Choosing a contractor with the right mix of skills and experience to work on your historical building can be a daunting experience.  Especially considering the potential for permanent damage to the historical fabric of your building, you need to select a contractor who: is well-versed in historical products and materials; can identify and replicate the traditional trade approaches and techniques that create 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.

Many of you have likely had work completed on your historical home or building. Consequently, many of you have also likely felt the impact of labor shortages in the construction industry. This article focuses on the skilled labor shortages and how they affect your project. The skilled labor shortage in the trades has been a major concern for over a decade, particularly since the global financial crisis of 2008. In March 2019, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) described the shortage – based on a survey of its members – like this: 

“More than four out of five builders expect to face serious challenges regarding the cost and availability of labor in 2019 … Just 13% of builders cited labor issues as an important concern in 2011, with the rate steadily rising over the ensuing years and peaking at 82% in each of the last three years (2017–2019).” [NAHBNow]

The number of shortages vary based on skill-specific trades, but broad shortages are higher in recent years. This presents a conundrum to leaders in the construction industry, but also to you, the homeowners. We have attempted to outline the breadth of the issues as well as possible solutions and strategies to cope, both from a societal stand-point and an individual homeowner perspective.

If you aren’t interested in how we got here, specific action items for hiring a contractor and dealing with the labor shortage are here

 

 

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WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABOR?

We already know that there is a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry. The question is: How did we get here?

  • Historical contributions. Clayton DeKorne provides a detailed overview of some of the likely factors that contributed to the shortage. For example, he noted that in early America, especially prior to the Revolution, the predominant view of skilled laborers in the construction field was a venerable one, and these craftsman enjoyed involvement in a cooperative community of workers, as well as esteem by and support from society at large. A prime example of this, as noted by DeKorne, is The Carpenter’s Company, the oldest trade guild in America. It held its first meetings in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, right among major centers for government and business. The building and the guild both hosted and provided for government and business in substantial ways. As time passed, the predominant views in America about construction and skilled labor culminated in Charles Ham’s book, Mind and Hand, which viewed industrial arts as a necessary precursor to children’s moral and intellectual development, rather than simply vocational training. DeKorne reports that another characteristic of these historical time periods was that traditional craftsman often passed skills on to their children, maintaining and ensuring traditional skills through the generations. However, as innovations in technology emerged, including “retail product manufacturing,” the need for skilled craftsman declined as the press for manufacturing workers increased. This included the children and youth who previously learned trades alongside their parents. But by 1917, child labor was increasingly frowned upon. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 was a federal law passed with the intention of education reform, triggered in large part by concerns related to ethical issues and lack of safety for children in the workforce. DeKorne notes this Act, while beneficial in limiting child labor, was a driving force behind the fall of vocational education in America. Although this bill provided significant federal funding to educational avenues, including vocational education, it set into motion policies and practices that eventually resulted in a distinct separation between college-prep and vocational education, the educational tracks we see to this day. The unforeseen and possibly unintended consequences of this have been a class or social divide, or at least a perception of one, that is still present.

 

  • Recent issues. McKinsey and Company wrote an article that reports that there was a 70% decrease in new housing projects from 2009-2011, resulting in many in the construction industry leaving the workforce, following the 2008 recession. In the years since, the demand for skilled laborers in the construction industry has significantly increased as construction needs have increased. However, workers are not filling those gaps.  DeKorne and homeadvisor.com conclude that a large part of the growing shortage is because of younger generations’ negative perceptions of the industry, including deeply-held beliefs that trade skills are associated with a lower or under-served-class of people. They have held onto the belief that a 4-year degree or college is more respectable, per the standards developed by the educational system throughout most of the twentieth century (noted earlier), and schools have phased out vocational programs and encouraged students to focus on college, perpetuating the idea that it is somehow better. This also reduces students’ exposure to the construction field as a potential option. Many of these people are more interested in innovative, technological careers. These problems are compounded by aging workers retiring from the field. 

 

HOW CAN WE ADDRESS THE SHORTAGE?

There are several things that experts suggest that leaders and professionals in the educational, vocational, and construction fields do, as well as suggestions for homeowners like you.

  • For professionals. Homeadvisor.com proposes that professionals make the most of the maker movement and foster people’s interest by offering alternatives to a 4-year-degree, harness their motivation to be entrepreneurs (since many surveyed indicate owning a business is a big motivator, and create mentorships and apprenticeships.  They also recommend labor automation, hiring temps, using overtime with current staff, and expanding hours of staff availability.

 

  • For homeowners. If you read most of this article prior to this section, or if you’re already abreast of the issues of labor shortage in the industry, you might be feeling discouraged as to any possible immediate solutions. However, we have compiled a list of things that you can do as a homeowner to navigate this issue, from our experience and that of other sources (Homeadvisor.com, thisoldhouse.com, Jon Gorey at realestate.boston.com, Marni Jameson of The Mercury News, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation).   
    • SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE – call before problems happen so you are more likely to get things addressed when they are problematic. This also builds rapport with contractors and laborers.  
      • HAVE A MAINTENANCE PLAN – find examples and ideas here
      • BE FLEXIBLE – Due to uncontrollable aspects of the current circumstances, it’s best to accept them as they are and be flexible with them. You can do this by allowing more time for projects to be completed, considering simplifying your projects, or moving your own schedule around to match that of contractors’ schedules. Also remember that subcontractors often prefer to work with general contractors or well-known companies, so they may not consider small home projects to be a priority. Consider contacting someone you have an existing relationship with for smaller projects, or a handyman service that specializes in smaller projects.
      • BE AWARE OF COST – The reality is that this shortage will impact the cost of your project. As the demand for highly skilled workers increases (especially for workers who have specialized skills in restoration/preservation rather than general remodeling) and the supply of highly skilled workers decreases, the demand on these contractors and workers also increases (usually beyond capacity) which will drive up the costs. 
      • HAVE A LIST OF PROS – Create a list of people with whom you build relationships. If they know you are a reliable customer, you are more likely to find them to be reliable professionals. They may be more likely to be flexible with you compared to unfamiliar, possibly demanding customers. 
      • DEFER TO A NATIONAL ASSOCIATION – NAHB and the National Association for the Remodeling Industry have pro-finder tools that will help you discover professionals in your area. Ensure that the contractors have experience in historical restoration and/or preservation.
      • DO YOUR OWN BACKGROUND CHECKS – High demand in a limited labor market is a breeding ground for less-than-satisfactory work from certain contractors, who may take advantage of the situation and be less reliable because they feel they have the freedom to do so. Also, many contractors are desperate for subcontractors and no longer requiring screenings, allowing this to fall to the homeowner. Make sure they are a licensed contractor, ask for proof of insurance, call references, and check out websites like court records to make sure no suits or complaints are filed against them. Particularly, make sure they do not have numerous claims against them regarding workmanship or breach of contract.
      • DON’T SETTLE – Although this checklist may seem daunting, don’t settle for sub-par work or possibly unsavory workers, despite all of the seeming barriers. 

IN SUMMARY: 

Unfortunately, even choosing a reputable contractor is not always the solution you would assume it would be and much onus is put on the homeowner or property owner as a result. Recently, I saw a job posting for a large, well-established contractor advertising 3 positions: construction site manager, field superintendent, and entry-level field assistant. The fact that they have the 3 levels of position available does not surprise me. What shocked me was the fact that they were advertising that they do NOT complete or require drug screens or background checks. I can tell from personal experience  that the number of applicants dramatically decreases when you add those qualifiers to the help-wanted ad. This concerns me not only from a safety standpoint, but also from a customer service angle. Someone who is abusing drugs will not be reliable (drug abuse is a huge problem in the construction industry). Just having a body show up is not the same as someone who is there to work (not to mention the liability implications). I am not opposed to second chances in regard to background checks; depending on the circumstances I would consider hiring someone with a blemish on their record, but I would want to know about it and evaluate it from a risk-assessment standpoint. As some contractors are lowering their standards to hire workers, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the labor force and the type of screening that is completed. 

In addition, you can hire for speed, cost, or quality choosing 2 of the 3 priorities, but the 3 cannot be accomplished on the same project. One question we are often asked is: what is the best way to find a reliable skilled contractor who won’t be too expensive? My answer is: It is hard to find an inexpensive skilled carpenter because the cost of labor goes up as skills are learned, and you are paying for the knowledge that has been previously acquired so they are not making expensive mistakes on your property. As a strategy, I would look at what work is unskilled/semi-skilled (it typically follows the 80/20 rule for window restoration, for example). With minimal training, you can either self-perform or pay a college student to do the unskilled work, bringing the skilled carpenter in for the repair work without having to pay a high hourly rate for the unskilled portion of the project. 

Ultimately, there is a lot required of you as a homeowner to find the right contractor and skilled laborers, but it will be worth it in the end.

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.

 

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement WindowsWood windows are an integral part of the innate energy efficiency of historical buildings. If we have learned anything from history it is that sometimes with all our modern advancements we do ourselves more harm than good.

Advancements in technology do not always produce better results, and construction technology isn’t exempt from that. Built in a time of readily available building materials and energy sources, modern building designs typically make poor use of both. Historical buildings were built when neither was in abundant supply and 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, to locations of balconies, to numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

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The results are astounding and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th & 19th Century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more energy efficient. (Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have also shown that buildings built in the 1950’s through the 1970’s were the biggest energy consumers of all.)

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The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency and, contrary to urban legend, 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

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have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

If you would like to read these studies, you can access them in the resources section of our website.

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 when you consider this embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

If the greenest building is the one already built, then the greenest window is the one already there. 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 reduces the use of additional energy when making replacement windows.

Which means that when you take all energy, energy expended on heating and cooling costs as well as the embodied energy, into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows – historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows
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Historically Sensitive Storm Windows

A Product Recommendation from Chuck

When storm windows first came into use to promote energy efficiency, they were installed on the outside of the house.  Not only did this take away from the architectural integrity of the house by impeding the view of major architectural features in windows, they also often created moisture on the outside of the window.

Fortunately for historic homeowners today, we have better options now.  And the option we recommend here at Historic Restorations are the interior storm windows by Allied Window.

historic preservation contractors, historic restorations contractors, historic building maintenance, historic building energy efficiency, storm windows for historic buildings, historically sensitive storm windowsAllied offers an “invisible” storm window installed on the inside of the window.  One of the major benefits of this storm window option is that it has a low profile that doesn’t limit visibility of a window’s historical architectural features.  Made from aluminum they can also be painted any color – send them a sample of the color of your trim and they’ll match it for a seamless integration into your window’s look.  They also have a good seal with an aluminum u-channel across the top, magnetic strips that the aluminum frame attaches too, and a rubber or brush seal that sits on the sill.

They do offer an exterior option with the same features of the interior.  Some people think this would be the better option, that an exterior storm window would help protect the wood in their window.  I don’t recommend this option – wood needs to breathe moisture and if there is a storm window installed on the exterior moisture will be trapped in the wood and promote rot.

We’ve had a good long-term experience with Allied.  We’ve tried other companies, much to our dismay, and Allied is the one that has provided a consistent service and product performance over time.

You can learn more about the products that Allied Windows offers by visiting their website at alliedwindows.com.

 

Increasing energy efficiency in historic buildings is always a hot topic. Here are our Top Six Tips for improving the energy efficiency in historic buildings:

 

Number 1

Have a Maintenance Appraisal Performed to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

When not properly maintained, there are many ways energy efficiency in historic buildings suffers – one of which are 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 leakage without damaging the historic aspects of your home.

 

Number 2

Schedule an Energy Audit to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

This could really be tie 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 evaluate current energy efficiency in your historic building and identify any deficiencies in both the envelope of your home and/or the mechanical systems.

 

Number 3

Implement a Maintenance Plan to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

After you have these two critical reports in your hand, set to work implementing them.  Hire a qualified contractor to eliminate any air infiltration, repair windows, and perform the other maintenance affecting your home’s energy efficiency.  Hire a qualified energy contractor to replace any mechanical systems they’ve found to be detrimental to your home’s energy efficiency.  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.  Maintenance is one of the most critical aspects of improving the energy efficiency of historic buildings.

 

Number 4

Change Your Habits to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

This can be the toughest one to do, but if we truly want to increase the energy efficiency of historic buildings then our habits have to change.  Some of these changes can be easy – install timers or motion detectors on lights, attach self-closing mechanisms on doors that might otherwise hag open, install fans and raise the thermostat temperature, use CFLs in your lights, unplug “vampire” devices that use electricity in standby mode or whenever they are plugged into an outlet (most chargers, DVD players, etc.).

 

Number 5

Install Insulation to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

Installing insulation in strategic places can be a cost-effective solution to energy loss – but make sure you are not installing the insulation in ineffective places and ways.  There is a lot of misinformation floating around out there of the best ways to insulate your house, and some of them can even permanently damage your home.  Have the historic contractor and energy consultant you hire work together to devise an insulation plan specifically tailored to increase the energy efficiency of your historic building that won’t compromise its architectural integrity.

 

Number 6

Use Shading Devices to Increase the Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings

There are several ways you can make use of shading devices in ways that are historically compatible to increase the energy efficiency of historic buildings.  Many historical homes made use of exterior awnings and if there is evidence your home may have originally had awnings you can consider installing them again.  Some homes may still have their awnings on them – if yours does, maintain it well for maximum benefit.  Trees, bushes, and other foliage are another good way to shade your home during the summer to increase energy efficiency if you have the space.  As is hanging drapes and curtains on any windows receiving direct sunlight  and keeping them closed during the sunlight hours.

 

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The Technical Preservation Service at the National Park Service offers Preservation Brief #3: Improving Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings that provides an in-depth look at this topic.  You can read the brief online at: nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/3-improve-energy-efficiency.htm

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