A Look Inside the World of Historic Preservation

Think conventional construction is difficult? In the world of preserving historic buildings, project planning, preparation and execution is even more complex
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The construction industry is known for being one of the most complex industries in the world. From securing permits to organizing project schedules, the behind-the-scenes work that makes construction possible presents even the highest regarded professionals in the industry with a constantly shifting target, with on-site conditions challenging even the best laid plans.  

But what if you had to preserve every scrap of a wall you were demolishing to donate to a museum? What if the mold you needed to form a room’s plaster features had to be handcrafted by a specialist educated in the techniques of the past?  

Welcome to the world of historic preservation, where the ordinary disruptions of the construction world are kicked up to an entirely new level of complexity. 

Building history 

What makes a building historic? According to Jessica Engeman, a project manager and historic preservation specialist at the Portland, Oregon-based Meritus Property Group, the answer is complicated.  

“For a lot of people, the National Register of Historic Places is the ultimate resource,” Engeman said. “But the question of what makes a structure eligible is complex. It can be a technical definition or it can be more complex or a locally specific definition.” 

For buildings not yet in a register, the thing Engeman looks for is the significance of the structure. “It could be architectural, it could be social history, it could be related to commerce,” Engeman said. “Does it have physical integrity that tells a story of that significance? Is there enough of the building still left or the character-defining features of the building from that era of significance? A structure must have local, state or national significance and integrity that represents that significance in the physical aspects.” 

To determine whether a structure is significant, Engeman has to put on her researcher’s hat before committing to the physical work of a project. “There’s the detective work of going through old newspapers, historic photos and documentation,” Engeman said. “Part of being a tenacious researcher and investigator is you just keep following leads and, eventually, the story usually pieces itself together.”  

Once Engeman has determined the historic value of a structure, the physical work of restoration can begin. 

Unique challenges, rewards 

The challenges of embarking on a historic preservation project start early with the permitting process. “The entitlements process, including getting your permit and getting through your land use review, has a lot more unknowns caused by more variability with time,” Engeman said. “You’re submitting for permits where aspects of the building might not be up to the modern code, although it was built to code at the time of construction.” 

What’s more, it’s hard to know exactly how the jurisdiction is going to come down on certain things. “Am I going to have to completely upgrade these stairs with new handrails and guardrails and all kinds of stuff?” Engeman said. “Am I going to have to make every stair in the fire rated enclosure?”  

A look inside the hals of Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, which originally opened in 1906 and recently required significant restoration work.

Because of the complex patchwork of laws that govern historic structures, these types of questions are hard to immediately answer. 

Once construction begins, there may be more surprises. “One of the biggest risks with a historic restoration project is that you just have more cost overrun and more changeover exposure,” Engeman said. The process of restoration can also reveal hidden challenges. “What’s going on with a structure that may be hidden behind all of these historic finishes that have to be retained?” Engeman said. “You really need to have bigger contingencies for historic projects.” 

A flexible mindset 

Because of the many challenges restoration work can present, Engeman said it’s critical that team members bring the right attitude toward historic projects. “Historic projects require a flexible mindset,” Engeman said. “There needs to be a nimble team approach, with a commitment to sharing experience, because the amount of problem-solving that has to happen can be frustrating. Some of that can be mitigated by doing a lot of upfront investigation into the building, really understanding what’s going on with the building and what’s important about the building from an architectural standpoint.”  

Inside the auditorium at Washington High School in Portland, Oregon.

Still, even with all the initial background research, team members need to expect the unexpected and be prepared for unforeseeable complications. “There are a reason why there’s a lot of developers who shy away from historic work,” Engeman said, “because it can cause a lot of brain damage.” 

The challenges of historic construction work can create a unique atmosphere of connection and collaboration between those invested in the project. Everyone must work together to find solutions to the obstacles the work throws their way.  

“There tends to be a feeling of comradery,” Engeman said. “People tend to get behind historic restoration projects and feel a lot of personal pride and investment in them.” This feeling of investment challenges those on the project to think creatively to honor the work that has come before their time. “On every level, from architects to carpenters, people are invested in the success of the project,” Engeman said.  

Engeman shared the example of an electrician who worked with her on the restoration of the historic Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, which originally opened in 1906.  

“We needed to bring a whole new electrical system into the building,” Engeman said, “completely rewiring this huge historic building with new electrical service. But we were struggling to figure out a way to do it without compromising the integrity of the project by running conduit all over the place and installing out of place electrical panels.”  

“Our electrician’s solution was to find a way to weld the faces of the lockers together and make these secret doors—although they’re labeled as electrical panels if you look carefully. You lift the lever on the locker door and it’s three locker face panels that swing open and behind it there’s a huge electrical panel.” 

This commitment to working as a team to find solutions is what brings Engeman the most satisfaction in her work.  

“Historic preservation really brings out the creativity in people and encourages a personal connection with the structure,” Engeman said. “When I approach a new project, it’s with the mindset that I want to do something really good for this building and make it beautiful and touch it as lightly as possible.”