Selecting Historically Accurate Materials for Old Buildings Is Vital to Maintaining Their Integrity

The Historic Architectural Review Committee approved a polymer shake roof to replace the decaying cedar shakes on this Jacksonville, Ore., church. PHOTO: DaVinci RoofscapesThe Historic Architectural Review Committee approved a polymer shake roof to replace the decaying cedar shakes on this Jacksonville, Ore., church. PHOTO: DaVinci Roofscapes

The future may be where we are headed, but the past is what shapes the journey. Buildings tell a rich historical story—from early settlements in places, like St. Augustine, Fla.; to cities with well-maintained historic districts, such as Philadelphia and Boston; and the plethora of skillfully preserved buildings scattered throughout the country.

Before: The restoration and renovation of this early 20th century pool house provides public toilet facilities in support of outside activities at the Buena Vista Conference Center in New Castle, Del.

Before: The restoration and renovation of this early 20th
century pool house provides public toilet facilities in support of outside activities at the Buena Vista Conference Center in New Castle, Del. PHOTO: Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects PC

With age, unfortunately, comes dilapidation and the need for upgrades. Materials and construction techniques used in the 18th and 19th centuries may not be available today and, if they are, may not be a wise choice given the advancements in the construction industry since the building’s erection. Therefore, architects are challenged with how to maintain the historical integrity of a building while upgrading it, restoring it and breathing new life into it.

“As with any design project, the challenge lies in satisfying the functional program and budget constraints of the client with a solution that is aesthetically pleasing and code compliant,” explains Traci Luckenbill, AIA, with Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects PC, Wilmington, Del. Historic structures have the additional consideration of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, which are a nationally recognized tool for these buildings’ maintenance and preservation.

According to Luckenbill, most historic projects have common issues, such as the repair or replacement of deteriorated features, including roofing, windows, masonry and wood trim; modifications to improve accessibility; and installation or replacement of mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire-protection systems.

Selecting appropriate materials is vital to ensuring the structure maintains its historic integrity. Although the material itself is important, more vital is selecting a replacement that can meet the look and characteristics of the original.

After: The scope of the exterior renovation included replacement of the wood shingle roof, gutters and trim; installation of downspouts; brick repointing; refurbishing of the roof cupola; window replacement; and installation of a new interior and exterior concrete slab.  PHOTO: Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects PC

After: The scope
of the exterior renovation included replacement of the wood shingle roof, gutters and trim; installation of downspouts; brick repointing; refurbishing
of the roof cupola; window replacement; and installation of a new interior and exterior concrete slab.
PHOTO: Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects PC

Material Selection

Mark Miller, architect with Nederveld Associates, Grand Rapids, Mich., and former chair of the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission, says a general rule of thumb for replacing historic building materials is like for like. “If you are replacing wood windows, you have to replace them with wood. If you are replacing wood siding, you have to replace it with matching wood siding. You cannot re-side an existing house that has existing wood siding by putting vinyl siding on it,” he explains.

That said, there are isolated incidents where modern synthetics can be substituted for the original material. “It is not widespread and is always on a case-by-case basis,” Miller stresses, recalling his time on the Historic Preservation Commission.

About the Author

Elyse Cooper
Elyse Cooper has been writing about the design and construction industry for seven years, authoring articles for various nationally circulated trade publications.

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