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.

Restore Media (publishers of Old House Journal, Traditional Building, and Period Homes along with many other avenues to promote traditional trades and preservation) has developed a web site devoted to reports on traditional products.

This is a valuable resource complied in a central location for anyone interested in restoring or preserving their own historic building. They are located at and they are available by subscribing to their newsletter. The reports include articles about products, case studies, installation/treatment tips, and where to buy replacement products.

Topics include:

  • doors
  • windows
  • hardware
  • interior finishes/fixtures
  • metalworking
  • timber frame
  • and many more …

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”.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently launched a website devoted to providing “green building” resources to home and business owners.

The site includes:

Tips for homeowners
*10 green things for under $10
*wood window facts (to educate yourself when the replacement window salesperson knocks on the door)
*energy efficiency tips

There is also information for businesses, about the reuse of buildings, green news, research, and other green building/preservation resources.

This is a valuable site to continue your education about preservation and sustainability be sure to visit and revisit often

On Saturday, June 6, 2009 the Ephrata Cloister hosted their Building History Day. This was a day with traditional crafts being demonstrated, speakers on the topic of historic building and the evolution of domestic architecture, and tours of the unrestored floors of the Sisters’ House.

We were invited over the winter to host a seminar – we had never attended this event and where pleasantly surprised at the number and quality of the demonstrators. I would recommend this event to anyone interested in traditional building methods or techniques.

Our seminar topic was contemporary additions to old homes – after going through the nuts and bolts of the “rules” we had fun showing pictures of “the good, the bad and the ugly” – the discussion among the attendees was fun as we picked apart each addition.

I would like to publicly thank the Ephrata Cloister Associates for inviting us to be a part of such an interesting and worthwhile event. I hope we are invited back next year.

Preservation is retaining what is existing – this can be achieved through regular maintenance activities – saving thousands in potential cost. Once something is lost it is very expensive to recreate it.

The Business Section of the May 20th Intelligencer Journal had an article titled ‘Five home repairs not to postpone’ under the Investors Guide – the point of the article was to encourage small maintenance and repairs before they become big expensive problems. The five tips are valuable so I am passing them along:

1. Storm Water Management – maintain gutters, downspouts, and leader pipes (get the water away from the building, clean out gutters, make sure the soil slopes away from the building)
2. Roof and Siding – check flashing around roof penetrations and siding around door and window openings for leaks
3. Using caulk to seal gaps around pipes and ducts in attic can help insulate and prevent damming – notice I said caulk and not spray foam.
4. Pest infestations – wood eating pests love moist soil and rotting wood
5. Mold and Mildew – check under carpets, under windows, and behind plate covers for mold you might not see
6. Foundation Cracks – 1/4″ or more may be a problem – monitor all cracks for movement – if the building continues to move it is time for a consultation with a structural engineer.

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:

Tuesday afternoon I sat in on a webinar focused on what traditional products teach us about durability and sustainability (essentially green building). I am going to pass some the information from the webinar along during this post – next week I will be back to sharing information from the Traditional Building Conference.

*In order to evaluate if a product is durable and therefore sustainable there needs to be a life-cycle assessment (LCA).
*Desirable green attributes:
-Low Maintenance (but repairable)
-Fire Retardant
-Life cycle benefits – extending the service life
*2009 new LEED rating systems
-Point increases for urban living (density and alternative transportation)
-Life Cycle Assessment – focuses on structure/envelope assemblies
-Preservation of existing buildings adds points – traditional materials are preferable because of environmental impact
-Leed for Existing Buildings looks at accreditation without major renovations through changes in Operations and Maintenance

Traditional Materials are Sustainable:
-Masonry Walls both brick and stone
-Traditional Lime based mortar
-Roofing – slate, metal, clay tiles
-Old growth woods
-Anything that has stood the test of time and with care and attention can last another 100 plus years is a green solution

Some thoughts about Sympathetic Additions from the Traditional Building Show:
-The Secretary of Interiors Standards advise against any addition to a historic building
-Protect the historic integrity of the building by making any changes reversible
-Avoid construction in front of building
-Minimize the loss of historic material
-Make a definite separation between new and old construction
-Avoid radical change in form (size, scale, massing, and proportions)
-Preserve the facade line by using set backs

We are presenting How to Build a Sympathetic Addition to a Historic Building on June 6, 2009 at the Ephrata Cloister – more information is posted on our Events page on the web site.