Quarterly Question: What key factors must be considered before and during construction on a historic building?

The South is well-known for its historic buildings and preserving them is vital to understanding our heritage. The historic renovation and restoration of buildings offers an opportunity to restore purpose to spaces through the introduction of modern technology and amenities. It also ensures the preservation of buildings and their future conservation. 

However, historic renovation projects often involve unique considerations and approaches that differ from those in modern buildings. For example, will the historic building support modern amenities? Are there municipality rules to consider? How can safety and performance be enhanced while maintaining the building’s original and unique character?

We spoke with Senior Superintendent Jared Howell about his experience working on historic buildings and what owners should know about construction on these types of projects once preservation approvals are granted and design development is complete. 

Tell us about BELL’s experience working on historic building projects. 

We’re proud of the many historic buildings we’ve worked on in Nashville, Tenn. and beyond. The Holston House, a premiere, award-winning boutique hotel was originally built in 1929, and its prior uses include war housing and apartments. The nearly century-old building required the demolition of interior spaces to facilitate updates and modernization, but we worked carefully to sustain its 1920s art-deco charm. We also converted an early 1900s hosiery factory into Nashville’s Soho House hotel. The pre-war sock factory now holds 47 guest rooms.

BELL field personnel are true builders and understand the complications of updating existing structures, including meeting modern building codes and matching and preserving existing materials.  

What’s the contractor’s process prior to beginning construction on a historic building? 

Careful surveying is important to ensure a sound structure, especially in an aging building. Enlisting masons with historic masonry experience is extremely beneficial. Historic masonry usually refers to brick, stone, or terra cotta. Masons working on historic renovations must understand the specific traits indicative of each historic masonry material in terms of strength, density, and composition.

Preserving historic significance also involves working closely with designers. Some designers may even bring in a conservator to ensure accuracy.

In what ways does the contractor’s approach differ from its approach to a new building? 

New builds and modern renovations of similar type typically follow a common schedule. Therefore, scheduling can be somewhat templated. However, with historic renovations, the job is essentially working backwards as you peel back the building’s layers. This requires creating a unique and project-specific schedule.

How do safety precautions differ between historic projects vs. new builds or renovations to modern buildings? 

Safety changes much more rapidly during historic renovations than with new builds. Older buildings are more likely to have structural problems and deteriorating materials. Hazardous waste, including mold and asbestos, also plagues many historic structures. These factors increase the risk of safety hazards and make comprehensive safety programs all the more important.

Have questions about construction on historic buildings? Please contact us.