Paying Respect to the Past

Historic Restoration

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In construction, we often hear the terms “restoration,” “remodel,” and “renovation,” and while many use the words interchangeably, there are significant differences. Renovation and remodelling are essentially the same thing, and often apply to projects like bathrooms or kitchens, bringing them to a better state with new fixtures, cabinetry, tiles, and floors to improve functionality and appearance. Indeed, how many of us remember relatives with avocado green kitchens or pink sinks, toilets, and bathtubs?
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While both restoration and renovation require many of the same steps including planning and design, demolition, structural repair, engineering, plumbing, electrical, finishing and more, restoration refers to “the restoring of something such as buildings or furniture to an earlier and usually better condition.” Neither construction process is inexpensive, but restoration – as opposed to renovation – is a term more likely applied to historic structures, preservation, and bringing old buildings back to their former grandeur.

Unlike simply refreshing or renewing part of a house or other structure, restoration can become a very time-consuming and costly endeavour. Depending on the needs of the client, which can be a homeowner keen to see their residence brought back to an earlier time, a historic structure such as a local museum, or an old landmark, the work often requires multiple specialized craftspersons: knowing how to install four-by-eight foot sheets of drywall is one thing; being able to repair ornate plaster ceilings over a hundred years old is something else.

When historic renovation goes wrong
Truly an art form, the well-done restoration of a historic structure is seamless and invisible, much like the work of a seasoned artist repairing a damaged work of brilliance by Michelangelo; when done poorly, it stands out in all the wrong ways as being amateurish, ghastly, even sacrilegious. One of the most shocking examples of the latter in recent years is Matrera Castle, a thousand-year-old Spanish fortress that miraculously survived battles between Moors and Christians, blistering hot sun, blowing winds, and rain, yet fell victim to appallingly bad restoration.

When unveiled in 2016, the five-year project was immediately ridiculed by many, using descriptors such as “truly lamentable” and “absolutely terrible.” While there is no question the ancient structure – which was crumbling and eroded by fierce rain just a few years earlier – urgently needed work, the end result is simply bizarre. Instead of attempting to emulate the existing two-metre-thick grey walls and integrate the ancient and the modern, stark, massive plain white blocks were used to reinforce the decaying walls and redefine the size and shape of the original castle. Despite its strikingly odd, disharmonious appearance and countless complaints, the architect behind the historic restoration defended his work which still, somehow, won the popular vote in the architecture and preservation category at the global Architizer A+ awards, the largest awards program “focused on promoting and celebrating the year’s best architecture and products.”

Other restorations have not been as fortunate as the Matrera Castle. A year earlier, in 2015, the restoration of another old structure, the Ocakli Ada castle in Turkey, was unveiled. Crumbling for centuries, the 2,000-year-old tower not only looks brand-new – contrary to the entire purpose of historic renovation – but worse, had windows installed which make it look like beloved, eccentric cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, right down to the facial expression. The Internet (being the Internet) did not take kindly to the work on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. Believed to date back to Byzantine times, some said the castle looked like SpongeBob, while others compared its blocky, jagged design to something out of the popular video game Minecraft. Unsurprisingly, one of the project advisors didn’t find the SpongeBob comparison humorous, criticizing social media for making disparaging comments “not based on knowledge.”

Making restoration work
Structures need not be as old as Matrera Castle and the Ocakli Ada to require restoration work. Across the United States and Canada, historic landmarks often require extensive structural repair. Time, and the change of hundreds of seasons, brings with it damage to brick, wet or dry rot in wood, degraded slate or tile shingles, missing mortar, and other issues. Likewise, even the most solidly-constructed building is prone to seismic shifts, requiring stabilization of the foundation and walls to not only preserve integrity, but safety.

Fortunately, innovation over the years has resulted in materials better able to withstand age, including cement mixtures, Shotcrete (sand and Portland cement mixed pneumatically, with water mixed in just before use), epoxy resins to fill cracks and holes, mechanical anchors, polymer adhesives, and more.

In many cases, clients are extremely specific when it comes to the look of historic restorations. The Secretary of the Interior published Standards for Historic Preservation Projects with Guidelines for Applying the Standards back in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial. Republished several times, standards for historic preservation remain specific, including types of materials to be used, preserving historic character, avoiding potentially destructive techniques such as chemicals or sandblasting, and ensuring that, “Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.”

Much of the information published decades ago remains highly relevant today. To properly undertake any historic restoration requires a thorough understanding and appreciation of not only the architecture and construction methods of the present, but also of the past, along with materials used at the time the structure was built. Often requiring teams of designers, architects and engineers, large-scale works will consult conservation specialists, building historians, scientists, health and safety experts, and traditional building trades such as carpenters, plasterers, fine wood workers, and others to ensure that all elements of the past are improved, down to patina, paint color, light fixtures, wallpaper, flooring, and more.

With older buildings sometimes dangerously unstable, structural integrity must be addressed immediately. Wood and brick are both prone to decay after centuries of exposure. Some problems can be addressed with relative ease, like replacing loose bricks, while others such as efflorescence – a powdery residue on the brick surface – or spalling, missing pieces of brick facing, can be more difficult to repair, as the original brick-maker likely went out of business decades earlier. Other assessments require the skills of a detective, such as looking for water penetration at susceptible areas such as joists, movement caused by heat, and damaged caused by more modern-day issues, such as pollution.

With historic restoration, paying respect to the architects, builders, and tradesmen of the past is paramount. While we have modern-day power tools, yesteryear’s carpenters had to cut every single piece by hand; instead of air-powered nail guns, every wooden strip was nailed by hand, with thousands of nails required just for a single room. Instead of pouring concrete wall sections, all bricks were laboriously laid one at a time, without the benefit of computer-generated designs. Before embarking on a historic restoration, it is important to pay respect to those long-dead workers who first created the buildings hundreds of years ago for future generations.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 21, 2019, 7:43 PM EST