Historic homes may prove to be more resilient against floods

Historic homes may prove to be more resilient against floods

SUFFOLK, Va. — Whenever historic homes get flooded, building contractors often feel compelled by government regulations to rip out the water-logged wood flooring, tear down the old plaster walls and install new, flood-resistant materials.

It’s a hurried approach that’s likely to occur across southwest Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. Paige Pollard, Kerry Shackelford and other restorers believe they have a secret that can withstand multiple soakings. They say that modern materials such as lumber from box stores are often unnecessary and costly for homeowners. This can also dilute the historic integrity of a home.

” Our forefathers used materials that are naturally resistant to rot, such as red cedar, red cedar, and cypress,” stated Shackelford who runs a historic restoration company. “And they actually survive better than many of the products we use today.”

Pollard and Shackelford are part of an emerging movement in the U.S. that aims to prove the resilience of older homes as more fall under the threat of rising seas and intensifying storms due to climate change. They hope their research near Virginia’s coast can convince more government officials and building contractors that historic building materials often need cleaning — not replacing — after a flood.

In Florida, historic preservationists already fear older homes damaged by Ian may be stripped of original materials because so few craftsmen are available who can properly perform repairs.

” “There are some businesses that just come through and do the job of just moving on,” Jenny Wolfe (board president, Florida Trust for Historic Preservation) said.

Pollard and Shackelford opened this year a joint venture in Virginia. Building Resilient Solutions is a retrofit design company that uses planks from old-growth cedar, oak, and pine. The tank simulates flood conditions. These tests were developed with the help of researchers at Virginia Tech and are intended to prove historic materials’ endurance.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on similar research at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois.

Researchers there have read through construction manuals from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries to assemble everything from tongue-and-groove flooring to brick walls coated with plaster. The materials were lowered into water containing bacteria and mold to simulate tainted floodwater.

This research might seem redundant when you consider all the homes along America’s coastlines and rivers that are still standing: Many have withstand multiple floods, and many still retain their original floors or walls.

Pollard, Shackelford claim that lumber found in older homes are resilient as it was made from slow-growing trees over many decades or even centuries. This means that the tree’s growth rings are small and dense which makes it difficult for water to penetrate. Also, the timber was cut from the innermost part of the trunk, which produces the hardest wood.

Plaster can also be water resistant, while common plaster coatings were made from lime, a substance with antiseptic qualities. But here’s what the problem is: U.S. flood insurance regulations frequently require that structures located in flood-prone regions be repaired using products that are flood-resistant. And many historic building materials haven’t been classified because they haven’t been tested.

U.S. There are exceptions to the regulations for houses on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as certain state or local registries. But not everyone fully understands or is aware of the exceptions, which can be limited.

The far bigger challenge is a lack of expertise among contractors and local officials, Pollard said. There are many interpretations of regulations, especially in the aftermath of a flood.

“You’ve got a property owner who’s in distress,” said Pollard, who co-owns a historic preservation firm. “They’re dealing with a contractor who’s being pulled in a million directions. And the contractors are trained to get all of that (wet) material into a dumpster as quickly as possible.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, Karen Speights said a contractor replaced her original first floor — made from old-growth pine — with laminate flooring after her home flooded.

Built in the 1920s, Speights’ two-story craftsman is in Chesterfield Heights, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is located in the heart of one of the most at-risk cities for sea-level rise, along the Chesapeake Bay estuary.

” I still think that I had a competent contractor but flooding wasn’t his expertise,” Speights stated. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Along Florida’s Gulf Coast, there are thousands of historic structures, said Wolfe of the Florida Trust. Many of these structures are wooden-framed homes on piers that have plaster-and-lath walls.

Many of them will need to dry out quickly after Ian has left. Wolfe stated that many may only require drying. But only so many local contractors know what to do “in terms of drying them slowly and opening up the baseboards to get circular airflow.”

Andy Apter, president-elect of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, agreed that many contractors aren’t well-versed in older building materials.

“There’s no course that I know of that teaches you directly how to work on historical homes,” said Apter, a Maryland contractor. “It’s like an antique car. There will be a limit on the parts you can get and the people who can work on them .”

. However, there has been an increase in interest in older homes since the destruction of hundreds of thousands of historical structures in the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina 2005,, according to Jenifer Egelston, chief of staff at the National Park Service for cultural resources and partnerships, and science.

Eggleston said the park service recognized the growing need to protect older structures and issued new guidelines last year for rehabilitating historic buildings in flood-prone areas.

The guidelines suggest that historic materials be kept in their original places whenever possible. But they don’t list specific materials due to the lack of research on their flood resistance.

These are the results of studies. A recent study done by the Army Corps and the park service found that certain historic materials such as cypress and heart pine flooring performed better than some modern lumber.

These particular floor assembly could be dried and reused after “clean water” damage. But they would likely require refinishing to remove “biological activity,” such as mold and bacteria.

Pollard said that they hope for a shift in practice to save homeowners and taxpayers money, as these are often the ones who pay for major disasters.

In the meantime, flooding in historic areas will only get worse from more frequent rain storms or more powerful hurricanes, said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

” Think about the historical settlement patterns of this country,” Berginnis stated. “On the coasts, we settled around water. Inland, we settled around water.”

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