Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sourcing Craft Skills For Heritage Restoration

“Hiring someone else to do things has its own set of problems. For one thing, most contractors are set in their ways, and a lot of them don’t understand old houses. And even people in the trades have bought into the ‘no-maintenance’ crap to some extent, and like many people they are motivated by money, so the guy you hire to clean the gutters will try to talk you into replacing them instead (more money for him) or whoever you call to fix the windows will try to sell you replacement windows (also more money for them.) And people just seem to have gotten out of the habit of fixing things. …In either case, it’s important to educate yourself, whether you plan to do any work yourself or not. Armed with information about the way things used to be done, or ought to be done, in the house will be useful when you are told “nobody does that any more” or “nobody makes those now- you need to get X.” Jane Powell

Summer of 88: house and grounds as they appeared in the year of purchase

Many factors work against heritage homes keeping their original look and feeling, foremost a lack of awareness on the part of homeowners and poor craft skills among contractors. Few of us today are even handy, let alone know about heritage carpentry or the mysteries of knob and tube wiring. Our contractors work in the idiom of the day, invariably using the cheapest materials. You simply can’t keep faith with the details of an older house if your starting point is current materials and skills. On bungalows, accurate proportioning and appropriate materials largely constitute the details.

When I bought the Hubert Savage bungalow back in 1988, I had no inkling there were special skills needed to repair something in the spirit of original work. All I knew was that the house had character, inside and out, and that I was determined to keep it intact. This was a brave choice, as it always is, somewhat foolhardy and definitely not for the faint of heart! My choice of a 75-year-old wooden house positioned me to learn the hard way about the modern building culture’s disregard for the special needs of older houses. Fortunately for mine, I didn’t get too far down that path before correcting course – but it could so easily have been otherwise!

1999: 11 years on, exterior repair is finally under way

I’d been seeking a house with a pedigree, what’s called ‘a character home’ in local parlance: exposed wood, a fireplace in a generous living room, some built-ins and a window seat. Also, a house whose appearance beguiled the eye rather than flipping it the bird, as stucco boxes do. I didn’t know this often meant “arts-and-crafts” yet. But when I saw the Savage bungalow at an open house during its first week on the market, I knew it was for me before I even got through the front door. I was seduced by its distinctive cross-gabled façade and its welcoming verandah set on timbers and stone piers. Perched high on a rocky, treed site, it oozed curb appeal (even though there were no curbs, this being suburbia) and charm: a small, artistic house in a picturesque setting.

Rotten trim boards and siding close to the ground require replacing after nearly ninety years

Touring the inside with a gaggle of potential buyers, I quickly noted some of the incongruous updating that had put me off in other character homes. Typically such ‘remuddlings’ vie blatantly with the original program, inducing feelings of pessimism about ever trying to put it right. If you find yourself doubting the money and effort it would take to undo some garrish decor, the message is that you aren’t actually sold on the underlying structure. In this case I felt strangely indifferent to the mistakes, cavalier even about putting them right.

Stripped down, ready for newly made pieces to be fitted in place: a scary point in restoration

Trim, skirting and siding boards replaced, the new shingle roof is finally going up

Of course, kitchen and bathroom had been redone on the cheap, with some jarring faux effects: remember ‘cultured marble’ countertops, that unlovely amalgam of cement and glossy plastic? Errors of judgment (wall-to-wall shag), crude alterations (wall ripped out) and tacky repairs (plywood panel in the Craftsman front door) rounded out the accumulating sins casually visited on an innocent house. And there was, of course, long-deferred maintenance inside and out, with ominous unknowns like a missing crawlspace door. I winced at these challenges but wasn’t put off, because the house had such great bones and so much of its original detailing was intact. Despite the affronts to character, I saw an aesthetic whole worthy of restoring to its original glory. Throwing caution to the winds, I made an offer that evening. 

2012: 13 years later, the reno and paint job are aging well - or so we thought!

Lack of experience with older buildings – really, with buildings of any kind – meant I hadn’t a clue what I was getting into, almost guaranteeing that initial efforts would go wrong. And they did! Optimistically, I hired a man who styled himself a ‘retired craftsman’ to fix a few things at the outset, like the crumbling firebox in the living room. He turned out to be a complete imposter, and I had to send him away and then quickly try to undo the impressive damage he’d wreaked in just a few hours (like slathering grey woodstove cement all over loose firebox bricks and their decorative cheeks, for example).

Trouble in paradise: a drooping soffit signals that behind-the-scenes rot was missed on the first foray

A sinking feeling accompanies this new journey into the unknown - it's worse than imagined!

One thing I did understand, intuitively, was that water had to be kept out of the building, so my next foray in renewal was getting the rotted gutters and missing downspouts fixed before the rainy season. I resolved to use more-qualified personel this time. Rejecting metal replacements – a latent purist from the start! – I opted instead to source clear cedar guttering. Watching a European carpenter put them up in what appeared a professional manner, I began to realize just how much finesse it takes to install custom components. It would turn out though, a few years on, that even this bona fide carpenter lacked some of the finer points of installing wooden guttering (like treating the inside with pitch to protect it from rot, and aligning angles perfectly to avoid standing water). These failings would lead slowly but surely to their premature replacement, a half century sooner than should have been necessary.

Enter master carpenter Vern Krahn, equipped to make and place wooden components with precision

This carpenter also repaired a crude wall opening excavated for a cat door, affording easy access to the local tomcats. This required sourcing some of the elegant beveled siding that gives this bungalow its classy horizontal lines. After he’d finished, it became apparent that the new pieces were of marginally smaller dimension than the originals, a fact that tended to broadcast the repair rather than blending it seamlessly into the background. This misstep forced further learning on my part: about the necessity of replacing like with like, and the fact that like usually isn’t available off the shelf, and finally by extension, that it was necessary to find the skillset that enables like to be custom-made to exact scale. This also brought the realization that all assumptions had to be clarified carefully in advance of any work occurring.

Vern fits clear fir replacements onto existing barge boards: precise work in a challenging location

My awareness of carpentry was sketchy at best: framing for putting up a building, trim for finishing (= modern building culture). It turned out there’s a third form that includes both of these and all the craft that goes missing in between – namely, an ability to exactly fashion components and so replicate original work, a skill sometimes referred to as ‘joinery’. For upkeep and restoration of older wooden buildings, you simply must have a carpenter with architectural joinery skills, and that’s a very rare beast. And s/he ideally also has knowledge of historic building processes, so is a heritage carpenter to boot, which is rarer still.

Re-restored at last: seamless repair ready for the paint that will disappear the signs of intervention

So began my reflections on the special ways of working with older buildings. It takes as much planning and investigating as it does doing. Fortunately I’d joined the municipal heritage committee, which began my schooling in the mysteries of renewing and recycling older structures. This led me in turn to formally designate my own bungalow (heritage-listed already) in order to protect against unilateral changes by other owners down the road. Designation is a type of zoning that removes the owner's ability to alter the form of a heritage structure without applying to the heritage committee for approval. Taking this step fortified my personal resolve to gather the knowledge needed to repair and restore with true fidelity to the art expressed in the original. 

Over a number of weeks, Vern worked his way along the facade repairing soffits and replacing gutters

One thing I discovered by being on the heritage committee was that the City of Victoria maintained a list of craftspeople qualified to work on restoration projects. This proved really helpful, as it led me to a seasoned master carpenter named David Helland who provided me with a photo album of his heritage projects. I was then able to review his work at several sites and confirm his abilities. When the time finally came to tackle the exterior of the bungalow, David had the ability to manufacture any and every wooden component required for restoration. 

Six gable tips and the runs of guttering around them all needed interventions

Replacing 'like' with 'like' is what restoration is all about

Of course, there are skills other than joinery that go into the mix for certain specialized components, like putting up a new cedar shingle roof. The temptation is to think that anyone who shingles can put up a cedar roof, but that’s a real mistake. And, that a sawn shingle is a sawn shingle, which is not the case. Again I unearthed someone seasoned in the craft with the help of the list and solicited a bid – he wasn’t the lowest by a long shot, but opting for low bid usually leads straight to a corner-cutting contractor and a cheap and nasty job! 

A U-shaped run of wood guttering being readied for placement

Talk about a difficult worksite - one drawback of picturesque siting

Master roofer Bill Haley brought his lifetime of experience to the project and did an ace job of overseeing the return of the roof to its original look. Bill had the presence of mind to photograph certain fine details before stripping the three old roofs off, gaining a precise record of things like the tiny lift blocks at the bargeboard ends, for example. This proved invaluable, because when three layers of roofing weighing down on the structure are removed, such details easily disappear with them. Without the pictures, one might have rebuilt without these and lost the slightly oriental shift they impart to the Tudor look – a distinctive regional arts-and-crafts touch consistent with west coast bungalow design. 

Tweaking the job: a slightly warped bargeboard is coaxed back into vertical position using a clamp

A similar find was needed in order to deal with chimney repairs, and later with rebuilding of the firebox (the fireplace’s inner hearth). There were spalling bricks (chunks of the face popping off), some inconsistent repointing and brick replacing, and as is often the case, earlier repairs had come at the expense of chimney details, in the form of corbelling that was simply removed (quite likely because it costs more and takes more skill to step brickwork decoratively). Fortunately my second master carpenter, Vern Krahn, referred me to Udo Heineman, a master mason, who even approaching eighty years of age was able to take the chimney down to the roofline and then rebuild it to its original glory, working solo!

Chimney details restored after the roof has been replaced

There are challenges particular to specific trades that at times may seem insurmountable. Like electricians, who have a tendency to rip open wall surfaces to facilitate wiring and rewiring of houses. This can do significant damage to heritage details without really careful oversight. The alternative is a person willing to take more time and develop real creativity. I was fortunate to find retired electrician Monty Gill, who was truly inventive at pulling wires without destroying walls, but this is a rarity.

Good restoration entails protecting all original details, duplicating precisely and only as required

I could go on and on about the process and skills that go into good restoration work. The point however is that it’s not anything like regular construction, or renovating a house where conserving the original look, footprint and floorplan don’t figure into the equation. Bungalows require a much more discerning approach based on applying the right skills, along with quality materials and a lot of care and patience in execution. And a worthy outcome requires really good communication as the project advances.

As architectural critic Witold Rybczynksi says, every building speaks a distinct language, so those who work on it need to master that language in order that what they repair is consistent with it. This is the discipline in which careful work roots any innovation that extends the original structure.

Here are some simple rules that increase the likelihood of attaining compatible results:  Resist the temptation to do it all at once, as desirable as that outcome seems; hurrying to get it done leads to mistakes you’ll come to regret, and to less than optimal outcomes; biting off more than you can chew deprives you of the learning effect and leads directly to indigestion. Learn from each step, because you’ll see things you missed afterwards, and that will affect how you approach what you tackle next. Find that heritage list of skilled artisans and review the actual working record of the names on it; then pick someone who cares about heritage, and understands that your building’s restoration matters to you and to the broader community.

Read about successful projects and look at any you have access to. Study the details of your own place and document them with photographs. Recognize that the homeowner is in fact the general contractor, and that a general contractor oversees the entire process and assures that each step happens in the proper sequence. There is much to be gained from the choices that are made in the course of the job - but if you aren't around for them, they'll be made by others and the results may not be optimal. Put more positively, if you stay with the job as it progresses, you'll get to shape it in motion. If you aren't paying attention to it, you need to have a great deal of confidence in the person who is!

My experience over the past twenty-five years has been a good one. Though some may have marveled at my ability to tolerate an incomplete state of affairs, the waiting and delay have more often than not led to better outcomes as projects are more thoughtfully worked through in advance of execution. Patience is certainly an important ingredient. Openness to learning is another. This is a big step for people who are not raised to be skilled, or even competent, in working with wood and other housing materials. It involves recovery of a relationship to building and the culture of building, and along the way, if we are open to growth and a journey, we may surprise ourselves with the quality of work we can achieve.

1 comment:

  1. “…water had to be kept out of the building…” – This is one of things that you shouldn’t overlook when renovating an old house. And when you say keeping out the water from the building, it does not only mean gutters and downspouts. You must not also forget the flashing. Flashing is an important part of the roof and gutters in keeping the rainwater straight to the gutter down to the downspouts. Anyway, you did a great job in restoring this beautiful colonial home. You were able to protect the original details. Kudos! @ Royal Roofing & Siding, Inc.