To the border and beyond! Well, almost to the border. Todd Renyer and Ian Pitts, both of Treanor Preservation, and Matt Murphy, Treanor Civil, traveled to southwestern Texas this week. The trip was centered around completing condition assessments of Texas Parks & Wildlife facilities at Balmorhea State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.
Integrating modern mechanical systems into a historic building is an art and a science—and many people believe it cannot be done effectively.
Historic architecture does provide unique challenges. It also offers a wealth of opportunities to upgrade systems while keeping the character and integrity of the building intact, says Joy Coleman, AIA, principal at Treanor Architects Preservation studio.
“Historic buildings can be updated for modern use,” Coleman says. “How you do that will depend on the age and the period of the building. You must do the research and know the building.”
Box beams and coffered ceilings were used at the Kansas Statehouse to install fire suppression sprinkler systems, smoke detection systems, and security camera wiring. You maybe able to spot the security camera in the after photo (bottom), but can you spot the smoke detection system?
Here’s how you can take a smart approach to marrying modern systems with a historic building:
Plan carefully. Old photos, building documentation, construction plans—even similarly constructed buildings— may all provide ideas. And there are clues right in the building itself. “Using our experiences from previous projects, we speculate about where systems can best be integrated into the building. We then conduct selective investigations to test our hypotheses,” says Coleman. “We might create a small hole in a noncritical space to confirm our theories about what will work.”
For a contractor, planning is critical on a historic project, says Jeff Combes, general superintendent at JE Dunn Construction (Kansas City, MO). To eliminate structural surprises, his firm x-rays internal beams instead of relying on drawings. That helps them to shore up the building and allow mechanical systems to be installed safely and without negative impact or visual prominence. “You have to do the structural analysis of the impact you’re having,” he says. “These buildings may have been sitting there for 100 years, and now you’re removing a leg. You can’t just jack hammer your way through.”
Start with what you have. “You have to look at what was there. That’s where you start,” says Terry Sullivan, PE, AIA, LEED AP, director of engineering at Schooley Caldwell Associates (Columbus, OH). Many large, older buildings were designed to draw air up through vertical distribution, rather than the opposite pattern used in many modern buildings. You may be able to leverage that natural ventilation pattern for the HVAC system. If you can install a system that works as initially intended, the whole building will function more efficiently.
Many older buildings also have tall ceilings, allowing for hiding ductwork in ceilings or floors. Elements such as chases, closets, columns, coffered ceilings and areas under bookcases can all provide convenient hiding spaces for modern systems. Historic chases or chimneys might be great space for running piping, or you might hide duct work between joists as in residential construction. Even in exterior situations, existing spaces are worth investigating. At the Kansas Statehouse, with a little investigation, an old gaslight pipe running underneath the grand staircase provided a route for modern electrical wiring.
Create new opportunities. If you understand how the building was put together, you can create solutions that will blend in well, such as taking space from a noncritical room or creating new mechanical closets. In a building with thick walls and large windows, you may have varying needs for heat in different parts of the building. Wall- or ceiling-mounted variable refrigerant flow HVAC systems that use smaller piping to provide heating and cooling could give you the flexibility you need while remaining visually unobtrusive.
Every system you integrate into the building should be customized not just for the space, but also for the building function and operation. For example, in the Dillon House, a mansion built in 1913 in Topeka, Kansas, two separate HVAC systems offer flexibility for the building’s dual use as event and office space. One system is used for larger events of 200+ people, and the other serves lightly staffed offices.
Challenge assumptions. Achieving the specific size and configuration you desire can be a creative challenge that requires thinking outside the box of current construction methods. “Just because you have done something one way for 10 years does not mean that it will work on a historic building,” says Combs. “You need an approach of ‘what if’. That is how you get to the creative solution.” Architects, engineers and contractors who are versed in historic materials and building methods will challenge assumptions and offer new ideas. Do you really need to use fan coils? Why not run ductwork through a closet or an insignificant space? How can you achieve modern lighting levels without creating glare or sacrificing period fixtures? “Often, the rest of the light can be coming from somewhere else, and will appear to come from that fixture,” says Sullivan.
In many areas, electrical conduit and piping were installed under historic marble flooring at the Kansas Statehouse. After the marble tiles were lifted and set aside, cuts were made in the underlying thick grout bed to make room for the conduit and piping. New grout was poured in place to conceal the conduit and the historic marble tiles were reset in the mortar bed.
Here’s how you can take a smart approach to marrying modern systems with a historic building:
Think holistically. Addressing your mechanical systems holistically, and as part of the architectural design, offers more room for creative solutions. Choices made in one area can help to mitigate other deficiencies in bringing the building up to today’s codes and standards. Fire sprinklers, for example, might be added to mitigate non-rated walls or non-conforming stairs. Looking at the building as a whole allows you to find the opportunities to put lighting, heating and other systems in at the same time. Electrical systems might be run along newer walls.
For example, at the Ridge Top Apartments in Leavenworth, Kansas, a collection of Civil War-era buildings with 14-15-feet ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows inspired a design in which kitchen and baths were stacked in the interior of the building. That resulted in fewer drains and more efficient, less visible plumbing systems. “It’s a conscious decision to think about this in advance,” says Coleman. “If we’d done the layout differently and not created the core, then it would be up to each tradesperson where to install their systems.”
Collaborate. A building that looks age-appropriate and performs to today’s standards is a team effort. Your team may involve the owner, architects, engineers, the contractor and the relevant historical and municipal governing bodies. On some building projects, mechanical experts may be brought in right away to design as you go. In this case, everyone is working side-by-side to create the solutions. “Either way, it is doable,” says Combes. “What’s important is to have the right people. The right team can always figure out a way.”
Often, integrating modern mechanical systems into an older building can involve a whole building upgrade. But that doesn’t mean you need to do it all at once. (Read more about mechanical systems integration.)
If pressing mechanical concerns or limited budgets are in the way, a logical phasing plan can allow you to address them without sacrificing quality, effectiveness or historic integrity. Rather than giving in to urgency and upgrading a single system as quickly or cheaply as possible—a move you could regret down the road—consider how you can upgrade your systems in a strategic way.
Carefully integrating electrical, plumbing, heating, wi-fi and other modern systems into your historic property may take more thought than simply hiding them behind a sheetrock wall, but preserving the building’s integrity pays off in the long run. It gives you a building that retains its historic character and value, and ultimately, can perform better for the long-term.
“You want to be very careful in your choices because you are going to live with this result for the next 25 years,” says Terry Sullivan, director of engineering at Schooley Caldwell Associates (Columbus, OH). “Your historic building is a wonderful resource that deserves more than a slap-dash fix.”
Shoptalk—deciphering architectural and historic preservation jargon one word at a time!
carbon arc lamp
a lamp that produces light by creating an electric arc, or spark, mid-air between two carbon rod electrodes to burn the highly luminous carbon vapor; one of the first electric light sources
Examples: While arc lamps were invented in the early 1800s, the wide-spread use of carbon arc lamps did not happen until significant improvements were made to the technology in the 1870s. The lamps were primarily used to light large areas such as streets or indoor industrial spaces. Eventually use was expanded to film projectors, searchlights, spotlights, moonlight towers...Read More
We are seeking a full-time interior designer to join our Lawrence, Kan.-based team. If the following describes you, email Audrie Wenger, Director of Interiors, with your resume and contact information.
Required experience and skills:
- 3-5 years of practical design experience
- Commercial interior design experience
- Accredited design degree in Interior Design
- Strong technical & technology skills—REVIT proficiency required
- Creative design thinking skills
- Versatility to work within all project types, including furniture design packages
- Enjoys teamwork and collaboration
- Self-manager, strategic thinker, flexible type who is comfortable with fast project pace, travel and workload
The Kansas Statehouse exterior masonry restoration was featured among other projects in the Fall 2014 issue of Building Stone Magazine. The article, "A labor of love," details the efforts required to complete the four-year phased construction project.