by Allan Pettit
Dollars are precious here, especially for capital improvements,” says Brian Swope, director of the Office of Design and Construction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He could be speaking for virtually any college, as finances are becoming increasingly precious on campuses worldwide. As a result, a prudent approach to planning and budgeting for campus projects has never been more necessary. This is particularly true for historic buildings, and it doesn’t matter whether the project is large scale – like the adaptive reuse or historic renovation of a beloved campus structure – or more limited in scope – like the replacement of historic windows.
Swope, who has been in the construction business for more than 35 years, says, “When we commit to a project, we have to be sure that we’ve got that estimate as solid as possible, because going back for additional funding is always difficult. And I know one thing about renovations: You’re going to be surprised. You have to be thinking all the time about where those surprises will lie and make sure that your estimates are reflective of the surprises that will ultimately come and bite you.” Fortunately, there are proven ways to foresee issues, account for the inevitable surprises, and deliver historic projects on time, within budget, and with minimal stress.
When asked to share the lessons they’ve learned about historic projects in general, the most salient piece of advice from experts is likely to be to do your homework with people experienced in the historic realm before embarking on any such project. Tim Davis, owner of AR Design, a company specializing in new window application and window replacement work, says, “Gather experts, and talk early and talk often to make sure that you have chatted about all the potential pitfalls that could come your way in doing this project. Do your homework now, work those details out, and the road will be smooth later on.”
Here are some additional suggestions to help make that renovation project one for the history books.
As a project manager, one of Swope’s biggest responsibilities is “striking the difficult balance between the wants and wishes of those who will occupy the building with the needs of our campus operations colleagues who are responsible for maintaining it through the years.” He adds, “You’ve got to bring those disparate teams together, understanding that nobody will get exactly what they want, but that we’re going to do as best we can to give everybody a long-term durable building within the framework of the existing budget.”
Similarly, Davis suggests first finding consensus on broader questions, like how historically accurate the renovations are to be. For example, when choosing new windows, is the goal an exact match, or is it enough to capture the feel of the era? At the same time there will be considerations such as how long the windows are expected to last and the school’s level of ability to maintain them. Which is easier, getting $5,000 a year to maintain windows or securing funding every 15 years to replace them entirely? Only then can the team begin to tackle more precise questions such as whether the windows should be operable, what their energy requirements are, and how they meet occupant safety and compliance issues. “These are very project-specific, detail-specific, design-centric conversations,” Davis says. “The sooner everybody starts asking those questions, the more successful the project is on the back end.”
Working on renovations of a historic building can require a specific level of expertise, which is why Davis recommends assembling a construction team that includes people with relevant experience and knowledge of the products, the process, and the historical era.
Melinda Shah, vice president of Schooley Caldwell, a Columbus, Ohio, architectural firm specializing in historic preservation, agrees. “Hire people who are familiar with that time period of building and especially historic buildings in general,” she says. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, they’ve done dormitories.’ You should be asking, ‘Have they worked on several 1920s buildings?’ Because even if the buildings have different functions inside, they’re going to have similar historic renovation and restoration needs because of the types of systems and how buildings were built at that time period.”
Bill Wilder, director of technical sales for Graham Architectural Products, has worked on a variety of projects that required replication of windows for historic structures. “The window that worked out great on that dormitory that was built in 1970? That manufacturer may not be the right manufacturer for your historic windows, even though they did a great job. When it comes to historic window replacement, you can’t just pick up the phone to your local window guy and say, ‘Hey, you did this building; let’s do this building next.’ Well, you can, but it’s not likely to turn out well.”
Shah offers one last suggestion regarding windows. “Quite often, the historic windows have already been ripped out at one point. I would take one of the replacement windows out, so we can see what’s there. Frequently, they panned over the old ones, and the original frames are still in the wall, so that’s going to make a difference on your sightlines and knowing what you have to attach to. The cost of opening up one of those window openings can save you a lot of money in the long run.”
What are the most important considerations in historic renovations? Shah refers to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, Standard 6, which says, in part, “Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture and, where possible, materials.” In other words, it all matters. Davis approaches it from a different angle, saying, “In a campus setting, long-term performance and durability are what university facilities folks are looking for in choosing products and materials. So the most effective design solutions arise from the perfect combination of form and function.” With window work on historic buildings specifically, that means sightlines and profiles “that capture the meaningful historic detail,” as well as the specified thermal performance.
Yet a project can check all those boxes and still not provide value. Wilder tells the story of a university involved in a multi-phase project. In Phase I, the university replaced steel casement windows with steel windows and replaced old wood double hung windows with aluminum replica windows. “They paid a million dollars more for the steel windows” than what aluminum windows would have cost, he says. “It often makes sense to seriously explore value-engineered options.”
Here again, homework comes into play. Working on the design with a manufacturer experienced in work on historic buildings is a key step toward meeting the schedule and budget. As Wilder says, “You should be working with at least one manufacturer upfront, and it should be somebody who does historic-type work. That will give you a clear sense of what you want, so that when you put it out to bid, they’re all bidding to the same scope or intent. We always recommend proposal drawings be submitted with your bid drawings, if it is a historic-type window, to make sure that you’re looking at bidders who are meeting the intent, so you don’t waste time. If they’re asking for various manufacturers to bid the project, they should all be supplying with their bids proposal drawings of their intent in order to save you time.”
Shah concurs, saying, “Really take a look at your specifications to make sure that you’re only going to get bids from qualified manufacturers and qualified installers, because getting someone in there that isn’t used to working with a historic building is going to make the process much slower, and it’s going to cost more in the long run.”
Here again, expecting surprises, and allowing time for them, is smart planning. Speaking broadly, Swope says, “Make sure your timelines have some schedule contingency built into them.” Speaking more narrowly, the calendar determines the pace of campus activity, which means that, for residence halls in particular, summer provides the best opportunity for renovations. Davis offers prescriptive advice for scheduling window replacement projects. “You have to design the job and bid the job and contract somebody in the fourth quarter of the year before the summer you want the windows in. You cannot bid the job and contract the job in February or March and expect a manufacturer to have windows to you late May or early June. That’s not going to happen.”
Wilder notes that you also have to prepare as much as possible for surprises. “You’ve always got to build in time for the unexpected, especially if you’re going to get very demanding on the profiles that you’re trying to match. Doing so requires custom work, which can get increasingly complicated. If it’s a cookie-cutter job or new construction, then maybe it’s not such a big deal. But retrofit, where they’ve got a small window of opportunity to do it and they’ve got to start tearing windows out when the students leave and have them all in by the time they get back, the schedule can be a challenge.”
In addition, there is the consideration of possible review by historic preservation committees and boards, but some campuses do not have to deal with local, state, or national historic review boards. For those under the review of a local historic authority, Shah advises, “As soon as you know what you expect the scope to be, the sooner you can talk to them, the better. Even if it’s an informal review process, try to start getting them on your side. You’re going to be less likely to hit a last-minute surprise that could blow your budget.”
For campus projects requiring review by the state historic preservation office, Shah strongly suggests building additional padding into the timeline. Typically, the office will require 30 days to review plans and send back a response. If there are no comments, which is unusual, the project may still need to be forwarded to the National Park Service if federal money is involved. The park service would then have an additional 30 days to review the documents. In such cases, the project is given the go-ahead only after both agencies have reviewed and approved the drawings. Comments from either authority could require additional submissions and review time. Shah says it is not unusual for the process to take 90 days or more. This is why specialists prefer to meet with the project manager early in the process. In this way, they can design a product that will meet the historic criteria in addition to all the other project criteria.
Work on historic buildings, says Davis, “is not for the faint of heart.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t be accomplished. As Wilder points out, certain historic campus structures are “monuments to the university.” They are architectural icons, inextricably tied to the individual experience, be it that of the student, alumni, faculty, or visitor. The approach to renovation, therefore, is entirely different from that of the developer, who hopes to recoup an investment and turn a profit. Instead, the college or university’s capital investments reach way over the horizon. They are designed to last, often through a 50- or 100-year timeline. Shortcuts don’t lead to that kind of longevity. It takes hard work and homework to make sure the finished project is also a monument to the project team’s pursuit of excellence.