Any remodeling involving a historic building is complicated. You never know exactly what you’ll find hidden and what will have to be replaced. Period details have to be replicated, material that would be tossed out in a standard remodel must be saved, and old-world techniques like window glazing must be done. If the local historical commission gets involved, it can add another level of difficulty.

Remodeling historic structures isn’t for everyone, but Walter Beebe-Center and his company tackle these projects regularly. He says the company’s been lucky to work on houses that were occupied by people like Abigail Adams, John Greenleaf Whittier, Paul Revere, Josiah Quincy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alexander Hamilton. 

In this episode, Walter talks to Tim and Steve about remodeling historic homes, fixing previous work, and bringing older homes up to modern standards — with new plumbing, electrical work, and more energy efficiency.

Walter is the owner of Essex Restoration in Wilmington, MA. Upon graduating from Columbia College with a B.A. in economics, Walter gained hands-on carpentry experience by working on various building and remodeling projects in eastern Massachusetts. After five years working in the field, he (like many of his employees) attended North Bennett Street School’s two-year, full-time Preservation Carpentry program. In 1994, Walter founded Essex Restoration and began operating as a three-man company. Since then, Essex Restoration has grown to 17 employees and has served hundreds of clients. 

Walter explains the differences in working in preservation, replication, and renovation. Working with homeowners in historic homes requires compromises, in budget and function. He talks about the particular challenges and rewards of working in historic buildings, and how to preserve the charm of the old while building in modern conveniences and energy efficiency, including:

  • Figuring out how and where to add electricity and plumbing
  • Why drafts kept old houses healthy
  • How remodeling differs from “re-muddling”
  • Welding window glass
  • Working with the historical commission
  • Tunneling under an old foundation to pour new footings
  • Repairing a leaking roof without removing interior plaster
  • What a drift pin is, and how to use it
  • How to structure contracts
  • Keeping control of the budget
  • Setting a fixed markup percentage
  • Emptying a full dumpster to find an antique detail
  • The stories old buildings tell
  • And more …

If you’re interested in gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to work on historic homes, Walter advises to pair formal training with on-the-job experience.

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