How Can I Maintain the Exterior of an Historic Building?

From “Preservation Brief 47: Maintaining the Exterior of Small and Medium Size Historic Buildings” by Sharon C. Park, FAIA.

Maintenance is the most important preservation treatment for extending the life of a historic property. It is also the most cost effective. Understanding the construction techniques of the original builders and the performance qualities of older building materials, using traditional maintenance and repair methods, and selecting in-kind materials where replacements are needed will help preserve the building and its historic character.

Over time, the cost of maintenance is substantially less than the replacement of deteriorated historic features and involves considerably less disruption. Stopping decay before it is widespread helps keep the scale and complexity of work manageable for the owner.

Maintenance can be managed in small distinct components, coordinated with other work, and scheduled over many years to ensure that materials are properly cared for and their life span maximized. A written maintenance plan is the most effective way to organize, schedule, and guide the work necessary to properly care for a historic building. The maintenance plan should include a description of the materials and methods required for each task, as well as a schedule for work required for maintenance of different building materials and components.

Historic house journals, maintenance guides for older buildings, preservation consultants, and preservation maintenance firms can assist with writing appropriate procedures for specific properties. Priorities should be established for intervening when unexpected damage occurs such as from broken water pipes or high winds.

Worker safety should always be paramount. When work is beyond the capabilities of in-house personnel and must be contracted, special efforts should be made to ensure that a contractor is both experienced in working with historic buildings and utilizes appropriate preservation treatments (see sidebar).

Original building features and examples of special craftsmanship should be afforded extra care. The patina or aging of historic materials is often part of the charm and character of historic buildings. In such cases, maintenance should avoid attempts to make finishes look new by over-cleaning or cladding existing materials. As with any product that has the potential to harm historic materials, the selection of a cleaning procedure should always involve testing in a discreet location on the building to ensure that it will not abrade, fade, streak, or otherwise damage the substrate.

Understanding how building materials and construction details function will help avoid treatments that are made in an attempt to simplify maintenance but which may also result in long-term damage. It is enticing to read about “maintenance free” products and systems, particularly waterproof sealers, rubberized paints, and synthetic siding, but there is no such thing as maintenance free when it comes to caring for historic buildings. Some approaches that initially seem to reduce maintenance requirements may over time actually accelerate deterioration.

Monitoring, inspections, and maintenance should all be undertaken with safety in mind. Besides normal safety procedures, it is important to be cognizant of health issues more commonly encountered with older buildings, such as lead-based paint, asbestos, and bird droppings, and to know when it is necessary to seek professional services.

A well-maintained property is a more valuable property and one that will survive as a legacy for generations to come.


Contracting Maintenance and Repair Work

Many contractors are very proficient in using modern construction methods and materials; however, they may not have the experience or skill required to carry out maintenance on historic buildings. The following are tips to use when selecting a contractor to work on your historic building:

  1. Become familiar with work done on similar historic properties in your area so that you can obtain names of possible preservation contractors.
  2. Be as specific as possible in defining the scope of work you expect to undertake.
  3. Ask potential contractors for multiple references (three to five) and visit previous work sites. Contact the building owner or manager and ask how the job proceeded; if the same work crew was retained from start to finish; if the workers were of a consistent skill level; whether the project was completed in a reasonable time; and whether the person would use the contractor again.
  4. Be familiar with the preservation context of the work to be undertaken. Use the written procedures in your maintenance plan to help define the scope of work in accordance with preservation standards and guidelines. Always request that the gentlest method possible be used. Use a preservation consultant if necessary to ensure that the work is performed in an appropriate manner.
  5. Request in the contract proposal a detailed cost estimate that clearly defines the work to be executed, establishes the precautions that will be used to protect adjoining materials, and lists specific qualified subcontractors, if any, to be used.

Insure that the contractor has all necessary business licenses and carries worker

2017-04-21T01:01:10+00:00 December 29th, 2015|Categories: Ask an Expert|