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Unique Elements of Historic Brick Architecture – PART II

A few weeks back, in the article in the following link, we took a look at several elements of historic building facades which are unique elements of historic architecture.

Today we look at other aspects of historic architectural building facades elements, following the outline below:

  • Historic Materials are difficult to replicate
  • Once historic architecture is lost, it’s lost forever and why preservation and conservation is valuable.
  • Historic masonry upkeep and preservation

The picture below shows a decorative historic relief set in a historic pressed brick facade.  Pressed brick, as opposed to the more prolific common brick, is much more uniform in texture, durable, vitreous, and consistent in rectilinear form.  Pressed bricks used both a finer clay in the plug (substrate the brick itself, pre-firing) and were fired using more dense hardwoods creating a higher temperature in burning.

terra cotta reliefs

Terra cotta reliefs are often set among a facade of brick in the field or as part of an architectural detail such as a frieze.

Historic Materials are difficult to replicate

Replicating historic building materials like masonry and elements such as hand-carved sandstone in modern times is challenging primarily due to the following reasons: 

  1. Lack of Skilled Craftsmen. Traditional craftsmanship required for hand-carving and intricate masonry work has significantly declined over time. Skilled artisans who have the training and the expertise to replicate historic techniques are increasingly scarce.  Guilds and or universities to teach this training are all but non-existent.   Most of our company’s competitors chose to do production work instead and take on larger, faster projects.  We live and work in a capitalist economy where there’s nothing stopping us or our competitors from making more money if we choose to and there just isn’t enough of a market in the area of high-end custom building restoration and rehabilitation focused on historic accuracy.
  2. Time consuming = costly.  Creating detailed masonry and carving intricate designs by hand is a time-consuming process. Modern construction methods prioritize efficiency and cost-effectiveness, making it impractical to allocate the time needed for such craftsmanship. Similar to the issue of the availability of labor, the time required for highly skilled work is also extremely costly and this is tedious work, 

The next picture below shows a greater expanse of the same historic pressed brick facade.  From this low angle you can see that this decorative element is set among a corbelled column in the brick facade.

The picture below also shows the full height of the windows at the front facade. These windows have a Gothic Arch and the glass units are historic and are cut to the shape of the opening. In modern glass, it is much more common for glass to be cut in a rectilinear shape as it is produced in sheets in a float process on a bed of molten tin.  Much of this type of work today is done through heavy Manufacturing processes. 

front facade window

3. Availability of Materials: Sourcing materials identical to those used in historic construction, such as specific types of stone or clay for bricks, can be challenging. Some materials may be rare or no longer quarried. 

The picture below shows a once beautiful but now deteriorating sandstone facade. The Sandstone plates that clad the face of the building are solid and inches thick, yet the outer layers of that stone is delaminating over time with exposure to the elements, including acidic rainfall.   The corbels that support the original entry header water table are intricate and beautiful and the detail is more apparent here where they are covered by the platform above. These elements were not as directly exposed to rainfall and have maintained a greater extent of their original detail.

sandstone facade

4. Customization: Modern construction often relies on standardized, machine-produced materials to ensure consistency and structural integrity. Replicating historic elements may involve inherent variations that impact quality control. Preservation of Originals: In many cases, preserving and maintaining the original historic elements is prioritized over replication. Attempts to recreate may risk damaging or altering the authenticity of the existing structure. Due to these challenges, truly replicating historic building materials and elements requires a commitment to preserving traditional craftsmanship, access to rare materials, and a willingness to invest in the time and expertise necessary for a faithful reproduction.

A perch style Stone balcony once was built just outside of these openings at the front facade of this pressed brick row home building. As the original masonry deteriorated, in an effort to save money and without any care about the preservation of the building, contractors came and installed a wood platform deck as a makeshift type of temporary solution.

perch style balcony

Interior drywall screws were used here on an exterior installation as no one involved cared much about the quality or the value of the construction.  Our company wasn’t involved in the work, so we are not sure about the long-term plan, but there are many similar types of installations in the city where people look for good contractors and end up making their final decision based on the quick and dirty option.

interior drywall screws

At the corner where the boards of this makeshift type of installation meet, the quality is so lacking that even a slapdash type approach could be done better.  

slapdash type approach

5. Cost Prohibitive: Skilled labor, specialized tools, and the time required for replicating historic elements contribute to significantly higher costs compared to modern construction techniques. Budget constraints often deter attempts at precise replication. Loss of Traditional Knowledge: With the shift towards contemporary construction methods, traditional knowledge and techniques have eroded. Many aspects of historic craftsmanship are not well-documented, making it harder to reproduce accurately.  In our company, we see this issue firsthand, the knowledge we have acquired over the decades of our experience lives in our minds alone as it was taught to us decades ago by the people who taught us.  We try to teach that knowledge to all of our staff, we require them to learn lots of it, and we even write it here in this blog, but understandably not everyone of our readers want to dedicate themselves to a deep endeavor of learning all the secrets of historic restoration.

It’s easy to make excuses and to give people the benefit of the doubt. but there are subtle details about the elements of the historic facade of this building that show that care has been lacking for decades. The beautiful iron work at the guardrail has been repainted many times but really has never been cleaned back to the substrate, at least in recent decades, to the point that a good coat of paint could be applied. The deterioration curve is nonlinear.  Where rusty metal is repainted without being cleaned, it rusted through again and it deteriorates the paint faster and therefore becomes worse, but more so and at an even faster rate.

repainted iron work

The pictures below show a series of rowhomes built together. The building at the center of the photograph has a tympanum at the center of the head of the facade.   The entire collection of details in these particular buildings are made with kiln fired clay brick and terracotta elements.  Like many historic brick buildings in Washington DC, these buildings are built with structural brick and structural demising walls and facades.  

Once historic architecture is lost, it’s lost forever and why preservation and conservation is valuable.

The picture below shows a simple facade and yard, yet simple in both scale and detail it is well maintained entry and building exterior.

simple facade and yard

Another similar example with a cast iron stairway, leading to the front entry, follows below. This particular example is also small and scale and simple in level of intricacy in detail yet it is well maintained and treated with proper care. even in these two examples, a significant amount of effort and upkeep and maintenance is required and even though they look great as shown here, they still need work to repair and maintain many elements of the front facade. 

cast iron staircase

Unlike modern construction, here there are no shelf / relief angles used in the construction.  The building at the right has two angled soldier course freezes.  The Roman arches are decorated with a rounded bricklayer following the contour of the openings. 

Preservation is very expensive, but it’s important to really understand the Alternatives and the points of comparison because expense, for example is only really assessed as an empirical value through comparison.  In other words, you can say something is expensive, but it doesn’t really accurately have a meaning or value unless it’s compared to an alternative. Historic preservation is costly, but only when compared to Modern production construction. Modern production construction is cheap.  assembly line style labor requires very little training and almost anyone can do it. The work is clearly hard on the body and fraught with risks, but it doesn’t require the extensive amount of study and training and development of human resources. people can do it almost right away as their very first job. That makes the job very cheap. So when people say or think that preservation is expensive, it’s important to consider that comparative argument in terms of the alternative. A stick framed tract home in the country may only cost $400 per square foot,  but when you think about the drivers of both cost and value, it’s hard to imagine why it even cost that much.

The real details of historic construction are almost Irreplaceable for many reasons. We explained that the trade craftsmanship is not largely present in the construction industry today. Companies like ours are unique. The vast majority of companies or contractors in the industry do not focus on historic restoration.  Materials such as historic pressed bricks are not available. Even lime mortar today is technically different than historic lime mortar. This is a very important topic and element to understand when taking on a historic brick-repointing project. Our company specializes in this type of work, but most people don’t even understand the basics.  

historic brick buildings

A row of historic brick buildings built over 100 years ago.  Although historic buildings of the time were built in many different styles and forms, there are elements that are relatively consistent and rare in modern times. for example, the Roman arches are dressed with a protruding brick, proud of the remaining portion of the front facade elements of the facade tympanum are elaborate with detail.

An elaborate Italianate door pediment and surround is shown in the image below.  The small projecting header above the door surround works as a water table, effectively a very small roof, like a modern awning. This projection, like many of the architectural details in a facade, where there is a projection, protects the architectural elements below from the full exposure of the majority of horizontal precipitation and rain.

elaborate historic details

Classical architecture with elaborate historic detail is increasingly rare here in Washington DC, it should be preserved as if it was a treasure.

Historic masonry upkeep and preservation

To properly maintain, repair, and care for these historic buildings, a knowledge, interest and understanding of historic building principles is required.  Here in Washington DC, historic masonry buildings are extremely expensive and the amount of financial loss caused by improper repointing and low quality construction is staggering.   However, in addition to the direct financial value of the property, there is also a cultural loss when historic buildings are damaged. By comparison, consider neighboring poor cities, when historic buildings are damaged, it’s not just the loss of value to the property owner, there’s also a loss to all inhabitants and visitors of a city, present and future, who care about architecture, history, and culture.

We encourage all of our clients, and all readers of this article and to our blog in general, to prioritize the historic built environment of Washington DC and neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown and become educated on on the difference between proper historic preservation versus improper work which leads to significant damage to the historic fabric of a building.

From a conservation and preservation perspective, several approaches can be taken to improve conditions related to deteriorated historic brick masonry. Primarily, lime mortar brick joints and low temperature fired soft red clay bricks should be inspected and checked on a routine maintenance schedule, either seasonally or at least annually.   If brick masonry is kept in good condition, the life of embedded wood elements can be significantly extended.  Hire a professional contractor which specializes, understands and appreciates historic construction elements and buildings.

You can learn a lot more on our blog.  Feel free to check it out.  If you have questions about the historic masonry of your building in Washington DC, contact us or fill out the webform below and drop us a line.  We will be in touch if we can help.