So you have an old house - now what?
A while back Greater Portland Landmarks invited five old house experts (Marc Bagala, Les Fossel, Julie Larry, Arron Sturgis, and Peter Taggart - bios after the conversation) to comment on how to prioritize your plan for any major work on your older or historic home. We asked them how to incorporate plans for sustainability and energy efficiency, how to stay on budget, how to prepare, and more. Here’s how they answered.
Peter Taggart, Marc Bagala, Les Fossel, and Julie Larry, will all be at the 2019 Old House Trade Show, March 30-31, where you can ask these experts more questions about your house. Get Tickets.
What is the first thing to consider?
Julie Larry: The first thing is to determine what are the important features of the house that should be maintained as part of the project, so that a home doesn’t lose its special character.
Peter Taggart: Research, to understand the history of the structure, the materials used, and the condition they’re in.
Arron Sturgis: A complete assessment of the home is the best way to increase appreciation and understanding of it. It provides the basis for knowing the condition, the materials within it, how it was built, and what changes were made over time.
Les Fossel: Ask yourself: do you have the resources (time, money, skills, energy and commitment) to take the project to completion? Don’t trust yourself on this, ask for experienced advice.
Marc Bagala: I want to be sensitive to the owners, their love for their home, and what they’re looking for. I try to design my work around that and their budget. My interview process is to ask a lot of questions.
How do you balance historic preservation with sustainability and energy efficiency?
Sturgis: Historic preservation is what sustainability is supposed to be about. Taking care of what you have is by far the most economical and effective way to become and remain sustainable. Energy efficiency is inherent in most historic buildings as the placement of the home within the landscape corresponds very well with the ability of the sun to warm its interior. Simple additions to older homes like storm windows and some forms of insulation and weather stripping will add greatly to energy efficiency without permanently changing the home or breaking the bank.
Taggart: Some of it, like air sealing and insulation, should be done carefully. Preservation and sustainability, at least from the building’s point of view, are very similar. Do the right thing and it will last. There are many good options for energy efficiency with regard to heating, cooling, and ventilation equipment that can be tailored to an older home. The challenging part is how to insulate and air seal the building to use less energy without doing present or future damage.
Larry: It’s true – preserving your historic home and its features is one of the greenest forms of construction! Maintaining and repairing your existing windows, doors, cabinetry, etc keeps construction waste out of our landfills and reduces the energy and natural resources needed to build replacement materials. Recent studies have shown that historic masonry buildings are more energy efficient than many modern buildings because of their thermal mass. However, many people are in an older home that’s drafty, and there are steps that can preserve the character of the house and improve energy efficiency, like attic insulation (it’s like a hat for your house!) and storm windows.
Fossel: There is generally not a conflict – if you know what you’re doing. The apparent conflict is the result of inexperience in making energy efficiency and sustainability work for early buildings. Make sure that you are hiring people who know what they are doing.
Bagala: In my business, I do the window part, and what really sells the restoration process is making an old window more efficient. Sometimes you don’t even need to restore the window but deal with deferred maintenance.
What are the most common problems that emerge when working on old homes?
Sturgis: I’ve found the most common problem is sourcing the appropriate materials for the repair work and determining a conscientious preservation carpentry crew to consult with and/or expedite the work. Understand that all of the original materials used to build your historic home are very much available. Timbers and high quality materials are nearby and should be sought out. Qualified preservation carpenters abound in Maine, but they must be properly vetted from those who care little for and have little knowledge of older, and more appropriate, means and methods for work on historic homes.
Taggart: Damp basements that lead to moisture damage and poor indoor air quality, leaky windows, and poor quality of previous work that compromised other parts of the home.
Larry: Unforeseen conditions. Opening up walls, floors, etc often exposes wiring issues, cracked plumbing, or rotten structural members. Sometimes you even uncover previous repairs that are actually increasing the decay of a building. We always advise clients to keep a contingency of 10% of their budget for problems that arise during construction. If nothing arises, they have additional money to upgrade materials or expand the scope of work.
Bagala: Simply that older homes are usually out of square and out of plumb and when you’re working on them you have to draw a balance – are we going to make the sash fit the jamb or rebuild the jamb. That depends on the budget too. Most of the time you have to live with things that are out of square or out of plumb. Sometimes a window has been leaking for a few years and you haven’t seen that it is until I take the window apart.
Fossel: Outdated systems, that must usually be addressed early in the restoration process, poor maintenance and – the desire to turn an old house into the house of your dreams. If you’ve chosen wisely, the reality of your house is much more interesting than your dreams.
What kinds of problems are preventable?
Sturgis: All problems are preventable. A willingness to learn about your home in collaboration with a professional preservation carpenter will make the problems that arise less formidable. Making wise materials choices will solve almost all of the 20th-century problems that are notorious in homes that have been renovated over time. Learning how the house was built and the methods used to do so will ensure that problems will be resolved for the long term.
Bagala: Yes, the more experience the preservation professional has, the fewer problems you’ll have because he or she will be prepared for things. Before I work on a window I tell the homeowner what I see. Sometimes the people who have been in the business the longest cost the most but can guide you in the best way. Problems aren’t really problems, they’re things you notice and you can take care of them.
Taggart: Rot is preventable with proper maintenance, and peeling paint, which is most often a result of moisture, can significantly be reduced. In general, fix small problems before they become big problems. Stop any on-going damage or deterioration. Fix the water leaks, plug the big air holes.
Larry: Most problems are preventable by regular maintenance. A small problem, especially a leak caused by a leaking pipe or missing roof shingle, can cause a long trail of problems if left unrepaired for a period of time.
Fossel: Most serious problems are preventable if you think before you act, (when you’re unsure – stop, take time to think, ask for help), accept that you will make some mistakes (welcome to the human race), be careful, learn from your mistakes.
What kind of planning is needed before starting the preservation of an older building? What is the ideal?
Sturgis: A working understanding of how your home was built and how changes to it have impacted it is the best way to begin planning for the preservation effort. Without that you will make mistakes that can be costly.
Taggart: It is always helpful and cost effective to have a set of existing plans of the home – sections showing the structure as well as floor plans and exterior elevations. It is important to set goals and priorities. And to understand the proper sequencing of work when tightening up a home to use less energy. For example, moisture management should almost always come before insulating and air sealing.
Larry: Before undertaking a preservation project, consult with a professional, either an architect or builder, who is experienced in historic preservation and can identify potential conflicts between your planning needs and your historic home. That can also help uncover issues if you are planning major removals of interior finishes or walls or planning a new addition. That way you would have some knowledge of hidden conditions before you start construction.
Bagala: I ask a ton of questions of my clients because I want to know what they want or need. It may be that they’re only going to do the first part of a project. Nobody likes budget creep - that’s where the experienced professional comes in. I have a focused business, I only do windows. I do have wording in my contract that says if I find unforeseen conditions, I’ll go back to the owners to discuss the issues. People love a solid budget.
Fossel: And don’t expect to plan everything in advance. Create a broad outline of what you are going to do and the time it will take. Include everyone who will be living in the house in the planning process. Try to go forward only when you reach a consensus. Opportunities and challenges will appear as the project goes forward. Hold back part of your resources to address such unexpected events.
What kinds of preservation efforts need to be done all at once? How would a homeowner develop a plan? What can be done on a 10-year plan?
Sturgis: Any and all work can be phased over time. Some work will be logical to do at the same time, and all phases of work should strive to minimize redundancy. Roof work to stop water penetration is always the first priority. A conditions assessment will prioritize work over time and provide budget parameters from which you can plan.
Bagala: People should understand they can do things in stages. If they have 20 windows but can only do five, that’s a conversation that we have. Unless there’s some visible damage from moisture or water they’ll be fine until we can get to them in future years. There are some short term things you can do to button them up till next year, save some energy, get some stopgaps going until you can get to full restoration and energy savings. Or we can put stopgaps on all the windows and just do full restoration on two.
Larry: Often historic homes need updates to their infrastructure; these items are not glamorous, but they’re important and costly. Even when a homeowner is tackling a small project in a small area, they need to think about the impact on the house’s bigger systems and be prepared for ‘scope creep’. A preservation professional can look at your house’s overall condition and help establish a prioritized list of projects. This is especially helpful if budgets do not permit completing work all at once. Most preservation projects can be completed over a period of time, but it’s important to have a secure exterior envelope and a safe interior.
Fossel: Dangerous conditions need to be addressed at once. Everything else can wait for a plan to be put in place.
What can homeowners do when they must live in the building that is being worked on?
Sturgis: Homeowners can always live and work in their buildings. Temporary protection of work areas is easy to attain and maintain during the work. Preservation work on your home is an invasion on your life whether you hire out or do the work yourselves. Careful planning will decrease this interrupted time and your understanding of the project will relieve your stress. Owner participation can really save time and money and provide ownership for the project. Your involvement will make the interruption of your life worthwhile and even fun.
Taggart: Afternoon tea and biscuits for the crew is always nice! There are good dust control barriers that can be set up to isolate work areas from living areas. Most old homes have lead paint, so everyone should be aware of best lead-safe practices. Be prepared for some surprises when opening up walls, floors, or roofs.
Bagala: With windows, the most important part is to hire qualified people who have experience dealing with lead paint. It’s well worth it to keep your family healthy. While we’re doing the windows I’ll have the homeowner vacate for that day. Having experienced and qualified people is well worth the extra money to get you through living there while the work is going on.
Larry: Living in a construction zone is stressful! Be flexible and choose your contractor wisely! You are going to spend a lot of time with your contractor and their team, so be sure you establish good communications with your general contractor at the beginning of a project.
Fossel: Separate the restoration work from the part of the house you live in. If you have children, make sure they are living in safe conditions. Be sure your code enforcement officer is okay with living in a construction project. Don’t trap yourselves.
When budgets are limited, how should homeowners prioritize? What is the first thing that must be done?
Sturgis: Owner participation is a must. That can save money and increase awareness of the overall processes involved in preservation. The owner must, however, realize their own limitations and collaborate with professional preservation carpenters as needed to ensure cost savings and efficiency. The assessment of conditions is the first step, and from there the prioritization of work, budget, and time frame can be determined.
Taggart: Get an energy and home performance audit to help set priorities. Keep up with regular maintenance items. But don’t just focus on one part until understanding the whole picture – look at the building as a whole system.
Bagala: If you see damage you need to tend to that because it’s going to get worse every year. Fossel: It takes time, money, and expertise to restore a house. You can sometimes substitute one for the other (time for money), but make sure that you have enough of all three (with a cushion) to complete your project. I think the priorities go like this: health and safety, structural issues, systems (plumbing, heating, electrical), insulation, kitchens and baths, restoration of the interior (one room at a time), then exterior.
What advice would you give regarding maintaining an older home?
Sturgis: Maintenance is the cheapest form of preservation. Knowing how the house was built, how changes were made, and knowing how you will proceed with upkeep is both fun and rewarding. Know that you can do something that will be important for your home. Lack of knowledge results in paralysis.
Bagala: Older home, newer home, every home needs maintenance. Every time you defer maintenance it costs more down the road. Storm windows are a good thing because they add insulation value, protect the fabric of the building from the elements, and they’re reversible. Slowly but surely the word is getting out that newer is not necessarily better, that old wood is better and that the simplest thing you can do to make your old window more energy efficient is to add a storm. The new windows are not standing the test of time like old windows have. And paint is important because it protects everything.
Taggart: Clean your gutters, keep up with painting and caulking, use storm windows, and keep bushes and trees away from the building.
Larry: Develop a to-do list of maintenance projects that should be done every spring and fall. Inspect the exterior of your house for damage after wind, rain, or even snowstorms.
Meet the Experts
Marc Bagala is owner and president of Bagala Window Works. He began preservation work 30 years ago, learning to make windows and doors energy efficient with Accurate Metal Interlocking Weatherstrip. Expanding on this nearly-lost trade, he learned everything he could about architectural preservation and historic windows and doors. He also teaches classes and workshops.
Les Fossel is owner of Restoration Resources, Alna, Maine. Fossel’s company provides restoration and historic preservation services for any structure, with a specialty in 18th- and early 19th century buildings. In addition to restoration, renovation, remodeling, repairing and fix-ups, Fossel’s company provides old house inspections, consulting, education, energy audits, and weatherization.
Julie Larry is Landmarks’ own Directory of Advocacy was a founding partner of ttl-architects, an architecture and historic preservation firm dedicated to “preserving our cultural heritage by investigating the language of the past to inform a modern architectural vision.“
Arron Sturgis created Preservation Timber Framing In 1992, specializing in the structural repair of historic timber-framed buildings. Sturgis served two terms as the president of Maine Preservation, a nonprofit preservation advocacy group dedicated to preserving Maine’s heritage and built environment.
Peter Taggart founded Taggart Construction, a green building firm specializing in sustainable construction, renovation, remodeling and more, in residential and commercial projects. The firm creates new construction and specializes in historic preservation as well, always with attention to energy efficiency, sustainability, and the integrity of the building envelope.