Historic homes may prove to be more resilient against floods


Suffolk, Virginia (AP) – When historic homes are flooded, building contractors often feel compelled by government regulations to tear down waterlogged wood floors, tear down old plaster walls and install new flood-resistant materials.

It’s a fast approach likely to occur across southwest Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. But restorers Paige Pollard and Kerry Shackelford say they know something that science has yet to prove: Historic building materials can often withstand repeated soaking. There is often no need, they say, to put modern products like lumber in storage boxes which are costly for homeowners and dilute the historic character of a home.

“Our ancestors chose naturally rot-resistant materials, such as black locust, red cedar, and cypress,” said Shackleford, who owns a historic restoration company. “And they actually live better than many of the products we use today.”

Pollard and Shackleford are part of an emerging movement in the United States that aims to prove the resilience of older homes as more of them are under threat from rising seas and intensifying storms due to climate change. They hope their research near the Virginia coast will convince more government officials and building contractors that historic building materials often need to be cleaned — not replaced — after a flood.

In Florida, historic preservationists already fear that older homes destroyed by Ian will be stripped of their original materials due to the lack of available craftsmen who can properly make the repairs.

“There are some companies that are just coming forward, and their job is just to come in and get in place and move on,” said Jenny Wolf, chair of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

Pollard and Shackleford’s joint venture in Virginia, retrofit design firm Building Resilient Solutions, opened a lab this year in which planks of old pine, oak and cedar are submerged in a tank that mimics flood conditions. The tests are designed to demonstrate the durability of historical materials and were designed with the help of Virginia Tech researchers.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service was working with the US Army Corps of Engineers on similar research at the Building Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois.

Researchers there read building manuals from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries to assemble everything from tongue-and-groove floors to plaster of brick walls. Substances were lowered into water containing bacteria and mold to simulate contaminated flood waters.

The search may seem starkly redundant considering all the old, untouched homes along the country’s coasts and rivers: many have withstood multiple floods and still boast their original floors and walls.

Bullard and Shackleford say sawnwood in older homes is resilient because it came from trees that grew slowly over decades, if not centuries. This meant that the tree’s growth rings were small and dense, making it difficult for water to seep into them. The timber was also cut from the deeper part of the trunk, which yields the hardest wood.

Plaster can also be waterproof, while common stucco coatings are made of lime, a substance with antiseptic properties.

But here’s the problem: Flood insurance regulations in the United States often require that structures in flood-prone areas be repaired with products rated as flood-resistant. Many historical building materials are not classified because they have not been tested.

US regulations allow exceptions for homes on the National Register of Historic Places as well as some state and local registries. But not everyone understands or is fully aware of the exceptions that can be limited.

The biggest challenge, Pollard said, is the lack of experience among contractors and local officials. Interpretations of regulations can vary, particularly in the event of chaos after a major flood.

“You have a property owner in distress,” said Pollard, who co-owns a historic preservation company. “They are dealing with a contractor being pulled in millions of directions. Contractors are trained to get all of this (wet) material into a trash can as quickly as possible.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, Karen Spetses said the contractor replaced the original first floor — made of old pine — with wood floors after her home was flooded.

Built in the 1920s, the two-story Craftsman Speights is located in Chesterfield Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in one of the cities most vulnerable to sea level rise.

“I still think I had a good contractor, but the floods weren’t his expertise,” said Spites. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Along the Florida Gulf Coast, there are thousands of historic structures, said Wolf of the Florida Trust. A large number of them are timber-framed houses on piers with plaster and wood walls.

Wolf said many will likely just need to dry off after Ian. But a lot of local contractors only know what to do “in terms of slowly drying them and opening the panels to have a circular airflow”.

Andy Apter, president-elect of the National Rebuilding Industry Association, agreed that many contractors are not well versed in old building materials.

“There is no course that I know of that directly teaches you how to work on historic homes,” said Apter, a contractor in Maryland. “It’s like an old car. You will be limited in where you can find the parts and where you can find someone qualified to work on them.”

But interest in the resilience of older homes has grown since Hurricane Katrina, which inundated hundreds of thousands of historic structures along the Gulf Coast in 2005, according to Jennifer Eggleston, the National Park Service’s chief of staff for cultural resources, partnerships and science.

Eaglestone said the park service has recognized the growing need to protect old structures and issued new guidelines last year to rehabilitate historic buildings in flood-prone areas.

The guidelines recommend preserving historical materials in place when possible. But they do not list specific substances due to the lack of research on their resistance to flooding.

This is where the studies come in.

Eaglestone said a recent study by the Park Service and the Army Corps found that some historical materials, such as old pine and cypress flooring, performed significantly better than some modern wood species.

Specific flooring sets can be dried for reuse after so-called “clean water” damage, Eggleston said. But it will likely require refinishing to remove “biological activity”, such as mold and bacteria.

Pollard and Shackleford said they hope for an eventual shift in practices that will save money for homeowners as well as taxpayers, who often foot the bill after a major disaster.

Meanwhile, Chad Bergenis, executive director of the state’s Federation of Flood Plains Managers, said flooding in historic areas would be made worse by frequent rainstorms or more powerful hurricanes.

“Think of the country’s historical settlement patterns,” Bergenis said. “On the coasts, we settled around the water. Inside, we settled around the water.”

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