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Selecting Your Historic Building Team

Working on historic buildings (historic generally refers to buildings 50 years of age or greater with significance architecturally or culturally) often involves tasks that are unfamiliar to contractors who typically work with more contemporary buildings and structures. 


Assembling a team of professionals with historic preservation project experience to assess existing conditions, scope the appropriate type and scale of repair, accurately estimate the project costs, and ultimately, undertake the work, ensures that project outcomes contribute to the longevity and future preservation of historic buildings. It is essential to identify experts who you can communicate honestly and clearly with, because old house projects often involve unforeseen circumstances and conditions that require thoughtful analysis and decision-making in condensed timeframes, in order to keep all aspects of the project on schedule.


So, where can you find experts in historic preservation that can help with your historic building, experts knowledgeable about best practices for repair and restoration of old buildings?


References from family, friends, and neighbors are the first choice—nothing is better than a successful firsthand experience by someone you know and trust. Your local historical society or history museum, or other historic homeowners in your community, may also be able to refer you to professionals who have successfully completed projects on historic buildings. 


Your local building official or inspector, or if your community has a historic preservation planner, may also be able to direct you to contractors, builders and carpenters who specialize in historic preservation.


Each state has a State Historic Preservation Office (“SHPO”), often with historic architects on staff who routinely undertake project review of historic rehabilitations within the state and may be able to refer you to architects, contractors, preservation consultants and others who work in your area.


Finally, most states have statewide non-profit preservation organizations (like Preserve Rhode Island) that focus on advocacy and sharing information and resources, including perhaps qualified preservation professionals, for the communities they serve.


Once you have identified possible candidates for your project, conduct internet background research to vet your list. Reviewing websites can be revealing and might include testimonials, reviews, and possibly references related to past projects.


The next step is to conduct telephone interviews with the experts on your list. The answers to the following questions should demonstrate the knowledge, expertise, experience, reliability, and availability, as well as overall understanding of and approach to working on historic buildings, of each candidate.


  • Do they have experience with projects of the size and scope of yours, and if so, what were they? If not, what types of historic preservation projects have they worked on? What are they currently working on?


  • How will they run your project? Will they be on-site, or will they assign a project manager, for example? How many projects do they work on simultaneously?


  • If your project involves hiring subcontractors, how long have they worked with their subcontractors?


  • Will they provide professional, financial, and client references?


Based on this initial conversation, you can narrow your pool of potential experts down (3 to 4 is usually enough) to meet firsthand for additional discussion, including estimating for the project.


1. Visit a current project, if possible, to assess firsthand how the work is being undertaken (appropriate for the materials, style, and age of the building?) and how the property and job site are being kept (organized, clean, and safe?).

2. Contact 2 to 3 references, based on projects that are as similar as possible to your project.

3. Confirm that any expert requiring state licensing, such as a contractor, is actively licensed and insured.

4. Confirm that any professionals you hire, including a contractor, has the resources to complete the project on an agreed-upon schedule.

5. Feel comfortable with everyone you hire: compatibility and ease of communication among the assembled team, including the property owner, is essential.

6. Check your state's consumer protection agency as well as local Better Business Bureau (BBB) before entering into any contracts, to avoid hiring professionals who may have a history of disputes with clients or subcontractors.


Once you have identified the professionals who would be a good fit for you and your project, ask each candidate to submit information that will enables you to compare the range of proposed costs and approaches to the project. In order to do that, however, it’s important to know what to ask for: an estimate, a quote, a proposal, or a bid. Different projects require different levels of information—small-scale projects can be undertaken with estimates or quotes in hand, but larger projects demand more detailed proposals and, in some cases, firm bids.


Estimates are just that: informal calculations of how much something might cost, based on initial and limited information. Estimates can help property owners decide whether their budget, and the professional who is estimating a job, are within reasonable proximity to each other before moving forward. Estimates are not legally binding.


Quotes are slightly more detailed than estimates--quotes usually include the cost of materials and other goods and services. Quotes are generally time-sensitive, so it is important to confirm the lifespan of the quote. Like estimates, quotes are not legally binding.


Proposals are detailed rundowns of a project’s scope-of-work and all associated costs (labor, materials, subcontracting, taxes, permits, and other fees). Once accepted by a property owner, proposals are generally considered contracts that have been agreed upon, although again, proposals are not legally binding.


Bids, like proposals, clearly establish all of a project’s details and costs; however, bids include firm itemized prices that, if the bid is accepted by the property owner, bind the contractor to the terms of the bid, including costs, schedule, and timeframe. Bids will usually include a contingency fee—usually some percentage of the total project cost—to ensure that unanticipated circumstances can be addressed within the established budget for the project.


It is important to memorialize the terms of the project in writing. Good contracts detail all aspects of your project: payment schedule; proof of liability insurance and worker's compensation payments; a start date and projected completion date; specific materials, techniques, and products; and lien release clause, which protects the property owner in the event the contractor defaults on paying subcontractors and suppliers.


Identifying the payment schedule is essential, and may depend upon the size of a project. For small jobs, contractors sometimes seek as much as 50% of the total cost prior to beginning work, with the remaining delivered upon completion. For large projects, it is typical to provide 10% at contract signing, with three payments of 25% each delivered over the project, and the final 15% paid upon completion of the project, including any punch list items.


Finally, your contract should describe how “change work orders” will be handled, in the event that unforeseen circumstances result in additional work or different approaches than were originally anticipated.


Exterior repainting is one of the most important tasks any property owner undertakes because routine maintenance such as this is the best way to ensure that a historic building remains intact, so identifying qualified painters is critical. In almost all cases, as with other features of historic buildings, retaining as much paint as possible preserves a building’s authenticity.


Painting historic building exteriors is a specialized skill; every building is unique and requires a painter’s understand of, and attention to, that building’s specific conditions. The key elements that a paint contractor should understand, and that will result in obtaining a good paint job, include:


  • appropriate surface preparation

  • identifying damage to architectural features and ensuring appropriate repairs are conducted

  • caulking and filling, compatibly and as needed

  • selecting the proper type of finish

  • attention to lead safety


When selecting masons to work on historic buildings, experience with historic masonry materials, properties, systems, and existing conditions’ assessments is essential. Poorly-conducted masonry repair can result in irreversible or damaging changes to a building and its character-defining features.

Historic masonry is predominantly brick, terra cotta, stone, concrete, cast stone, and the mortar that holds all these materials together, so a mason should have experience working with these materials. Asking what types of buildings and building systems a mason has worked on, and what kind of repairs they have undertaken, will reveal their experience in historic masonry. Familiarity with the practice and basic vocabulary of architecture, historic preservation, and carpentry is also valuable background and experience for a mason.


The International Masonry Institute (IMI) offers a Historic Masonry Preservation Certificate for masonry restoration contractors.


As part of The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines, the National Park Service has established “Professional Qualification Standards” for those experts who most commonly work with historic resources.


The National Park Service defines “historic architects” as those who “apply artistic and scientific principles to…the research, planning, design, and management of the built environment with specialized training in the principles, theories, concepts, methods, and techniques of preserving historic buildings and structures.”


Selecting an architect to work on historic buildings and structures requires vetting that is similar to other practices and trades. An architect should be licensed to practice architecture and have professional experience that enables professional judgments to be made about the evaluation, documentation, or treatment of historic structures.


Historic Preservationists

Historic preservation practitioners are knowledge about and can apply strategies that promote the identification, evaluation, documentation, registration, protection, treatment, continued use, and interpretation of historic (and prehistoric) resources. These include commonly found buildings, structures, site, and landscapes in all areas of the country. A historic preservation professional will likely have had academic training in historic preservation or a closely related field (American Studies, Architecture, Architectural History, Archeology, History, Historical or Cultural Geography) as well as full-time professional experience working with some aspects of historic buildings and properties. Preservation practitioners often have expertise in a specific area of focus, including in building technology, architectural history/or design, landscape history and/or design, preservation or community planning, economics, law, or museum studies.


Architectural Historians

Architectural historians study the history and evolution of building and structures through their design, construction, and style, using primary and secondary research sources as well as firsthand physical analysis, survey, and documentation, and generally have advanced academic training as well as full-time professional experience in the identification, evaluation, and documentation of architecture, including those who specialize in historic buildings.


Architectural Conservators

Conservators focus on identifying, evaluating, documenting, researching, treating, and caring for the physical objects, including buildings, that make up our material culture.

Through specialized technical training, conservators analyze historic materials and apply treatments to ensure that culturally significant works of art and architecture are preserved. Those specializing in historic buildings are referred to architectural conservators. While typically focused on specific types or categories of artifacts, all professional conservators should understand general conservation principles and the ethics of the discipline.


Other areas of expertise that are defined by the National Park Service include:

  • Cultural Anthropology

  • Folklore

  • Historical and Prehistoric Archaeology

  • History

  • Landscape Architecture

  • Land Use and Community Planning

  • Traditional Cultural Property Expertise

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