Monday, June 27, 2011

Deferred Maintenance Strikes Again

In the center of our little town, we have an old brick high school building built in 1931.  In a story similar to many communities, the town outgrew the high school and in 1961, a new high school was built.  The old school was used by elementary school students until 1987.  It has been the town community center in the time since.  We have a wonderful recreation program that uses the old gym, the auditorium is used for community programs, and there are some town offices in the building as well.  

Unfortunately, the school is still owned by the school system who has deferred maintenance over the years.  Today, among other things, the roof leaks and has damaged the old wooden gym floors to a point that they need to be fixed before the floors become a safety hazard.  The school system wants to sell the school to the town rather than fix the problems.  The town isn't sure they want to take on the liability of a building that they need to spend a minimum of $150,000 on just to get the roof and gym floors fixed.  

The town estimates it will cost $2.5 million to fully renovate it.  That may be an inflated number to spin favor away from the building or it may be on target.  Due to this dollar figure, town council is now discussing the idea of demolishing a historic brick building that anchors one end of town, contributes to the scenic view of the duck pond area, and has lasted for 80 years and will easily last another 80 if  properly maintained.  Their plan?  Build a nondescript "shell building" for $1.5 million that might last for 30 years if they're lucky to replace the spaces the recreation program will lose if the building is demolished.  

In other words, they have a plan to replace character with mediocrity, and long-term investment with short-term consumption.  Demolition is permanent.  And it's not free. The tangible costs of removing debris and preparing the site for new construction and the intangible costs caused by the changes to the fabric of the community are both mighty expensive in a small town struggling to maintain its unique identity.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Preservation Success Story - Pulaski Depot

Photo from The Southwest Times
Back in November 2008, we were all heart-broken to hear of the fire in the historic Pulaski, Virginia train station.  A beautiful stone passenger depot built in the late 1800s, it housed the town's museum and Chamber of Commerce.  The fire was electrical, starting in the ceiling of the museum and probably smoldering for quite some time before breaking into flames during the night.  There wasn't a fire alarm system in the building, but a passerby saw smoke pouring from the roof and called 911.  The volunteer fire department went far above and beyond the call of duty pulling museum items out of the structurally unsound building in the heat of the moment, saving far more than one would have imagined given the intensity of the fire.  

Photo from WSLS

Despite the depot's stone walls and slate roof, the building did not fair well in the fire.  The roof collapsed, taking parts of the upper walls with it and interior features were incinerated.  Even given the best efforts of the fire fighters, the fire was too far advanced when they were called to have had a better outcome.  With current budget constraints and the state of the depot, many municipalities would have decided to give up and demolish the building.  The Town of Pulaski is resilient.  They've been through town fires, the closing of their furniture factories, flooding, two fires in their historic courthouse, and, since the depot fire, a tornado.  The Town decided to use the insurance money they received from the fire to reconstruct the train depot and restore many of the depot's original features.

Last Saturday, June 11, 2011 was the grand reopening of Pulaski's depot.  It was exhilarating to see how many people gathered for the celebration.  The exterior of the building has been restored to its appearance prior to the fire.  The slate roof with its distinctive cupolas has been reconstructed along with the upper sections of the stone exterior walls that were lost to the fire.  The interior has been returned to its original appearance with fireplaces at the ends of the main rooms and beadboard covering the walls. Some changes were made to reflect the new functionality of the building.  A new museum will be built across the street, so the depot will become a meeting space for local groups and those looking for retreat space.  New restrooms and a ramp were added.  Probably the most important new feature added to the building?  An alarm and fire suppression system.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's in the Walls?

An interesting thing about gutting an old house to add insulation and new wiring, plumbing, and HVAC is what you find (or don't find) in the walls.  Our project house is definitely a vernacular house added onto and built with whatever the carpenters had.  Some walls had plaster, others old sheetrock.  When we got to the studs, we found that none of the walls had insulation and that the sheathing was flipped over and reused painted siding from another building.  Must've been pretty cold and drafty in there with the mountain winds blowing in winter.

We've also found that you can look straight up the wall cavities from the first floor to the second.  In other words, we've got balloon framing.  Today's buildings generally use platform framing where each floor is a platform extending to the outside wall and the wall studs are attached to the floor above and sit on the floor below.  With balloon framing, longer studs are used that reach from the base of the first floor to the second floor ceiling.  The floor joists are nailed to the wall studs.  The structure will usually have some bracing and the sheathing also helps to strengthen balloon framing.

Balloon framing doesn't meet today's building codes because the open walls create a chimney that can transfer smoke and flames throughout the building quickly and with devastating results.  So, one of our tasks is to add fire blocks in the walls.  We'll be insulating, which will reduce the chimney effect, but we'll also be adding 2x4 blocks that fit between the stud bays to further block airflow.  Since we've got real 2x4s and the distance between studs is probably not uniform, we won't be able to simply use big-box-bought lumber and cut all the pieces to the same size.  It'll be time consuming, but worth it in the long run for the safety and comfort of the new occupants.