Volume 46, Issue 1

The surge has receded from Super Storm Sandy. As we assess the damage to our religious buildings, our most valued tools may be patience, prudence, and providence.

Patience: How to not over-react

Church IslandIn our zeal to get “back to normal” it is easy to lose sight of the inherent resiliency of traditional building materials. Long before active technologies to control humidity, temperature, and airflow, master builders used passive systems coupled with indigenous materials to adapt to environmental conditions. The power of these systems–materials that absorb and release moisture, operable windows that provide convective currents, solid masonry that promotes thermal comfort in both winter and summer–is often overlooked, and yet these constructions become the key components to restoration and renewal. Perhaps the most pervasive (and misguided) response to episodes of excessive moisture is to turn on the dehumidifiers. But accelerated drying of historic materials can lead to irreparable damage, including delaminated finishes, warped and checked woodwork, open joints, loosened fasteners, and degraded mortar. The water entering a building is rarely clean, and the use of dehumidifiers indiscriminately pulls water-borne salts and other pollutants through historic materials, leaving behind residual efflorescence and staining. Rather, give materials time to respond to the trauma inflicted upon them, and to find balance in their own ways. It can be an eye-opening experience to witness the resiliency of historic masonry, plaster, flooring, woodwork and finishes when provided enough time to acclimate through passive drying. The best way to achieve this is to remove standing water and open the windows, allowing for conductive currents to carry excess moisture away, naturally. A silver lining of this process is the increased awareness of built-in control of internal conditioning via their original “green” technologies.

Prudence: Skillful selection, adaptation, and use of resources

A prominent insurer once told us that we could not specify “salvaged stone” for a restoration following a devastating flood, even though the specified stone perfectly matched the original. The reason? Because salvaged stone was “old” and the insured’s policy required “new” materials. Isn’t all stone old? This true story underscores the pressures we often face when attempting to make well-informed decisions in the face of a status quo that consistently reveres new over old. We fare better–and so do our buildings–when we seek to educate others about appropriate choices of restoration materials, systems, and technologies that are compatible with the original (whatever its vintage) not just new. Context is critical as we seek to complement inherent quality and durability. For instance, replacing plaster with gypsum wallboard is not an even trade, because one (plaster) is very durable and adapts selectively to changing environmental conditions. It is a more sustainable choice: lower environmental cost, resistance to molds, myriad finish options, and advantageous thermal and acoustic qualities. Gypsum wallboard is cheaper, quicker to install, and readily available, but that hardly makes it an appropriate choice for iconic religious structures that serve as living examples of stewardship, durability, and lasting performance. All-too-common responses to restoration and repair that involve a quick fix and the promise of “maintenance free” fail to recognize the intrinsic qualities of what we have in hand and the value of keeping it in service. Glues, staples, and plastics will never outlive craftsmanship and natural materials.

Providence: An eye toward longevity

In rebuilding, we often face the same dilemma as building anew: lower initial cost or longer performance life? These two extremes are at the heart of Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA), determining the most value-laden approach when all aspects (including anticipated performance life) are evaluated. Considering that the expense of operating a building can be 50 times its initial cost, this is a critical measure that helps balance the scales. Not spending money to do it “right” may very well mean spending money to do it twice. Longevity requires a whole building approach; there is no shortage of examples demonstrating pitfalls of treating symptoms not causes, and their relationship to other building systems. For instance, when water enters a cellar a common reaction might be to seal the space with concrete, plastic, or waterproof coatings. The result is predictable: we don’t eliminate migration, we simply move the water around. Cementing over permeable cellar floors forces water to travel deep into foundation walls, in turn dissolving mortar, causing piles of sand, crystallized salts, and other leachate to accumulate along the foundation wall. Increased levels of ambient moisture in walls leads to rotting floor framing, mold growth, and ice formation. In reaction, coatings applied to affected surfaces trap even more moisture, driving it deeper within the walls. When the objective is to eliminate water, first assess its origin, frequency, and path, then respond accordingly with solutions that work in concert with each building’s inherent DNA and self-preserving qualities.

The healing process begins with damage control, then allowing a building time to restore itself. Patience, prudence, and providence will be rewarded with interventions less invasive, less costly, and more appropriate, especially for religious buildings. Consider this approach akin to the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Ar chitects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation.