Respect The Process For Successful Historical Masonry Restoration

Words: Tom Vacala

Words: Tom Vacala | Editing: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Restore Masonry Inc.

Historical restoration and preservation of masonry demands a high level of respect. Though a wide array of processes and products can be used to pull it off, it takes the right knowledge to get the job done right. A different approach must be taken when it comes to this unique type of masonry work in order to avoid dissatisfaction from any party.

Whether it is laying, treating, or cleaning masonry, the respective process must be handled with care and attention. All three of the above are art forms in their own ways, each performed by skilled individuals who appreciate and understand the “what” and “how” involved in the job. Proper masonry restoration requires an individual who has patience with the process… and no one understands that more than Restore Masonry’s Vice President of Operations, Tom Vacala.

The Magic Mix

According to Tom, these jobs can seem daunting as a variety of factors can influence the process. However, most projects include an architect who guides or makes a lot of these decisions.

“Typically, every architect puts together a design of the work that he wants done,” said Vacala. “If it is a historical building in Chicago for instance, then they usually work with Landmarks Illinois ( People Saving Places for People | Landmarks Illinois ), who are very much in tune with restoring historic buildings properly and without changing the building’s existing materials.”

Even though an architect may use the correct process in consultation with historical preservation groups, it still takes a skilled contractor and their team to complete the work. While a good architect will account for climate, building movement, and breathability, it is up to the contractor to have an understanding of the proper products and techniques to ensure no damage is done to existing materials.

“Using different chemicals on a building can affect the building materials,” said Vacala. “It is best to get [a historical preservation group like] Landmarks Illinois involved and use properly trained professionals to conduct the work.”

Vacala credits the success of any restoration to the skill of those executing the work, which only happens through proper training. According to Tom, it is well worth the early investment into properly training field teams. It will ensure the job gets done right the first time.

“We are very thankful to have the District Council Training Center / BAC ( District Council Training Center (bac2school.org) ) here in Chicago, that trains the Bricklayers and Tuckpointers on historical preservation, and they do a great job,” said Vacala. “Our company has sent a lot of our employees to take multiple classes on historical restoration. We call those people, lifers.”

Properly trained field employees are a lifeline for proper historical restoration and preservation. Getting the job done wrong means redoing work… if that’s possible after a first unsuccessful attempt. The key remains doing it right the first time.

“If you’re using a scrub brush and a very low PSI of a power washer to remove paint, then you can carefully take one layer off at a time. Scraping is even acceptable, if done correctly. There are also numerous new technologies on the market for removing existing paint, carbon build up or just years and years of dirt build up. But those can also be costly and sometimes over budget.”

While the process or technique is crucial in all masonry restoration projects, the chemicals and products that accompany the labor require the same level of competence and understanding. Vacala praised Jahn (Cathedral Stone Products | The Professional's Choice for Masonry Restoration & Repair) for offering training to ensure the correct use of its products.

“Our company flew a couple of us out to Maryland to their facility where they taught us how to use all of its products, correctly,” said Vacala. “After completion of the training, you were awarded a certification card and then, and only then, given the opportunity to make a purchase of the products.”

The Challenges

Tom stresses a common theme when it comes to historical restoration — neglect and improper painting. The wrong paint used as a coverup is what creates this part of the puzzle. Identifying the paint used is critical in restoring the material.

“This is a problem we have seen, and you have to work closely with the architect and the owner. You cannot just go in with high pressure, heavy chemicals, or a sandblaster. You will damage the material behind the paint, which is the original brick or stone you are trying to restore.”

The paint must be identified as either epoxy, water-based paint, or something else. With older structures, there is a possibility of lead-based paint, which requires its own set of specialized considerations. Remediation of lead-based paints may be mandated by governing agencies. Even after correct identification, removing the paint is only the first step in the process.

“You have to understand that most paints are not breathable,” said Vacala. “So, a lot of time when you remove that paint, you will have spalled material that falls off during the restoration process. This is because the paint may have stopped the opportunity for the masonry to breathe (absorb water and dry out during changes in the weather).”

Tom stresses how important testing remains to achieve the desired outcome. Allowing time in the job to conduct the necessary and responsible testing can be challenging. Restore Masonry’s approach is to test small areas throughout the buildings with product, like those available from PROSOCO, who considers both the users and environment.

“Our goal is to not only refrain from disturbing the building, but we’re not going to disturb the soil and environment around it.”

A Unified Effort

Vacala also stressed the importance of all parties being on the same page when it comes to the desired look for the finished job. With restoration, it’s not always possible to get exactly what the owner envisioned as damage caused by neglect or an improper coating could get in the way.

Many restorations are unsuccessful because of a competitive dollar bid process, which means the contractor who comes in the lowest gets the work. In many cases, this means the proper fact-finding work at the front of the job can be cut off. In addition, those lower bids may come into a job and get it done quickly with the wrong products.

“It should not be about the dollars or hours spent when restoring masonry. There are no such thing as speedy restoration projects. For our team, it’s not about the profit, it’s about the art of what we are recreating. You must be passionate about having an impact on what was previously done to restore it to its original beauty. It’s a privilege to show people some of the beautiful buildings throughout Chicago and to say to them ‘our company restored that building.’”

The Correct Path

To pull it off, all stakeholders in the job must have realistic goals. The right architect consults with a local preservation group, and a thorough bid is what gets selected. The contractor has a well-trained team who is able to balance products and processes while also managing expectations based off of their fact finding.

“A lot of the existing raw materials are not physically available anymore. There is a misconception as far as people wanting to restore a building back to its original self, one-hundred percent. Sometimes, that may not be possible.”

There can also be a misconception about the reuse or “recycling” of existing materials. If the material was improperly stored, for example, it likely cannot be reused. Tom recommends having early conversations that help set realistic expectations for the project.

For instance, when replacing a section of brick that is visible to the public, it can be patched with material taken from a less-visible spot, like a side of the building that sees no traffic. Substitute materials can then be used in those less noticeable areas. That’s an ideal scenario, though, and not always possible.

By continuing the conversation from the beginning through the end of the project, it will help all parties understand and respect the important work being done. It’s that respect for the structure, process, products, and execution that is the key.

“The only way a masonry restoration project can be successful is simply by the constant communication among all parties involved.”

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