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, noteworthy bungalow author

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 knowledgeable about heritage carpentry or the mysteries of knob and tube wiring. The easiest, quickest choice is to agree to have it torn out and replaced by contemporary models. After all, our contractors work in the idiom of the day, prizing speed of execution and invariably using the cheapest materials. But 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 itself 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 (as I would soon learn) 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: meaning exposed wood, a fireplace in a generous living room, some built-ins and maybe a window seat. Also, in my awareness, a house whose appearance beguiled the eye rather than flipping it the bird, as so many stucco boxes do. I didn’t know this often meant 'arts-and-crafts,' yet. But when I first saw the Savage bungalow at an open house in the week it came on the market, I knew it was for me before I had even made it through the front door. I was seduced by its distinctive cross-gabled fa├žade and its welcoming verandah with heavy timbers and high stone piers. Perched high on a rocky, treed site, it oozed curb appeal (even though there were then no curbs, this being original suburbia) and charm: a small, artistic house in a picturesque setting. The would-be gardener in me was also thoroughly taken with the possibilities of the site, which appeared inexhaustible.

Rotten trim boards and siding close to the ground need replacing nearly ninety years on

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

Stripped down, ready to receive the newly made bits: a scary point in restoration

Trim, skirting, water table and siding replaced, the new shingle roof finally going up

Of course, kitchen and bathroom had been redone on the cheap (Cubbon Home Centre quality), with some jarring faux effects: remember ‘cultured marble’ countertops, that unlovely amalgam of cement and glossy plastic finish? Shower tub (no shower in sight). Errors of judgment (wall-to-wall shag carpets in the rear of the house), crude alterations (wall ripped out, scars unhealed) and tacky repairs (plywood panel in the Craftsman front door) rounded out the accumulating sins casually visited on an innocent older 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 manifold affronts to its character, I saw an aesthetic whole worthy of restoring to an original glory. Throwing caution to the winds, I made an offer that evening.

Thirteen years later, the reno and new paint job are aging well - or so we thought at the time!

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 amiss. And they did! Optimistically, I hired a man who advertised himself as a ‘retired craftsman’ to fix a few things at the outset of my tenure, 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 on the job (like slathering grey woodstove cement all over loose firebox bricks and their decorative cheeks, for example).

Trouble in paradise: drooping soffit signals that some hidden 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 from the outset was that water had to be kept out of the building, so my second foray in renewal was getting the rotted gutters and missing downspouts at the rear of the house 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 from Vintage Woodworks. Watching a European carpenter put them up in what appeared to be a professional manner, I began to realize just how much finesse it takes to install custom historic 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 the premature replacement of some components, a half century sooner than should have been necessary.

Master carpenter Vern Krahn, equipped to make/place wooden components with precision

The (European-trained) carpenter who fixed my rear gutters also repaired a crude wall opening replacing a cooling cupboard screen with a cat door, affording easy access to the local tomcats. This required sourcing some of the elegant beveled siding that reinforces the Savage bungalow's classy horizontal lines. After he’d finished, it was 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 precise scale. This also gradually brought about 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 to that point was sketchy at best: framing for putting up a building, trim for finishing (in a word, the modern building culture). It turned out there’s a third form of carpentry that includes both of these and all the craft that typically goes missing in between – namely, an ability to exactly fashion replacement components and so replicate original work, a skill that's 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 getting rarer). And s/he ideally also has knowledge of historic building processes, so is a heritage carpenter to boot, which is even rarer still.

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

So began my reflections on the special ways of working with older buildings. Turns out it takes as much planning and investigating as it does doing. Fortunately I’d become Council Liaison to the municipal heritage advisory committee, which began my schooling in the mysteries of renewing and recycling older structures. This led in turn to formal designation of my own bungalow (heritage-listed already) in order to protect it against unilateral changes by other owners down the road. Designation is in effect a type of zoning that removes the homeowner's ability to willynilly alter the form of a heritage structure, without seeking approval from the heritage advirsory committee. This gives some assurance that what's being proposed is more likely to fit with what already exists. 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 some weeks, Vern worked his way along the facade repairing soffits and replacing gutters

One thing I discovered by being a member of the local 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. David not only visited the house to assess it, but also brought a photo album of his heritage projects. This in turn allowed me to review his work at several sites and so reassure me about his abilities. When the time finally came to tackle the exterior of the bungalow, David would have the ability to manufacture any and every wooden component required for restoration, from elegant drop siding to projecting water table. This afforded me confidence that he would be able to bring off the process to a high standard, which he very capably did!

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

Replacing 'like' with 'like' is what quality 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 natural temptation is to think that anyone who shingles can put up a cedar roof, but that’s a real mistake. Also, that a sawn shingle is a sawn shingle, which is absolutely not the case (like everything, there are grades). Again I unearthed someone seasoned in the craft with the help of the Victoria list and solicited a bid – his 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 - a 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 accumulated layers of old roofing off (there were three layers, including the original shingles), 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 masking an underlying structure are removed, such details easily disappear with them. Without the pictures, one might have rebuilt them without the riser blocks 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 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 clearly 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 the rewiring of older houses. This can do significant damage to interior heritage details, without really careful oversight. The alternative is a person willing to take more time and develop real creativity. I was most fortunate to find retired electrician Monty Gill, who was truly inventive at pulling wires without destroying walls, but this it turns out is a rarity.

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

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 (and heritage homes of all eras) require a much more discerning approach based on applying the right skills, along with quality materials (old growth fir) and a lot of care and patience in execution. And a worthy outcome requires really good communication as the project advances.

As Canadian 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 be fully consistent with it. To do that effectively, they have to be able to read the original language. This is also 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 may seem. Hurrying to get it all 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 advantages of 'the learning effect', which leads directly to mental indigestion. So learn from each step, because you’ll nearly always see things you missed afterwards, and that will affect how you approach whatever you tackle next. Find that heritage list of skilled artisans and review the actual working record of the names on it; try to 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 (like Bill Haley did). 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.