How to Maintain and Repair Old and Historic Buildings

historic building repairThe central choice in maintaining buildings is whether to be proactive or reactive. Do you take action to prevent failures in building systems, or do you react to a failure? Historically, we react. All maintenance is proactive, preventive. If you wait for something to fail, it is not maintenance, it’s repair.

To be proactive and prevent failures in an old and historic building, you will need six tools:

1. An understanding of the current condition of the building, building systems, and materials. This can be obtained through a physical survey of the structure. The more detailed the survey, the more useful it will be in developing a maintenance plan. The survey would startwith research on the original construction and subsequent changes, on HVAC and electrical equipment, and on plumbing. If original and as-built plans are available, they would serve as the base information on which the survey would be undertaken. Each building component would be assessed and the condition rated—good, fair, poor, deteriorated.

Good = no visible deterioration, functions as designed, no anticipated failure in the foreseeable future
Fair = showing wear but no deterioration, continues to function, need to monitor for failure
Poor = showing deterioration, does not function at the required level, requires repair, high potential for failure if not repaired
Deteriorated = does not function, requires repair or replacement, high potential for causing collateral damage

Once collected, this information represents a picture of the condition at the time the survey was taken. Every material and system in a building is dynamic—constantly changing. Unless the initial survey data are updated on a regular basis, they can become obsolete quickly, losing their value.

2. A system for inspecting the property on a regular basis in order to identify potential failures. Regular inspection would be based on a defined schedule focused on each different building system. Some materials and systems will be inspected more often than others. For example, whereas the masonry mortar may only have to be inspected once a year, the gutters and downspouts may have to be inspected
every month and after every storm. We generally change filters in the HVAC system at every change in seasons, from winter to summer.
A once-a-month inspection may be more appropriate, however, on the moving components of the system. The schedule of inspection would be based on a combination of the existing condition of the system and events that may occur that could cause damage that should be addressed. For buildings and properties that are subject to heavy use, such as public facilities, inspections would be more frequent because the risk of excessive wear and damage would be higher. Where “interim controls” are used in reducing the risks from lead-based paint, inspections would be scheduled based on an established plan. The goal of these inspections is to identify signs of deterioration that will require attention and corrective actions in order to have the systems continue to function properly, and to avoid failure or collateral damage.

3. A system of taking action that would prevent such failures. Once damage has been identified, there has to be a system in place that
can initiate repairs quickly enough to avoid further deterioration. In situations like this, it is very important that repairs not be deferred; collateral damage can occur very quickly. It is critical to have access to personnel who can execute the maintenance actions, and to know what should be done and how. The personnel can be in-house or a trusted contractor, but the work requires experience and skill. Doing the work correctly the first time will avoid added cost. Following the right procedures will ensure that work that is done will conform to industry standards and the manufacturer’s recommendations. Defining those procedures for building materials will require knowledge of the best treatments, translated into “how to” guidance for workers. Knowing how to repair the machinery will require access to the operating and maintenance procedures from the manufacturer, and the ability to retrieve and print that data.

4. A cyclical schedule for performing routine maintenance. For all building systems that have moving parts, there should be a cyclical
maintenance schedule, the same as on a car. Unfortunately, “out of sight, out of mind” applies to this situation. The HVAC machinery
is generally isolated in mechanical rooms or in tucked-away spaces that are not normally visible or easily accessible. Unless there is a regular schedule of maintenance, it tends to be forgotten—until there is a failure. The maintenance items included in the cyclical schedule should those recommended by the machinery manufacturer. The system for executing the inspections should be as routine as possible, incorporating, for example, automatic rescheduling after completion of work. It is best when a responsible party is identified and a budget established.

5. A maintenance plan, which would include a database of information on how to maintain buildings and building systems. The results of
the survey, the systems for inspection and action, and the schedule for cyclical maintenance form the basis for a maintenance plan for
the building. Having a maintenance plan allows the property to be managed in a cost-effective and efficient manner. It is always going
to be more economical to maintain an old or historic building on a proactive basis, rather than waiting for a failure.

6. A system to record and retrieve information on the actions taken. The last item that is important to have is a system for recording
what has been done. Relying on memory has never been a dependable source of information when it comes to building maintenance
or treatment, even to the point where it’s next to impossible to remember the shade of paint used in the lobby just last year. Recording what has been done to what and why establishes a history of work. This will allow you to measure the success of a particular
treatment, issues that may have been associated with that work, and information on cost and scheduling. The value of having that data
available when making decisions on treatment is significant, both for choosing the most appropriate treatment and for budgeting.
Even on small buildings, the volume of data can be huge and virtually impossible to maintain in any other format than on a computerized database.

One thought on “How to Maintain and Repair Old and Historic Buildings

  1. This article was of great relevance for me and my mother, because the house she is currently living in is a really old one, and has some visible signs of deterioration (specially the roof and some walls). A part of the ceiling collapsed a few weeks ago, because of the intense rain. We’re still working to fix this. Thanks a lot for the useful pointers.

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