Choosing 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. 

Any project done 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. 


Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO IS WELL-VERSED IN HISTORICAL 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 facade treatments focus on moisture-proofing, while historical buildings functioned as “Breathing” buildings that expelled excess moisture – if you combine a new facade material (even one that looks exactly like the original) with an old facade material, you can set the stage for dangerous moisture issues that threaten your building’s foundation and air quality. 

Sometimes the same (or similar) materials are used to produce a replicate product, and are “merely” fabricated in an entirely different manner than the original products were, 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 replication and does not truly preserve 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 involving lower firing temperatures resulted in softer bricks than the modern, mass-production process.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR THAT CAN 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.

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO KNOWS THE REVIEW, PERMITTING, AND APPROVAL PROCESS

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 simpler: you hired someone to do the work. 

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. 

Choosing 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. 

CHOOSE A CONTRACTOR WHO VALUES PRESERVATION 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. 

Quick and easy ways to assess whether or not your contractor values preservation as much as you do:

  • Do their website and blogs offer non-sales content related to preservation and/or the traditional trades: how much is self-promotion and how much is preservation-promotion?
  • Does their social media activity include more than just what they’re doing, such as sharing general preservation information?
  • What organizations do they support, participate in, or have they helped found? 
  • Do they practice a traditional trade and do they understand the historical methods of the traditional trades?
  • Can they explain to me what the appropriate materials and methods for my project are and why, or do they know of acceptable substitutes if exact replication isn’t feasible?
  • What references do they have and do they have a record of historical restoration projects?
  • Do previous customers feel that the contractor’s priority was preservation or the bottom line?
  • Do they freely share their credentials and are they properly insured and licensed as applicable?
  • Do they understand the permitting, review, and approval process for the project, and have they worked through this process in my area for previous projects?
  • ABOVE ALL ELSE, your contractor should be someone you are comfortable with, who listens to your needs and wants, and who understands historical restorations and has a proven and specialized track record of work on historical buildings.

 

When most people think about the post-World War II era of the 1950’s, among the things they think about are iconic TV shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Rock-n-Roll, the emergence of teen culture, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe movies, and the Cold War. But historical preservationists equate the ’50’s with Mid-Century Modern architecture.

taylor-simpson-ljhszooqvTI-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

WHAT INFLUENCED MID-CENTURY MODERN DESIGN PHILOSOPHIES?

Escaping Nazi oppression, founders of the 1920’s Bauhaus movement, such as Mies van der Roche and Walter Gropius, brought their concepts of clean lines, angular compositions, and simple forms with them to America. The basic tenets of the Bauhaus movement blended with American architectural traditions, particularly Arts and Crafts and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School designs, and evolved into what is called Mid-Century Modern Architecture, which extends beyond the contraction of houses to furniture and interior design and is characterized by the use of modern materials, horizontal composition, large expanses of plate glass (including sliding glass doors), open floor plans, and are typically one-story residential buildings. Often there are changes in elevation within the home design that make it distinctly different from ranch-style homes, creating a fresh new architecture that didn’t harken back to the past. 

MID-CENTURY MODERN DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS

GENERAL PROPORTIONS
Classic modern houses are one story, spread out, and horizontal

ROOF TYPES 
Flat, sometimes slight single pitch, often asymmetrical

FENESTRATION
Floor to ceiling glass in living sections, horizontal strips in less public areas of the house

STRUCTURAL & FACEWORK MATERIALS
No character defining material … stone, brick, wood siding (both vertical and horizontal clapboard) were all used … possible decoration: larger chimney made of brick or stone

SPATIAL DESIGNATION & FLOOR PLAN 
Very open plans, usually with kitchen, dining area, and living room as one continuous space … carports are common with the roofline acting as an extension of the main horizontal roof … basements and attics are rare

CHIMNEY PLACEMENT
Substantial and made of stone … often appears at the peak of the roof

ENTRANCEWAY
Somewhat formal main entrance with decoration limited to a floor to ceiling glass sidelight … often enters directly into the kitchen or utility room from the carport

COLOR
White initially, with warmer and natural colors introduced later in the period

PRESERVATION CHALLENGES: MID-CENTURY MODERN ARCHITECTURE

Mid-Century Modern Architecture is characterized by its progressive designs and minimalist aesthetics that became popular in the post-World War II era, and contrast with their ranch-style counterparts, due to the fact that the designs make no reference to earlier building styles, like the Colonial Revival. The goal of Mid-Century Modern designers was to create a look that broke with the past, which often lent itself to outlandish details and futuristic elements that might appear more at home in science fiction. 

The way things were built, including houses, changed after WWII. There was a demand for new construction for returning GI’s who needed housing for their families. Prior to the war, during the Great Depression (1929-1939), there wasn’t much new construction outside of public works projects that were created as part of the New Deal, and in the early 1940’s all resources were devoted to the war effort. Due to the housing demand, a system was developed to create housing fast and economically, as expansion into the suburbs, a phenomenon that began in early 1900’s, continued.

GI’s not only needed housing, but also jobs, which increased the existing labor force. Materials were made to be installed by less skilled labor. Manufacturers began making building materials that were meant to be replaced rather than repaired, which created a workforce of product installers rather than skilled craftsman (a trend that continues today). 

The modern construction techniques allowed architects to experiment with forms and materials. Steel framing, first used in Chicago skyscrapers at the turn of the century, was used in Mid-Century Modern buildings, and enabled architects to create the walls of glass and open floor plans that characterize the style. Open floor plans were designed to promote more casual and integrated living spaces that could accommodate a variety of uses. Large expanses of glass framed by thin structural elements allowed for more contact with nature.

So, you own a Mid-Century Modern house, how can you tell if it’s considered an historic structure?
A building older than 50 years (or newer building if a historically significant event took place there), is eligible for the National Historic Register. Of course, there are other criteria, which you can find by visiting the “Eligibility” page at: 

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalhistoriclandmarks/eligibility.htm

and the “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation” page at:

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/upload/NRB-15_web508.pdf

 

 

David Trowbridge from the Clio app joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his Wikipedia-like local history depository.  The Clio app began as a classroom project and has grown to over 32,000 historical entries with 5,000 daily users!  Users can add local history sites, walking tours, source documents, and an augmented reality time capsule entry overlaying historical photos of lost or altered buildings.

Get involved:

Donate to the 501c3

Become a local contributor  

Contact David Trowbridge [email protected]

 

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. 

Typically, on homes built in the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s, the most unexpected maintenance problem deals with the internal gutter system. This is because the problem is hidden until the failure has begun. However, regular inspection and maintenance can catch the problem before it is too late, and damage is done.

First, I bet you are wondering, “what is an internal gutter system?” What we call internal gutter systems are also known as “Yankee Gutters,” or built-in, sunken, box or integral gutters. These drainage systems have been used on houses from the 1700’s through the early 1900’s, though they are most commonly found on buildings from the Victorian period. Typically, they are incorporated into the cornice along the roof line, on a porch, or bay window. The usual construction is a wood trough lined with metal. Because of the cornice trim covering the gutter, problems with the metal lining (typically the first problem – allowing water into the structural framing and eventually the trim) remains unseen until damage is spotted from the water infiltration.

Signs your system is not functioning properly include: peeling paint, moist wood, damage to the masonry (at the roof level), and plaster damage on the interior of the house (at the bay window). Unfortunately, once these symptoms are presented, there is often damage to the structural walls or ceiling, not to mention the decorative moldings of the cornice, making the repair a restoration project (replacement to match the original) rather than a preservation project (maintenance) – an expensive proposition.

One way to minimize the cost is to make sure the gutter is regularly inspected and the solder joints in the metal are properly maintained. These inspections can be done semi-annually when the gutters are cleaned of leaves and other debris.

PRO TIP: Never use roofing tar to seal the joints (rather than soldering the metal seams). This will trap the water into the wood, causing the same problems you are trying to prevent.

Some people roof over the internal gutter system and use external gutters for their water management – this is an option for saving money, but it does change the original appearance of the building by covering the decorative cornice. Further, this solution does not address the damage to the structural systems. Often, unenlightened homeowners will wrap the problem in vinyl or aluminum using the “I can’t see it, so it’s not a problem” approach to maintenance. Of course, this causes larger problems and sometimes results in losing the entire front porch.

If you have external gutters, you should regularly inspect them (semi-annually) to ensure that they are doing their job keeping water out of the house and moving it away from the foundation. If replacement becomes necessary, be sure you replace them with half-round gutters and round or rectangular downspout styles appropriate for historic buildings. NEVER replace them with K-style or corrugated downspouts.

Stephen McNair of Mc Nair Historic Preservation joined the Practical Preservation podcast to share with us his experiences and the services his firm provides.  Listen to learn: 

  • Potential issues with historic tax credits
  • Trends in adaptive reuse
  • Economic incentives for commerical use preservation projects
  • The biggest obstacles and challenges for planning historic projects

Contact:

Website

Facebook

 

Happy Halloween!  A little deviation from our usual Practical Preservation podcast episode – Sean Wagner from Mason Dixon Paranormal Society was interviewed to discuss their paranormal investigations.  Sean has been involved in over 200 investigations (and is now trying to find Big Foot with the Central Pennsylvania Investigators). 

If you are wondering what a typical paranormal investigation entails, how to have unexplained occurrences investigated, and where to search for Big Foot in the mid-Atlantic region this podcast is for you.

Contact – if you need an investigation or would like to get involved:

Sean Wagner [email protected]

Facebook 

Charles Flickinger from Flickinger Glassworks joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss his business and career as an artisan.  Our conversation varied from minimalist living to repairing curved glass of the Statute of Liberty flame.  Curved glass is a speciality, niche business and Charles has collected over 4,000 steel molds from different projects (I learned the curved glass starts flat and is curved as it is heated).  Flickinger Glassworks can make curved laminated and insulated glass in addition to the curved architectural pieces and art work.

Charles shared this quote Admiral Bryd during our conversation, ““Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” and shared that Flickinger Glassworks makes table ware.

Contact: 

Charles Flickinger – [email protected]

718-875-1531

Offer:

A field trip to the workshop in the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.  And if you are looking for an artisan workshop – reach out to Charles.

Catherine Brooks from Eco-Strip, the exclusive US distributor of the Speedheater Paint Removal System, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss her company which allowed her to bring together her passion for the environment and public health.  

The Speedheater is different from other heat-based paint removal systems because it heats the paint using  InfraRed allowing the paint to heat and lift from the wood, but not hot enough to release lead fumes into the air.  Here’s a video of the newest Speedheater – The Cobra:

A longer version of our teaser for SH Cobrawww.speedheater.se

Posted by Speedheater System AB on Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Contact:

Eco-Strip – call 703-476-6222 or email [email protected] 

Website: https://eco-strip.com/

 

 

Joe McCormick, realtor, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss real estate and historic homes.  

We discussed:

  • Tips for historic home buyers and sellers
  • How to choose a real estate agent for your historic home search or listing
  • Why older properties are good values for real estate taxes
  • Understanding any regulations that may impact your property rights

Contact:

Joe McCormick – 610-637-8598 (text or call) or email: [email protected] serving Chester and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania