Archive for August, 2017

6 Tips to Document Historic Details Before They Disappear from the National Trust

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By:Meghan White, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Toolkit Documenting Details Building Demolition

photo by:Everyman Films LTD/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Once this building is demolished, it can never be rebuilt in the same way, but an accurate record of historic details can help preserve the structure’s legacy.

There are hundreds of reasons to document the details of your historic house or property. I won’t list all of them here, but I will explain why it’s important to have a record.

Any career preservationist (and many amateurs) can relate to the frustration of realizing even one photograph of an altered structure could prove invaluable to a modern-day restoration or research project.

For those of us who love historic buildings and might be working on a rehabilitation, for example, it’s important to document what you see before the structure begins to change. Once you alter physical aspects of a structure, you can never return it to what it was.

In the end, maintaining a record of your property means that no matter what happens in the future, you and others will be able to know precisely what was once there.

Below are six simple ways to create that invaluable record and ensure the legacy of the historic structure that matters to you.

1. Prepare yourself with questions.

Think to yourself, “What could be lost? What are the materials that make up this structure? Where are the visible signs of craftsmanship? What elements are important to remember?”

If you train your mind to consider what details you need to capture on paper, computer, or through photography, it will be easier for you to know the right direction to take and not feel overwhelmed. Also think of the original craftsman who built the structure in question—what would they want us to remember if their work disappeared?

2. Think worst-case scenario.

A seasoned preservationist once asked me: “If the structure and all evidence of it burned in a fire tonight, would someone be able to reconstruct it based on your documentation?”

Though the idea that a building’s reconstruction could rely entirely on my documentation skills made me uneasy, I understood what she was saying. If you feel confident a structure will stand for eternity, or that if disaster struck someone else could save the day, a lot of important historic features and architectural elements could be gone for good. This worst-case mindset will encourage you to leave no details undocumented in case disaster does strike.

3. Learn how to take architectural photos.

Photography is one of the first skills a preservationist should learn. Don’t worry if your photo skills don’t typically reach beyond the pressing of your iPhone’s touch screen. Rather than worrying about taking award-worthy photos, focus instead on what you should capture.

First, you want to start with the big picture. If you’re photographing a staircase that has become too unstable and cannot be saved, you would begin taking shots of as much of the staircase as you can get in the frame. Make sure it’s clear where the staircase is in relation to the rest of the property. Next, take detail shots of the balusters, risers, and any ornamentation. Try to capture details head on—shooting from an angle or trying to be artsy warps perspective and can lead to a false interpretation.

Toolkit Documenting Details Measuring Details with a Ruler

photo by:Gatanass/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

Recording exact measurements of historic details can be extremely helpful to those embarking on future projects.

4. Write it down.

If you prefer using a pen over a lens, record as much as you can from what you observe. Architectural historians, engineers, and architects rely on written descriptions more than you may think.

For example, let’s say the historic theater in your town was destroyed in a flood and is about to be stripped and rebuilt. Observing what you can now could help with the rehabilitation, especially if there are no longer original blueprints or other helpful documentation to rely on.

As with photography, start big. If you are familiar with architectural terms, that’s great—otherwise, be as descriptive as you can when documenting interior configuration, the appearance of the stage and its construction materials, the floor materials, the appearance of the walls, etc. Even describing something intangible like the atmosphere and the lighting of a place can be helpful.

5. Test your math skills.

When documenting architectural features that are at risk, don’t underestimate the usefulness of simple addition.

Grab a rigid ruler (soft ones stretch out over time, so measurements won’t be accurate), measure what might not be rehabilitated or reconstructed, and then write it down. Consider sketching what you are measuring, too. You can use the sketches to identify exactly what elements your measurements refer to for people who may use your notes in the future.

If, for example, you’re turning your carriage house or stable into a garage, measure the length and width of the carriage house interior. If divisions or stall partitions no longer exist, see if you can find holes in the ground or markings on the wall that could indicate where they used to be. Measure the length and width of those, too, as well as the height for any markings on the walls. You can be a real go-getter and record using Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) standards, but it’s okay to measure however you feel comfortable.

6. Trust your gut.

Things you may believe to be insignificant usually won’t be. If they are—no harm done! If you think that maybe, possibly, you should photograph that odd nick on the brick wall of your historic kitchen, don’t think twice.

Saving buildings sometimes doesn’t happen in the literal sense. If a building is set to be demolished, or is beyond repair already, documenting what you can preserves a unique record of that structure that could prove entirely useful to someone 50 years down the road.

Should You DIY or Hire a Pro for your Historic Reno?

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Whatever approach you take, the decision involves knowing how much time and money you want to spend, what your interests are, and what skills you’re looking to hire someone for. This toolkit explains different types of professionals who can help you, plus important things to consider before hiring them.

1. Contracting with a historical researcher. A historical researcher typically provides the homeowner with a written report detailing the history and architecture of the house, along with biographical sketches of former owners or inhabitants. Researchers can also complete nomination forms to list properties in the National or state register or local list of historic buildings.

2. Choosing an architect. Architects can inspect the house to determine existing conditions; develop an architectural program to determine best uses for existing rooms; provide conceptual drawings; assist homeowners with obtaining and reviewing bids from contractors; and develop a construction schedule and oversee work.

Tip: To find an architect qualified for your project, contact your local or state chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). You can also reach out to your state historic preservation office (SHPO). Note: Neither the AIA nor the SHPO guarantees or endorses the work of the architects on the list.

blog_photo_architectural plans
Set of architectural plans.

3. Selecting an interior designer. An interior designer specializes in interior finishes, including wall, floor, and ceiling surfaces, fixtures such as lighting, kitchen, and bathroom, and furnishings.

4. Deciding on a landscape architect or designer. A landscape architect or designer can analyze the existing landscape, design one that is appropriate to your house, and prepare drawings and specifications for its restoration or rehabilitation. They can also help obtain bids from landscape contractors and oversee the work.

Tip: Check your state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects(ASLA), as well as your SHPO. As with architects, no endorsement is given or implied.

5. Choosing a general contractor. A general contractor provides the construction services required to actually restore or rehabilitate your house. Typically, services include securing and providing materials, labor, and equipment, and managing subcontractors and craftspeople. General contractors also usually obtain building and other permits required by the local government.

Tip: The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) can provide you with a list of general contractors who have listed their expertise in residential remodeling. Like the others, NAHB does not endorse or guarantee the work of the contractors on the list.

6. Considering a design/build firm. When architects and contractors join together, they become a design/build firm, offering a full range of design and contracting services. On one hand, hiring a design/build firm instead of an architect and contractor separately may save you time and possibly money. On the other hand, you will not have the benefit of an independent architect acting on your behalf to oversee construction and make sure the contractor is doing work properly.

7. Understanding your subcontractors. Subcontractors provide specialized building trades or services, such as finished carpentry, plastering, masonry work, and plumbing. The general contractor is usually responsible for selecting the subcontractors, coordinating their work, ensuring that it is done correctly, and paying them.

blog_photo_stained glass craftsman
Stained glass craftsman demonstrating his skill.

8. Hiring appropriate craftspeople. Craftspeople provide specific crafts or services not typically used in new construction, such as repairing or installing stained glass or applying gold leaf to surfaces.


9. Finding qualified professionals. Reference Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Preservation Resource Network or contact the NC State Historic Preservation Office or other trade associations. These lists are reference tools and do not necessarily constitute an endorsement or guarantee for contractors’ work. Ask family, friends, and neighbors for recommendations as well, then interview those you’re considering hiring — as well as their former clients — and visit completed projects.  Ultimately, select professionals on the basis of the quality of their work, how well you like their work, and how well you think you can work with them.

10. Talk with former clients of potential professionals you are considering hiring. If possible, visit completed projects. Some questions you can ask include:

  • Did the professional listen to the owner’s ideas and explain how they could be incorporated into the design, or why they should not be?
  • Did the professional help define a reasonable project to fit your budget?
  • Was the design sensitive to the historic and architectural character of the house?
  • Was the design produced on schedule and for the agreed-upon fee? If not, were the changes reasonable?
With the exclusion of the reference to HWF’s PRN, this article was written by Emily Potter and published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.