A Window on the Past

Patrick Moloney
The historic buildings of Washington, D.C. are a vibrant reminder of America’s past, inspiring residents and visitors alike.

Sensitive and timely conservation, renovation and maintenance allow heritage buildings to continue their useful life. In the US, some are included on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects considered worthy of preservation. Others are subject to state and/or local preservation laws, via their State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

Heritage projects bring specific challenges. First, the need to define the significance of the historic building. A clear understanding of why the building is important will provide a robust basis for decision making and allocation of resources.

A clear understanding of why the building is important will provide a robust basis for decision making...

The next step is determining the legal framework: which organizations have jurisdiction, and why this is so. Each jurisdiction has different standards and varying degrees of acceptable change. Close collaboration between the jurisdiction, owner and owner’s professional advisors influences a successful outcome.

The challenge is then to determine whether the heritage building can be rehabilitated efficiently and cost-effectively to meet current building code standards, while maintaining historical integrity. Health, safety and energy efficiency standards will need to be explored. Choosing between traditional and modern materials also needs careful consideration and it may be necessary to make sensitive changes to the fabric of the building.

The Jackson Art Center, Georgetown

Recently we have led two interesting historic renovations projects in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Jackson Art Center is an 1890s three-story former school, now providing studio space for a community of 40 artists. The Jefferson-style building is owned by District of Columbia Department of General Services (DGS), and the non-profit Art Center holds a long-term lease.

We began with a strategic facility assessment, evaluating the building’s condition. Owners often worry about what will be found during a heritage assessment and how this will impact their plans. However, a thorough understanding of the building will enable an informed plan and a proposal likely to satisfy the conservation officer. There are clear benefits from incorporating this information in the design, planning and asset management processes from the outset.

...a thorough understanding of the building will enable an informed plan and a proposal likely to satisfy the conservation officer.

A limited budget meant that the priority was to safeguard the historical integrity of the building envelope, address dilapidated windows, and upgrade fire detection and suppression systems to meet Code compliance standards. The works also had to meet the approval of the Old Georgetown Board, which undertakes design review of projects in the federal Old Georgetown historic district.

Advising on the best procurement strategy was key to the project’s success. The resulting design build contract required the contractor to have experience of Old Georgetown Board requirements, and to find the most appropriate structural solution. The windows were successfully removed, repaired and refurbished, and reinstalled. Some of the original window wood was replaced with an epoxy filler, respecting the original building design, and disintegrating mortar was replaced by a specialist mason.

Christ Church, Alexandria, VA

Listed on the NRHP and recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the colonial-style Christ Church was built from 1767 to 1773. George Washington and Robert E. Lee frequented the church, and Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill commemorated World Day of Prayer for Peace there in 1942. We were project managers for the church’s new mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Beginning in 2012, the project is transforming comfort levels for visitors to the church and its adjacent buildings, following a long period of HVAC outages and costly repairs.

Challenges include the multiple buildings and the nature of the space, with its crevices, ducts and tunnels. This makes it hard to gain access to carry out the works, compounded by the challenge of fragile lath and plaster.

Energy efficiency can be problematic in historic buildings, especially where the fabric is to remain undisturbed. However, these buildings were usually designed with sustainable features that responded to climate and site, and this may offset some of the energy inefficiencies. At Christ Church, it was decided not to replace all the historic windows, but to maximize building automated systems to control temperatures.

Community support

Both the above examples remained occupied during renovation, necessitating sensitive schedules that worked for the occupants. These projects also benefited from the sponsorship of their surrounding neighborhoods, demonstrating that historic renovations can add to a community’s development and quality of life. Typically, this cooperation helps with funding processes and with the smooth progress of construction works. Stakeholder management often extends to the local community, ensuring that their views and concerns are explored and accommodated.

Faithful+Gould provides integrated project and cost management strategies that deliver value for money while securing heritage assets for future generations. We have a varied heritage portfolio in both the Americas and the UK.