Historical masonry buildings are very different from modern buildings.  Historical bricks were fired at lower temperatures and are much softer and more permeable than modern bricks and buildings constructed with these softer bricks were designed to absorb moisture and then release it.  A key component of this design was the lime mortar historically used in masonry applications, a mortar that was also soft and readily allowed water or vapor to pass through it.

In the late 1800’s, a new mortar debuted in the United States at the height of the Industrial Revolution.  Favored for all the qualities a mass-production revolution could ask for (fast-curing, inexpensive, and less work for masons), Portland cement quickly gained popularity with masons and by the early 1900’s most buildings had some Portland mortar in their masonry surfaces – usually as an additive to traditional lime mortar.  By the mid-1900’s  Portland was no longer used as an additive and became the predominate ingredient in mortar mixes.  Historical buildings were not immune to the new technology and masonry repairs on historical buildings in the 1900’s were predominantly made with Portland mortar.

If your historic building has been re-pointed it likely was with Portland mortar.  A common mistake, Portland mortar applied to historical buildings doesn’t just erode the historic fabric of the building, it causes physical damage that is often permanent.  Traditional mortars worked with the softer historical masonry materials to expand and contract together as temperatures and moisture levels changed, creating a wall and masonry surface that “breathed” to expel excess moisture.  Applying a Portland mortar mix to historical masonry disrupts that relationship and traps moisture in the wall and historical bricks.  Moisture trapped within the walls will not easily pass through Portland cement mortar and will be forced through the soft brick instead, the path of least resistance.  When the water evaporates, salt deposits are left behind that crystallize and destroy the protective shell of the bricks.  Once this outer surface is damaged, the softer interior of the historical bricks rapidly disintegrates.

Portland mortar can cause problems that begin to decay masonry in a few years.  The historical bricks on masonry buildings are not the only things threatened by Portland cement mortar – structural elements, interior features, and occupant health are also compromised by the moisture issues associated with Portland mortar.

Remember, historical masonry materials and mortars were designed from a construction approach that created buildings that “breathed”, allowing moisture both in and out.  Modern masonry materials and mortars are designed from a watertight construction approach that aims to keep water from passing through.

Combining a material from the system designed to let a house “breathe” with a material from a system designed to prevent water from passing through is a recipe for disaster.

The truth is…historical mortar differs significantly at a molecular level from modern mortar.  This difference makes modern mortar incompatible with historical masonry materials, permanently damaging historical masonry materials, and structural elements of masonry buildings, and traps moisture in walls lowering energy efficiency and endangering air quality inside the building.

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.
Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and at-risk elements of our architectural heritage?

Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows.  Salesman convince owners and architectural review boards members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is, these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden or vinyl-clad window.”

Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history.  Yet they should.  If eyes are the windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.

Windows are an important component in a historical building’s appearance.  Not only are they one of the few parts of a building that serve as both an interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.

Many aspects of windows contribute to a building’s architectural style and historic fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off the glass.

Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths and regionally specific patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to a historical building’s façade.  And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological gold mine that helps us understand and document historical building practices and craftsmanship.

These features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology.  Today’s manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago.  The characteristics imparted by modern machinery and installation techniques create an entirely different window than the traditional building materials created when the building was originally constructed.  Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on a historical building.

Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages a building.

Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how buildings have been constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from gaining a deep understanding of a piece of history that’s just as important as the knowledge we gain from all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.

Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows.  Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.

 

Fireplaces were essential in Early American homes, providing heat, light, and a hearth for cooking, as well as a family gathering place.  In Colonial America, they were usually wide, deep “walk-ins” without much of a mantel.  Those in the homes of Dutch settlers were often wider than tall, while the English settlers built them to be smaller and less spacious.

By the 1700’s, homes commonly featured chimneys, though not everyone was convinced of their virtues.  Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The upright heat flies directly up the Chimny.  Thus Five Sixth at least of the Heat (and consequently of the Fewel) is wasted, and contributes nothing towards warming the Room.”

Benjamin Franklin thought that chimney back drafts were causing illnesses.  He said, “Woman particularly from this Cause (as they sit much in the House) get Colds in the Head.” Ben went on to develop alternative fireplace designs, including the Franklin stove.  Despite hi best efforts, however, the fireplace and its chimney were firmly entrenched in American architecture.

In the mid-Atlantic and northern states, central chimneys served fires in two or more rooms on several floors, to maximize the amount of heat a house retained, while homes in the south used fireplaces at the far ends of the houses to reduce heat buildup.

Until the 1800’s, fireplaces were purely practical affairs.  Heading into the mid-1800’s, however, they became the focal points if the main living areas, with carved mantels and other decorative elements.

In English homes, plain or bead-edged paneling usually surrounded fireplaces from the floor to the ceiling.  Dutch homes hung curtains above the fireplace.  Some homes using blue and white Delftware tiles or the book-matched paneling on either side of the fireplace.  The Federal and Greek Revival-style mantels featured swag, star, or shell accents.  The mantles and hearths of many historic Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia were made from King of Prussia marble, quarried in nearby King of Prussia.

In the early 1800’s, size and shape changed the emergence of the “Rumford Fireplace.” Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, designed a smaller, shallower affair that was taller than is was wide, with sharply angled sides sloping into a narrow chimney.  It threw more heat back into the room, exhausted smoke more efficiently and eliminated back drafts.  This is the construction design used in most modern masonry fireplaces today.

After the Industrial Revolution, more and more fireplaces featured cast iron arched surrounds with decorative embellishments.

The decorative elements of fireplaces became increasingly ornate with the addition of overmantels, as well as columns and glazed tiles.  In the early 1900’s, design aesthetics reverted to a more rustic and natural style when the “back-to-nature” effort fueled the Arts and Crafts movement.  Today, although practically anything goes, fireplaces remain the sentimental hubs of American homes.

 

Lauren Dillion of Master of Plaster joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss:

  • Her introduction to plaster as an art form
  • The different types of plaster (I really didn’t know there were so many) – lime (there are different types of lime!), gypsum, and clay
  • Lauren answered all of my lime wash questions
  • Plus you will hear Lauren’s insights into preservation trends and challenges

It is always enjoyable to speak with someone who is passionate about their work and is as excited about preservation education as we are – I think you will enjoy this episode.

Contact info:

Lauren Dillion, Master of Plaster 

Instagram (lots of pretty pictures)  email: [email protected]  phone: 1-800-352-5915

Offers:

Bio:

Lauren Dillon is the Executive Designer at Master of Plaster Finishing Systems. Specializing in crafting historically authentic hydrated lime plasters, their materials are used throughout the US and Canada on the restoration of Historic Structures as well as architectural finishes in Residential and Commercial projects. With an emphasis on quality materials, her work focuses on promoting the craft and trade of the plasterer as well as providing education on proper application processes for both preservation work and installations in new design/build projects.

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).

 

Robert Young, PhD of the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss the intersection of sustainability and preservation. During our discussion we discussed how stewardship of existing buildings is the ultimate green building (plus it is large scale recycling). Some of the other topics we discussed are:

  •  The environmental impact of building
  •  The Three Pillars of Sustainability 
  •  Trends in technology and preservation
  •  And the challenges he sees facing adaptive reuse and how to combat common myths

Robert Young, authored two books, Historic Preservation Technology and Stewardship of the Built Environment.

Contact information:

Robert A. Young, PhD, FAPT, PE, LEED AP

Professor of Architecture

Historic Preservation Program Director

University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning

375 South 1530 East; 235AAC

Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0370 T: (801) 581-3909 E: [email protected]

Bio:

Robert A. Young, PhD, professor and historic preservation program director at the University of Utah College of Architecture + Planning, specializes in stewardship of the built environment which synthesizes historic preservation, adaptive reuse, sustainability, and community revitalization. His career bridges both professional practice and academia where he has advocated for stewardship of the built environment. He is the author of the books Historic Preservation Technology and Stewardship of the Built Environment. He holds a doctorate in Metropolitan Planning, Policy, and Design and has several graduate degrees that explore resource conservation in the built environment.

Professor Young has won numerous awards for his leadership in advocating historic preservation education and practice including the Utah Heritage Foundation Lucybeth Rampton Award, the University of Utah Distinguished Teaching Award, and the University of Utah Distinguished Service Professorship. He is a licensed Professional Engineer, a member of the Association for Preservation Technology College of Fellows, and an honorary member of AIA-Utah. Originally from Maine, he has travelled to all fifty of the United States, several Canadian Provinces and parts of Europe.

A solid plan is critical for any construction project. Solid planning will ensure more efficient implementation of your project, limit schedule disturbances and project problems, and control your project’s budget. Proper planning will also reduce the chances of causing irreparable damage to your building.

A good plan for any project on your historical building should begin with research, investigation, and implementation of an appropriate treatment that meets both your building’s needs and your budget. This will ensure that the historical fabric and integrity of your building is not permanently damaged by inappropriate treatments.

Once an appropriate treatment plan has been determined, a plan for execution of the project must be developed. The different systems in your historical building must work together symbiotically to function as a healthy building. Proceeding with a project without considering how it fits into and impacts the entire house can cause serious problems. For example, changes to your HVAC systems impact the airflow in your house and can set the stage for moisture issues. Exterior finishes and landscaping improvements can easily mask foundation concerns that need to be addressed. Both interior and exterior finishes can hide structural issues that threaten your building’s structural stability.

A good plan for execution of any project on your historic building should be developed that includes the following elements:

  • Safety: An important first step to any project is to ensure that the structure is safe for occupants and that any treatments in the project will not jeopardize that safety.
  • Structural: The structural systems of your building should be evaluated to verify that they are stable and can support the building’s usage and any planned treatments.
  • Exterior Envelope: The next step is to access the exterior envelope of your building to determine if it is properly serving the function in was originally designed to serve (keeping the water out) and it is not deteriorating or experiencing problems that will lead to deterioration.
  • Mechanicals: All work on a building can affect how the mechanical systems work (even if the work seems completely unrelated), so an important step in any project planning is an evaluation of your building’s HVAC, electric, and plumbing systems.  It is important to do this work before the interior finishes to minimize impact and expense.
  • Interior Finishes: Even when they look just as they should and have the colors and textures that meet your aesthetic preferences, the walls, trim work, and floors of your building should be evaluated for hidden problems that raise your risk decay.
  • Landscaping: The landscaping design on the outside of your building isn’t just pretty flowers and greenery that enhances the historical significance of your home – it can also significantly threaten your home if it allows invasive plant and insect species to penetrate your exterior envelope or encourages moisture issues in your foundation. 

Proceeding with projects without taking into consideration all of these elements and any specific problems to address or a prioritized list of projects to complete can set the ground for deterioration that can destroy the historical architectural features of your building.

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

A few warning signs are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Stahl of Next Generation Systems joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his epoxy system, preservation contracting experience and services, plus his window evaluation program of surveying, documenting, and providing recommendations to building owners.

A Practical Preservation first – John launched his new product ‘on the air’ – cold weather epoxy for wood:

Contact information and discount code:

John Stahl – 607-760-6658 or [email protected]

10% off of epoxy repair materials – code practicalpreservation

Bio:

John Stahl started his career working on a historic property
in Salt Lake City while attending college.

John moved to New York City and began a small painting and
building restoration company.

In 1992, John began a long relationship with This Old House
Television show demonstrating wood and wood window restoration. John also
worked on several articles for This Old House Magazine.

John assisted Sanford University in surveying and developing
a detailed scope of work for the restoration of 1300 windows and doors at their
historic Main Quad.

John is the owner and product developer for Next Generation
Systems located in Altamont, New York.