project to overwhelm you (see our helpful tips on hiring a qualified contractor https://practicalpreservationservices.com/hiring-the-right-contractor/). The qualified contractor will best be able to navigate the National Park Service standards and guidelines referred to above.

Next week: PART 2 OF THIS SERIES focuses on replacement in-kind.

 

Historical buildings and houses are artifacts of the past, a visible connection to our history, and require a certain level of care beyond the basic seasonal maintenance you would perform on a newer home or building – inspecting the roof, cleaning the gutters, exterior repairs to damage caused by weather and age, as well as other tasks to keep the structure looking its best inside and outside.

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Before you can begin maintenance on your historical home, it’s a good idea to learn all you can about the structure so that you have an understanding of how the building materials and construction details function to avoid over-simplifying maintenance processes and treatments, which may result in long-term and costly damage. There are a lot of products on the market designed to cut down on the amount of time spent maintaining and repairing homes, but typically these shortcuts will cost you more in terms of damage to the original building materials, due to accelerated deterioration.

Monitoring, inspections, and maintenance should be done with safety in mind, not only to preserve the historic structure, but also to keep the people doing the work safe. It’s important to be aware of health issues associated with older buildings, such as lead-based paint, bird and other animal droppings, and asbestos. If the job looks too dangerous or you aren’t certain about how to proceed, seek professional services.

Part of the charm associated with older homes is signs of aging and wear, like patina that gives character to hardware like brass doorknockers. Take extra care to protect not only the features you are cleaning, but also the area around them. It’s also best to test procedures in a discrete location on the building to make sure the product or process will not cause extensive damage. Simple steps like masking off the area around a special feature with painters tape, or using gentle cleansers will help you avoid unnecessary damage.

As you might guess, maintaining a historic building or house can be costly. This is especially true if you have to repair damage to the original building materials. It’s a good idea to establish a budget in order to repair unexpected damage from weather and natural disasters, and to cover the basic maintenance requirements of the structure based on a seasonal schedule. If you’ve owned the house for awhile and have already implemented a schedule and kept track of regular repairs, it should be easy to plan a budget to meet the anticipated wear and tear on the structure. If possible, plan to set aside extra funds each cycle just in case there is additional unforeseen damage.

SCHEDULES, PLANS, AND CHECKLISTS

We cannot stress enough how important it is to have a schedule for regular upkeep, and checklists that will help you complete the repairs and preservation of the structure, and hopefully help limit unexpected costs. If you are a new homeowner or have little experience with the maintenance and preservation of historical buildings, it’s best to get help from professionals – either a preservation architect, preservation consultant, or a historically-based contractor – who can help you develop a written guide for maintenance. Some of the very basic elements of a plan include:

  • Schedules and checklists for inspections
  • Forms for recording work, blank base plans and elevations to be completed during inspections and when the work is done
  • A set of base-line photographs that can be added to over time
  • Current list of contractors to help with complex issues or emergencies
  • Written, step-by-step procedures for the appropriate care of specific materials, including housekeeping, routine care, and preventative measures
  • Record-keeping sections for work completed, costs, warranty cards, sample paint colors, and other information

You can keep this information in a simple three-ring binder, or use a computer database for easy updating. Everyone involved in the maintenance of a historical structure should become familiar with how the house or building should look so that they can recognize problems as they occur. By following this simple advice and making regular inspections, you can prevent unnecessary damage, maintain the original beauty and unique features, and save yourself from having to make costly repairs. 

Andy deGruchy joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his Craftwork Training Center, the historic masonry contracting and supply business and his philosophy of the body, mind, and spirit working together to create art.  His 35 years of experience as a mason was highlighted as he explained his dive into the material science world and now working to help train the future craftsperson.  

Contact:

Limeworks or Craftwork Training Center: 215-536-1776 Or email Andy at [email protected]

Bio:

Andy deGruchy is a brick and stone mason and historic masonry restoration contractor for 35 years based in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.  Andy does all his work using specialty mortars and plasters that he has imported from France for the last 20 years.  In 1999 he started LimeWorks.us, a specialty supply company that ships custom formulated replacement mortars for historic masonry structures throughout the United States.  LimeWorks.us and deGruchy Masonry Restoration employs approximately 21 people.  Andy also, operates a Craftwork Training Center, based in Telford, Pennsylvania, that teaches participants how to use LimeWorks.us mortar, plaster, and stone patching material called Lithomex. Andy is married to Audrey and they have four children.

Offer: 

Veterans Discounts (call for details) and 50% off Craftwork Training Center courses for Buck’s County Community College students plus 1.5 prior learning units toward program requirements (offer extended to all other students)

 

 

 

Historical buildings were built when neither advancements in technology nor construction technology was in abundant supply.  Early designers made the most of building materials and design options to construct buildings with a powerful combination of harnessed natural resources and innovative design that worked together to maximize energy efficiency.

Everything from exterior paint colors, locations of balconies, numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

The results are astounding, and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th-, 19th, and early 20th century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more efficient.

The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency, and, contrary to urban legends, new replacement windows are not more energy efficient than historical wood windows.  Typically, studies that conclude such a finding have compared new replacement windows with historical windows that have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits, such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

Studies on energy efficiency also usually fail to consider “embodied energy”. Embodied energy represents the energy it took to manufacture a product.  They say the greenest building is the one already built.  This is true when you consider the embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

Historical wood windows have an embodied energy value that includes all the energy from harvesting and milling the wood to transporting and manufacturing the windows to installing them in your historical building.  Preserving existing windows conserves that embodied energy and eliminates the need of additional energy to manufacture replacement windows.  When you take all energy into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows, historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows.

Tips For Improving Energy Efficiency

Here are some tips for improving the energy efficiency in your historic home.

  1. Have a maintenance appraisal performed.  When not properly maintained, there are many ways a historic home’s energy efficiency suffers – such as air leaks into and out of the home.  A maintenance appraisal performed by a qualified contractor will locate any source of air leakage and provide you with a plan-of-attack to remedy the problem without damaging the historic aspects of your home.
  2. Schedule an energy audit.  This could really be tied for the #1 spot; both the maintenance appraisal and an energy audit are absolutely essential things that need to be done BEFORE you implement any energy improvement measures.  The energy audit will evaulate your home’s current energy performance and identify any deficiencies in both the envelope of your home and/or mechanical systems.
  3. Implement these findings.  Hire a qualified contractor to eliminate any air infilitration, repair windows and perform the other maintenance affecting your home’s energy efficiency.  Hire a qualified energy contractor to replace any mechancial systems found to be deterimental to your home’s energy efficiecny.  Make sure both of these contractors have a proven track record of working with historic buildings in a way that does not damage the architecture and its features.
  4. Change your habits.  Install timeers or motion detectors on lights, attach self-closing mechanisms on doors that might otherwise hang open, install fans and raise your thermostat temperature, use LEDs in your lights and turn off “vampire” devices that use electricity in standby mode or that use electricity in standby mode or whenever that are plugged into an outlet.
  5. Install insulation. Ther is a lot of misinformation regarding the best ways to insulate your house, and some of them can even damage your home.  Have the historic contractor and energy consultant you hire work together to devise an insulation plan specifcially tailored to your home, so you won’t compromise its architectural integrity.

At first glance, porches and doors may seem like no more than a way to get in or out of a home or business.   But there is much more to these architectural gateways.  They are frequently exemplary examples of carpentry that give us a peek into the artisanship of our architectural history and have a quality of craftsmanship difficult, but not impossible with the right skills and knowledge, to reproduce today.

The entrance of a house often defines its architectural identity more than any other element.  This is particularly true on the facades of Colonial townhouses (sometimes referred to as row houses), where the flat facades can easily run into each other.

In Colonial and early-American porches and doorways, elements of several different architectural styles can be seen.

  • The Post-Medieval English Style (1600-1700) can be seen in transom lites and drop finials (those that project downward).
  • Dutch influences show up in elevated wooden stoops, eaves, and slender turned columns with square bases.
  • The French tendencies find there way into our entrance architecture with raised paneled doors and arched brick lintels.
  • Our very own early Colonial entrances are more pragmatic – with simple triangle pediments and smaller porch platforms.
  • Late Colonial entrances became more expansive and decorative – with curved brackets, keystones, and decorative sunbursts above the doors, as the Georgian and Federal styles made their way to center stage.

When evaluating the significance of your historic porch, there are two important questions to ask:

What did your entranceway look like originally?

More often than not, changes were made to your porch that may not reflect the original architecture of your house.  You can consult with a contractor that specializes in historic architecture to evaluate any necessary restoration work.  Early photographs, insurance maps, tax records, documents at historical societies or libraries, house histories, and physical evidence can all be used to make a determination of what the porch would have been originally.

What historical evolution has your porch or doorway experienced?

There is a great debate in the preservation world – is it more important to preserve the original architecture of a building or to honor the architectural evolution it experienced over the years?  This is not an easy question (and in cases of historic sites it is often tied to the period of historical relevance) and it is up to you, as steward of your building, to determine what you think is the right answer.  Determining what architectural evolutions your entranceway has experienced may help you decide which preservation approach is important to you. 

Exploring the answers to these two questions will help you define which architectural features make up the character of your entranceway, how it contributes to the overall architectural fabric of your historic building, and which period of architecture you want to preserve.

Keep in mind that if you live in a historic district any changes to the exterior of your house must first have approval from your local historic commission (often if you are not making changes or you are just repairing/maintaining this can be done at the staff level without a hearing).

 

Despite all the recent wintery weather, spring is officially here. With its arrival, homeowners turn their attention to maintenance projects – including exterior painting.

While seemingly harmless, painting a historical home carries a surprising significant risk of damage. The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #10: Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork notes:

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

Consider several factors when choosing an appropriate paint for your historical home:

Quality

The temptation to save money by using cheap paint can be alluring. Many contractors, and even homeowners, mistakenly think that paint choices need only match historical colors, but this is not so. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true for your paint. Investing in quality paint will save you money in the long run.

Preparation

The key to successful paint application is in knowing what preparation is required for the different types of paint that may already be on your building – each has its own preparation requirements. If you are not sure what type of paint is on your building, you can consult a qualified contractor to obtain a paint analysis providing you with both the chemical and color makeup of your existing paint.

Handling Lead Paint

The health risks of lead exposure are well known – brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development of children…but, did you know that lead in dust (such as the dust created while sanding and prepping surfaces for new paint) is the most common route of exposure to lead? To avoid these risks, choose a contractor who is “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” certified by the EPA for lead paint handling.

Ask yourself these questions before beginning any painting project:

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

Here is a video discussing maintenance and paint options:

Spring is finally here, and it’s time to look around your house to see if winter weather has taken its toll. We’ll soon be firing up our grills and relaxing with friends and family. But, before you can do that, there’s much work to be done.

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.

So, let’s take a walk around your property to make a detailed list of needed repairs. Here are ten useful tips to get your house ready for spring:

  1. Inspect your roof. Harsh winter weather can cause roof shingles to become lost or damaged. Shingles that are cracked, buckled, loose or missing granules must be replaced. A qualified roofer should check and repair flashing around plumbing vents, skylights and chimneys.
  2. Examine your chimney. Look for signs of exterior damage and replace any loose or missing bricks. Have the flue cleaned and inspected by a certified chimney sweep.
  3. Check for loose, leaky or clogged gutters. Clear leaves, sticks, muck and other debris by flushing the gutters with water. Contact a professional gutter cleaner if you are unable to do so yourself. Improper drainage can lead to water in the basement or crawl space. Make sure downspouts are also free of debris and that they drain away from the foundation.
  4. Look for loose or damaged siding. Once you have assessed the need for repairs, spring is also a good time to clean your siding with soap and water from a garden hose.
  5. Fill low areas in your yard with compacted soil. This is especially true near the house. Spring rains can cause flooding, which can lead to foundation damage. Pay attention to puddles of water in your yard. When water pools in these low areas, it creates a breeding ground for insects like mosquitoes.
  6. Check outside faucets. Freezing temperatures can do damage to plumbing; this is especially true for outdoor fixtures. Before hooking up the hose to water your flowerbeds, turn the water on and place your thumb or finger over the opening of the faucet. If you can stop the flow of water the pipe inside your home may be damaged. Contact a professional plumber if you aren’t comfortable with replacing the pipe yourself. While we’re on the subject of watering flowers, check the garden hose for dry rot.
  7. Clean and service your air conditioner system. Hire a qualified heating and cooling contractor to clean the coils and check for damage to the ourside unit. Scheduling an annual service call is recommended to keep the system functioning efficiently. Changing interior filters on a regular basis can also extend the life of your air conditioning system. Also, be sure to vacuum out your floor registers.
  8. Inspect the water heater. Water heaters work twice as hard during the winter to make your home a warm and comfortable environment. After all that hard work, water heaters can accumulate rust or develop leaks. To make sure your water heater is at its top performance for spring, check for signs of leaks or corrosion.
  9. Repair wood trim. Inspect windows, doors, railings and decks now before spring rains do more damage to exposed wood.
  10. Months of exposure to rain, snow and freezing temperatures can do just as much damage to your child’s playground equipment as it can your home. Ensure all outdoor toys are safe by tightening bolts, removing splinters and sharp edges and cleaning off any mold or animal droppings.

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? 

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

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

Contact info and Bios:

Clatsop College

1651 Lexington Ave

Astoria, OR 97103

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

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

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

Resources Discussed:

National Council for Preservation Education

Historic Preservation and Energy Efficiency Guide – Pacific Power

Alison Hardy from Window Woman of New England joins me to discuss the state of window restoration.  If you’d ever wondered what preservationist discuss this episode is for you.  We discuss:

  • Can your windows be saved or are they really beyond repair?
  • Repair vs. Replacement mindset
  • The education process to combat the replacement window marketing machine

Contact information for Alison plus additional resources:

Alison Hardy – Window Woman of New England

978-532-2070

https://windowpreservationalliance.org/

Bio:
Alison Hardy is owner of Window Woman of New England, Inc. Her company restores windows in the North of Boston/Merrimac Valley region. Alison has a BA from Denison University and an MBA from Boston University, only some of which is useful when scraping paint. When not restoring windows for other people she works on restoring her 1850’s farmhouse in Topsfield, MA.

Transcript:

Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to the Practical Preservation podcast. Please take a moment to visit our website practicalpreservationservices.com for additional information and tips to help you restore your historical home. If you’ve not yet done so, please subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, and Sound Cloud. Also like us on Facebook.

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Practical Preservation podcast hosted by Danielle Keperling. Keperling Preservation Services is a family owned business based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania dedicated to the preservation of our built architectural history for today’s use, as well as future generations. Our weekly podcast provides you with expert advice specific to the unique needs of renovating a historic home. Educating by sharing our from the trenches preservation knowledge, and our guest’s expertise balancing modern needs while maintaining the historical significance, character, and beauty of your period home.

Danielle: Thank you for joining us for the Practical Preservation podcast. Today, we have Alison Hardy. She is the owner of Window Woman of New England, Incorporated. Her company restores windows in the north of Boston Merrimack Valley region. Alison has a BA from Denison University and an MBA from Boston University, only some of which is useful when scraping paint. When not restoring windows for other people, she works on restoring her 1850s farmhouse house in Topsfield, Massachusetts. Alison, thank you for joining us.

Alison: Thank you for inviting me, Danielle.

Danielle: Thank you. I know that we have met in person a couple of times, so I’m excited to have you here to share your knowledge and expertise. How did you get started in preservation? It kind of sounds like it was a meandering road, similar to mine.

Alison: Indeed, this is about my third career. I actually trained to do textile design and costume design and did that for many years, and sold large format printers for printing textiles. Then when my husband and I bought an old house, suddenly like most people in preservation, you start looking at your old house and appreciating your old house and getting interested in old houses. It really came about from owning a wreck of a house with windows in terrible condition. I said, “This is crazy. I must be able to fix these somehow.”

Danielle: Very good. Did you start at restoring your windows yourself? Did you learn yourself or did you take some classes? How did you figure out what you needed to do?

Alison: I am self-taught. Luckily, my husband builds furniture as a hobby, so he had a wood shop which was very handy. Then I am one of those people who will just go out and research a project to death, so I read as much as I could, went to some events on preservation and talked to as many people as I could, and just started chipping away at paint and figuring out how to re-putty a window, which is daunting at first, but after you do a couple hundred you get really good at it.

Danielle: Right, we joked that people, if they’re going to try to do it their selves should start in the back of the house.

Alison: Definitely, definitely somewhere you don’t want to see. In fact, the house that we’re in now, the first windows that I did are embarrassing.

Danielle: Oh no.

Alison: They’re my walk of shame every day. I’m like, “Oh, I really should redo those,” because I just didn’t have the patience for getting all of the paint off and doing all of the repair techniques that now we do.

Danielle: Right, and the little details do matter. We try to impart that, too, to our employees. That, just because you’re scraping paint doesn’t mean that that’s not one of the most important things that you’re doing on this window.

Alison: True, and it’s funny, we just had a batch of windows come in that had been scraped by an abatement company, and my crew was horrified at how badly they were done. I’m like, “Well, that’s why we insist on being neat and tidy and doing things so that you don’t harm the window, you actually make it better.”

Danielle: Yes, yes. Important lessons. How did you get started then selling your services to the public?

Alison: Well, funny enough, a friend of ours bought an apartment building in a town not far from us and said, “It’s got a bunch of windows in horrible shape. Do you want to tackle those?” I thought, “Sure, why not? I’ll give you a hand.” Which, turned out to be a huge project. I’ve never seen so much nicotine on a window in my life. That was sort of the cutting teeth to, yes I think I can do this for other people.

Alison: Then, you know, God bless America, you can hang out a shingle and start a business. That’s pretty much what I did and started off with some projects for friends, and then those friends knew other people. The good thing about the old house world is that they all talk to each other about products and services and suppliers. Luckily the word got out quickly.

Danielle: Right, that’s one thing I’ve noticed too is that, people are very willing to share their knowledge and information, which is very helpful. You know, even contractors and crafts people, they will share the information because it’s not, even though you might be a competitor, everybody is working towards the same goal.

Alison: It seems like once you find people who cherish older houses and older buildings, we want to support those businesses and we want to let other people know that this is a contractor or somebody who gets old houses just like we do, instead of the “rip them apart and make them into planned cottages.”

Danielle: Yeah, that kind of takes us into my next question. Why do you preserve windows? What makes you passionate about this?

Alison: I do so many estimates now, and it’s always amazing to me the condition of older original windows. You know, to somebody who’s not as observant as I am about windows, they may look terrible. The paint’s peeling, the glazing’s falling off, but to me, I’m like, “But look at the corners and the joints. They’re still in really good shape. They’re still beautifully built. They’re still serving their function. They fit the building. If we just do a little bit of repairs to them, they’ll be beautiful again.” It’s exciting, because most people who call me in kind of know that in the back of their mind, so it’s a validation of saying, “I thought they looked pretty good.” I’m like, “Yes, they are really good. Let’s save them.”

Danielle: Yes, you don’t have to listen to the person that told you, you just need to get new windows.

Alison: Right, I always use the analogy, if you got a flat tire, would somebody say you had to throw out the car and get a new one? It’s the same thing. You have a broken sash, it’s not the end of the world. It can be fixed.

Danielle: Right, right, very, very true. Since you kind of have been learning as you go, what do you wish that you knew when you started that you know now?

Alison: I think if I had any idea how much time was required for doing windows, I probably would have been terrified. You have to acknowledge that it’s a very labor intensive process and there’s not many shortcuts. If you do take shortcuts, it usually ends up costing you in the long run. I think if I really had thought about how much time was involved, I probably would have had a different idea.

Danielle: Yes. That’s true, and that’s one thing that I’ve been trying to explain to people. The majority of our cost is labor. We’re paying people to do this work.

Alison: Yes, glass isn’t a big of expense, wood isn’t a big expense, it’s just the people.

Danielle: Right, right. Have you made any major mistakes that you’re willing to make a public confession about?

Alison: I think undercharging in the beginning made my life a lot more difficult. Once you start charging fairly, your life gets a little bit better.

Danielle: That is really true, and from a business standpoint, that’s I think pretty typical for people who, especially are doing the hands on work, they do undervalue the contributions that they’re making.

Alison: It’s true. It’s hard to believe that people don’t really know what kind of value and cost to assign to window repairs. They know what replacement windows cost if they’ve been shopping around, but they really don’t know, and so it’s up to us to give a fair price. That we know how much time it’s going to take and we know what we need to do to get it done right, and it’s going to cost. It’s not a cheap process. We try to be as efficient as we can, but at the end of the day it’s still labor hours.

Danielle: Right, yeah.

Alison: I have to say, yeah, the other big mistake that I am always teetering on the edge of is I got asked to look at a project and the client said, “Well, you know, I had your competitor work on my last house and I don’t want to have them back.” I get all puffed up and go, “Yes, because we’re better.” It turns out that that’s a very bad mistake, because they’re usually very bad clients. I’ve learned to not get my ego all puffed up and think that we’re better than the other guy. No, sometimes they’re just bad clients.

Danielle: Yeah, and that’s true. Sometimes you do have to kind of see those warning signs and see how the development process goes before you make a commitment to them.

Alison: Yeah.

Danielle: What is the biggest challenge that you see in preservation, or even just in your corner of preservation?

Alison: I know, my very tiny corner of windows. Really, the hard thing is awareness. I can’t tell you how many times people say, “I had no idea anybody did this type of work. I had no idea anybody did this type of work.” It’s frustrating because we don’t have the big advertising budgets of the large replacement companies. We’re very small voices out in the world and it’s hard to get the message out there. I think that’s why we’re so grateful to word of mouth, is that that’s the most efficient way we can to spread the message, but it’s slow and painful and there’s nothing worse than finding out that somebody replaced their windows unnecessarily because they just had no idea that they had an option.

Danielle: That’s very true. We’re fighting the mentality of the past 50 or 60 years of being product installers rather than crafts people too, and looking at it as something that’s repairable rather than just having to replace it. All of that has been pushed by advertising. That is a very big challenge within preservation.

Alison: I think we all sort of cringe at the TV shows that people just take sledgehammers to buildings without even stopping to think about it, or at least not on camera they stop to think about it. It’s so maddening as a preservationist. You know, “Why are they just taking it down in the most destructive way possible? You can take a cabinet off a wall without having to take a sledgehammer to it.” It just drives me crazy.

Danielle: Right, it wouldn’t be as good TV.

Alison: Yeah, right?

Danielle: Do you see any trends in preservation? Any maybe glimmers of hope?

Alison: You know, I have been doing some estimates recently for young couples who are buying their first house and I keep hearing this, “I want to do it right. I want to be real. I grew up in a house with vinyl windows, I grew up in a house with vinyl siding and I don’t want my children to grow up in that kind of house.” I think this whole makers movement, you know, people wanting to get their hands dirty and to do projects and to build things is very encouraging, because once you do get your hands on something, then you start to appreciate it more. That, to me, has been exciting to hear people talk about they want to save things instead of throwing them away. I’m like, “Thank you, finally we’re getting to that point where we understand how bad all of the debris we create is.”

Danielle: Yes, yes, and I think it is values and it’s a mentality because I’ll even take shoes to get fixed and clothes to the tailor. It is, it’s a different mentality of you don’t have to just go out and get new, you can fix what you have, especially if you have a good quality. Then it’s really not more expensive, because you’re not paying it over and over again.

Alison: Right. We’ve had great success of going to some of the green fairs, even a lot of events that focus on local and sustainable foods, because that same mentality carries forward into your house. If you don’t want to eat fake food, why do you want to have fake windows? There’s a continuum here that it all sort of makes sense. Why would you want to create acres of trash and then demolish parts of your house unnecessarily? It all kind of goes together.

Danielle: It does, yeah, that’s very true. How do you keep up with trends in preservation?

Alison: I love to go to events. I think that’s probably the hardest thing for a lot of people who are working in the trades, is that they don’t have big travel budgets and they can’t get out to things. Making an effort to go and meet with fellow preservationists, we just had a wonderful meeting in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in February with the Window Preservation Alliance. This is a trade group that was formed two, three years ago now to bring together window restorers to raise awareness of window restoration, that we actually got started because there was a preservation conference that had one of the big replacement window contractors as a sponsor.

Danielle: Oh, yes.

Alison: We said, “This is crazy. How can we represent our side of the argument when we don’t even have a seat at the table?” The Window Preservation Alliance, we’re a trade association so we now have funds so that we can sponsor events so that we have the other side of the argument, we’re at the table so that we can be part of those discussions. It’s exciting how we’re finding more events, we’re helping to sponsor events.

Alison: There’s one coming up in Cincinnati in May that I’m going to where we’re going to be restoring windows in two buildings. There is one in San Antonio coming up. Then in September in Detroit the Preservation Trade Network will be putting on an event too, so I’m excited about the number of opportunities that we have to meet with one another and talk about what we do. We’re kind of an obscure little profession here, and it’s nice to meet other people who know what you’re talking about.

Danielle: Yes, and that’s exciting that you’re going all over the country. I wouldn’t necessarily think of restoring windows in Texas. There are buildings there that have windows to be restored, so that’s going kind of off of what people would necessarily would think about would be where the historic places are.

Alison: It’s nice that they are people who do this for a living mixed in with community people, because a lot of times homeowners do want to learn how to do things, how to get involved, but they don’t necessarily want to tackle the whole project. As my colleague Steve [Coullion 00:16:23] calls it, “The pros and the Joes working together,” we get a lot more done in a short period of time.

Danielle: Yeah, very, very exciting. That also helps build awareness in the community that there are other options. I know my mom used to sit on the Historic Commission here in Lancaster City, and people would come in wanting to put vinyl windows in, and they would say, “Well, there are other options,” and people would say, “No, there aren’t.” Then it’s a whole education process. That’s a way to do it before even those decisions are being made. That is very, very exciting. Do you have a favorite resource?

Alison: Since May is preservation month, last year was the first year we tried to get all members of the Window Preservation Alliance to hold an event for preservation month. We did one called a sash revival, so we encouraged people to bring in their windows, which most of them have broken glass, and we showed them how to cut glass, fit glass, and glaze a window. It was a really fun event. My crew had a great time working with people. Most of them came from the next town over, which has a fabulous collection of old houses.

Alison: There were actually events all across the country and we’re hoping to do that again this year in May. We had everything from, they did a driveway pop up, they just put a tent in their driveway and had people work on glazing windows. Somebody had a booth at a farmer’s market talking about window repairs. Then some people like me opening up their shop to have the public come in and learn more about what we do and actually get their hands on a window. It’s really fun to have events like that to, again, trying to raise awareness of what we do.

Danielle: Yes, that sounds like fun. To tie it into the national trust, making their whole push for preservation too for that month, it helps build awareness on multiple fronts, so I think that’s really great and exciting. I’m kind of sad that I didn’t think of it.

Alison: Some days you just have, and again, a lot of times it’s just hanging out talking to our other fellow window restorers going, “How can we do this?”

Danielle: Right.

Alison: “Well, what if we just had people bring in windows?”

Danielle: We’ve even had classes before, but we never had people bring their own windows in, but that makes so much more sense. Then they leave with something that’s done. They don’t have to go back and kind of tackle it themselves.

Alison: I was trying to do the sad face/happy face as people came in and left, but I didn’t do so good at capturing my photographs. It was nice to be able to have something they accomplished in one day.

Danielle: Yes, yes, yes, and it makes it a little bit less daunting I would think for them. They know that they can at least, if a pane of glass breaks, they know that they can fix that and it doesn’t take all day.

Alison: Right. I think we’ve all had the frustrating experience of trying to get glazing putty to look neat. We’ve got a couple tips and techniques that we can show people to get them over that frustrating stage of, “It’s just all goopy and it keeps pulling up and it makes a lumpy mess.”

Danielle: Right.

Alison: I don’t know what to say. We’ll help you.

Danielle: This will make it easier.

Alison: Right.

Danielle: What do you think makes you different from other businesses that do this work?

Alison: You know, I’m finding there’s more similarities than dissimilarities in what we do. We’ve become one of the larger shops. I have 10 employees, and so we’re able to tackle bigger projects. I think we’re also fortunate that in the Boston area there are a number of window restoration shops, so if we have a really huge project, we can divvy it up and all work together. It’s very much a collaborative type of business, which is great. It makes it much more fun than being a competitor.

Danielle: Right, yeah, I definitely agree with that. Okay, well thank you so much for joining us today. Why don’t you let us know how our audience can get a hold of you.

Alison: Probably the best way is through our website, which is window-woman-ne.com. There is a contact us page which has our email address on it, or you can always call the workshop at 978-532-2070.

Danielle: Very good, thank you.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to the Practical Preservation podcast. The resources discussed during this episode are on our website at practicalpreservationservices.com/podcast. If you received value from this episode and know someone else that would get value from it as well, please share it with them. Join us next week for another episode of the Practical Preservation podcast. For more information on restoring your historic home, visit us at practicalpreservationservices.com.