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.

 

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.