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Restoring the Art of Restoration

When Carole Pope, a restoration enthusiast in Rockledge, Fla., took on the challenge of restoring Lawndale, the historic H.S. Williams House owned by Brevard County on the East Coast of Florida, she formed The Preservation and Education Trust (www.petrust.org) as a hands-on preservation organization, leased the building for a nominal fee from the county, and acquired grants from various sources, including neighbors and the Florida Division of Historical Resources.


“We have 300 historic houses within a couple mile radius of Lawndale,” Pope explains, “and not all of them are being restored properly or even at all because people think it’s too much trouble. I’d like to dispel that notion by showing with the work we do on Lawndale, that it is not only possible but also, given today’s technology and resources, it’s relatively easy.


How easy? Well, let’s look at the Lawndale project, the purpose of which was to restore the building as close as possible to its original condition and then open it as a Living History museum.
A key element for any building, especially a museum, in the state of Florida, is the need for air-conditioning, in part to control humidity. Obviously, an A/C system had to be provided, but it has to be there without being noticed to achieve the goal of restoration to the original condition. This task was made more difficult because the walls were not insulated, although some insulation had been added to the attic in later years. Adding air-conditioning to such a structure was a challenge, therefore, because a) it could be an energy hog without smart planning and b) installation could damage the structure.


Dave Chasar, senior research engineer at the Florida Solar Energy Center, worked with Pope to formulate a solution, considering various factors in addressing the problem: “In Florida, most of the heat comes through ceilings and windows. Florida summers have a small temperature difference, requiring cooling 20 degrees below the outside temperature and resulting in little heat conduction through the walls. Although the walls were open and connected to the outside, lacking any air barrier, they had survived so long that it was thought better not to change anything by installing insulation or any kind of paper material against conduction. So, the solution focused on sealing out the air as much as possible to limit infiltration.”


The floor would be sealed with a sealant and the walls and ceilings painted, the plan being to use them as the air barrier to the building, caulking openings as much as possible to handle the significant air transport coming through them.


The only major insulation considered was in the ceiling—an expanding polyurethane foam to create an air barrier that could meet up with the air barrier for the walls to create a lid for the house. But that turned out to be too costly, so cellulose insulation was chosen. It tends to pack down and provide more of an air barrier against the hot attic temperatures than fiberglass insulation.


The air conditioning system selected was SpacePak, using extremely small vents in the floor that could be masked by furniture to create an “invisible-to-visitors” A/C system. It included an independent, dedicated dehumidification unit so that if the A/C were not running or not able to extract the humidity, the dehumidifier could do so independently.



What to Do About the Walls


The next problem to solve was the plaster walls. The first floor walls and the ceilings were a three-coat plaster system that, just like any drywall or plaster system, is an effective air barrier when not cracked. But settling over the decades had caused much of that plaster to crack, requiring its replacement.


Additionally, according to Pope, “Some of the house was built unleveled, so when the county tried to level it recently, most of the plaster cracked! So we had a lot of plaster to take off and wanted to replicate the old plaster. We considered finding artisans who can still do the old-fashioned plaster but Baylor Plastering, the contractor working on the project, had other ideas.”


Says Gary Dillman, CEO of Baylor Plastering & Drywall, Inc., “We have guys at Baylor who have done the old-time rock lath and plaster. But it would be outrageously expensive to do it the old-time way, because the original products are so thick and the energy characteristics are not as good. “So instead of going the three-coat route, we found a newer type of wallboard with some moisture-resistant characteristics. Unlike most wallboard products, it has no paper imbedded in it that mold can feed on, so it has the same benefits of the old three-coat plaster system that is not conducive to mold and mildew growth. But the advantage of the new product over plaster is that it will experience less cracking down the road, is more durable, and as fast and easy to put up.


“Everything used to be one-coat until it changed to drywall with orange peel or similar textures, but we’re seeing a trend back to one-coat plaster with texture. Some people want that look, and we like it because of its durability and the speed of construction that it offers over traditional drywall.


“They easily could have used drywall on this building and it wouldn’t have been half as durable and wouldn’t have had the same plaster look—but it would have been about 40 percent cheaper than the one-coat with texture.


“Georgia Pacific’s Dens-shield™ wall board is a thin and strong solution that we knew would enable us to replicate the old plaster, and nobody would be able to tell the difference. They normally make half-inch to 5/8-inch fiberglass board, with quarter-inch being commonly used with an acrylic coating behind ceramic for countertops and flooring. The Lawndale project used the quarter-inch board uniquely for the walls, and with a plaster coating instead of the acrylic.


“This is a new a veneer-type plaster that in many cases is applied in two coats but is still called ‘one-coat’ because you can apply one coat and come back over it while it’s still wet and be done with it.”


The use of the new wallboard was also agreed to by Pope because it meant they did not have to remove the beautiful (locally grown pine) woodwork in the window framing and underneath the windows and a lot of the baseboards, thereby further preserving the historic integrity.


Where to Go for Windows



Replacing the aluminum window frames that had been installed in later years was another challenge. Notes Pope, “The construction people have been wonderful to work with. Every problem we have had, they have networked and found solutions that worked elsewhere. That’s been a real asset.


“We were able to find a very good window-maker in nearby Sanford to replicate the historic double hung windows out of clear cypress. He did a beautiful job. One of the things that surprised me was the window prices: We had 50 custom-made for about the same price as regular prefabricated windows.”


For any contractors facing problems on restoration projects, they might be interested in advice from preservation architects working for the state of Florida (800.847.7278) and similar resources in most other states. They will not design your plan but will offer advice and point to resources. They are always encouraging people to learn preservation methods, because once they are learned, they are just as easy as any others!


“Which takes me back to my thoughts on restoration projects,” Pope sums up. “There are many out there and it is easy enough, and worth the while (I know because I live in a restored house), and very satisfying, to do the job properly!”



About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.



For More Information

Go to www.baylorplastering.com to learn more about Baylor Plastering & Drywall, Inc.

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