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An Impressive Piece of Work

When Rob Aird’s company began work on the D.C. Court of Appeals building it was his biggest historic renovation to date.

In telling his story, however, Aird doesn’t begin in 2006 when his crews put up the scaffolding, or 1820 when the building was first designed, or 1849 when it was built, or 1917 when plaster was first added to its brick walls. Aird begins with the Civil War.

“A family member named Daniel Aird was captured by the Confederate army. He died in the Andersonville prisoner of war camp, and I have his 8 ½-by-11 hardbound diary,” Aird says. “I can’t stop reading it.”

The Civil War, old-world plaster, the D.C. Courts—they’re all intertwined in Aird’s mind. The past is never far from the present for him. He lives and breathes history at home and, factoring in three years’ inhalation of 92-year-old plaster dust, literally, on the job.

“We take pride in proving our plastering capabilities,” says Aird about the D.C. Court of Appeals project. “But it’s a bigger source of pride to preserve a piece of our nation’s history.”

Historic Fabric

The renovation of the D.C. Court of Appeals building began in 2005. The project team included noted preservation and design firm Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, which restored Grand Central Terminal and the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. Hensel Phelps Construction Co. was the general contractor. Robert A. Aird, Inc., Frederick, Md., had the contract for the exterior and interior walls and ceilings and began work in April 2006.

The goal was to add space to what was then known as the Historic D.C. Courthouse located on Judiciary Square. Equally important was renovating the structure historically.

To add the square footage needed by the District of Columbia Courts, Beyer Blinder Belle created a new lower level.

“We couldn’t expand above grade because we didn’t want to interfere with the historic significance of the building,” says Chris E. Wiley, AIA, LEED AP, associate manager of construction administration at Beyer Blinder Belle’s office in Washington, D.C. “The only above-grade structure added was on the north side—an all-glass entry needed for modern security.”

“We kept the circulation stairs and corridors, and restored the historic courtrooms and lobbies using materials already in place,” Wiley continues. “We tried to respect the historic nature of the materials, but make it work for modern needs. So, it was blending plaster walls and ceilings, marble columns, terrazzo flooring, wood windows, mahogany doors, wrought iron railings and bronze and copper light fixtures fabricated in the early 1900s.”

“The idea was not to restore it to 1917-1918, brand new conditions,” Wiley adds. “It was to restore what was there, even if it didn’t look like the pristine original. Where paint was flaking, we’d remove it. We might sand it a little, but if you look closely you can see it’s rough. We didn’t want to damage the historic fabric. We wanted to respect that history.”

Inventorying the Plaster

According to Aird, who is president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., the Historic D.C. Courthouse (and one time D.C. City Hall) was built of brick and had brick arch foundations. Plaster was added in the early 1900s to the brick walls using a three-coat, old-world plaster of lime and sand with a white coat of gypsum. Wall and ceiling details included plaster medallions, cornices, niches and roping.

Getting the project going took plenty of forethought and site visits. “The Indiana limestone exterior was not bad,” Aird says. “But the interior was a disaster. It had been left unoccupied for nearly a decade, so there was degradation due to the elements, vermin and disuse. Even the modifications over the years had wreaked havoc on the plaster.”

Clearly, bidding such a huge project would not be easy and could even backfire for Aird.

“We had to walk the job to survey it to grasp the magnitude of the work,” Aird says. “It was ravaged. It was a mess, made worse by all the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and security that had to be channeled into the walls and ceilings. That work was supposed to be done concurrently with us, so there would be a lot of climbing over one another.”

Imagine bidding a job with terrible start-up conditions. Add that multiple trades would be green-lighted to work simultaneously and that the goal would be to renovate some 50,000 square feet of 90-plus-year-old plaster—quickly. To price the project properly, Aird says he used “industry standard value pricing units” available for plaster restorations.

“That was our baseline,” he says. “We had the architectural drawings, and the architect indicated what would be necessary. He had outlined the work areas in his survey, but that was just during his walk-through. During the course of the job, as other trades began doing their demolitions, creating MEP penetrations and destroying walls, we did more surveys—three written and photographic surveys—to assess our work. We gave them a change-order.”

“Maybe there could have been a better way to inventory the overall plaster work that had to be done,” Wiley says. “In the end, the amount of work done was more than anyone had anticipated. The original plaster had deteriorated that much.”

Matching the Original

“Our goal with the plaster was to match the original,” Aird says, “In the early 1900s a black pitch-like material was applied to the brick, which allowed the plaster to adhere.”

“We used a great deal of galvanized diamond lath for adhesion of plaster to the walls,” Aird continues. “In instances where the plaster was shattered but solidly attached to the wall, we’d overlay the wall with a bonding liquid, embed fiberglass mesh and plaster over it. In other places, we carved out the plaster and put back a three-coat.”

“Everywhere they turned there were historic materials. They had to cut into walls, core here, drill there, remove parts of ceilings, to run modern conduit and pipe,” Wiley says. “You’re trying to minimize that work. You don’t want to cut into a historic plaster ceiling or wood frame. But you don’t have much choice.”

The architects discovered that the building had between a dozen and two dozen chimneys dating prior to the 1917 reconstruction. A lot of the chimneys had been simply closed up. The architects knew where they were located, and they used them as vertical shafts for ductwork and conduit.

“We tried to take advantage of that kind of thing for vertical distribution of the MEP infrastructure,” Wiley says.

“In some of the historic courtrooms, because there was no space above, we used side wall sprinklers,” Wiley says. “We would bring piping in through the wall near the ceiling, so the heads would be on the walls as opposed to being in the middle of the ceiling.”

Aird subbed out some replicating of intricate medallions, cornices and roping, originally created in the mid 1800s. He had his crews handle other portions.

“It’s not unlike many jobs. But this one added up to one major effort,” Aird says. “The planning was extensive, but the best planning in the world on something like this still leaves ‘unforeseens.’”

Cool Under Pressure

Yes, the transformation of a 160-year-old municipal building into a 21st-century courthouse required careful planning and a plasterer with dedication and experience.

“I’ve been in business for 35 years,” Aird says. “I started out just with my tools, despite the fact that I had undergraduate degrees in English and sociology and a master’s in psychology.”

Psychology? Does Aird actually use a psych degree in the mundane world of scratch coat, brown coat and finish coat plastering?

“Every day,” he says. “In managing the people who work with me. In managing the people we work for. In knowing how to keep my cool in high-pressure situations.”

Yes, but sometimes pressure can be gratifying. It was true on this job; the D.C. Court of Appeals building came out well.

“As you know,” wrote Wiley to Aird last summer when the project was over, “the plaster walls, ceilings and trim in the building were in horrendous condition from decades of neglect. You have done a tremendous job restoring the plaster with the intricate mouldings, patterns and designs.”

“You should be proud of the role you played in bringing back to life such a significant, historical site in Washington, D.C.,” Wiley continued. “Of all the trades involved in the project, I hold your team and your work at or near the top of all the work done on the job.”

It turns out the D.C. Court of Appeals renovation project (entered as the Historic D.C. Courthouse) won the 2009 Award of Merit in Historic Resources from the Washington, D.C. Chapter of The American Institute of Architects.

“Hensel Phelps did a good job of managing it,” Aird says. “By and large, we were left to our own devices, once they determined that we knew what we were doing and could meet the standards requested.”

They should have known all along. Aird was the perfect man with the perfect company at the perfect time for the job because he takes history seriously. As for the craftsmanship required to renovate such an elegant and prominent building, Aird has dozens of master plasterers on staff, some of whom have been with him for nearly three decades. And so, in its finished form, given the magnitude of the effort made, the D.C. Court of Appeals building was a master plasterer’s dream come true. Historians everywhere are smiling, too.

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant.

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