Preserve & Protect

Historic Renovation Projects Require Rigorous Attention to Past, Present and Future Surprises


Stacy Albanese, Building Conservation Associates, New York, New York, USA





Technicians work in a crane next to Notre Dame after the April fire. At right top, the cathedral's interior before the fire. Below, the interior afterward

The massive blaze in April that destroyed the spire and roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France stopped a €150 million renovation project in its tracks. The charred timbers and blackened scaffolding at the 856-year-old landmark also cast a haunting reminder of the peril that all preservation project teams face: How do you restore history without betraying it?

The exhaustive risk registers for major restoration projects go well beyond safety hazards. With so many unknowns lurking in aging structures, organizations must rethink how they plan for major and minor surprises. Schedules can slide off track if project owners struggle to shore up funding. Overlooking critical requirements can lead to a materials mix-up that won't fly with fastidious preservation guardians. And in the age of social media, sponsors will squirm if teams fail to provide tourists safe and unobstructed views for Instagram-worthy shots of an attraction while it's also a construction zone.

“The conservation of historical buildings requires a rigorous methodological approach, clear objectives, historical knowledge and technical skills,” says architect Paolo Gasparoli, technical director, historic restoration company Gasparoli S.r.l., Gallarate, Italy. “You must be effective but do not overdo it to ensure the preservation of the original structure and the natural patina.”


—Paolo Gasparoli, Gasparoli S.r.l., Gallarate, Italy

Help is on the way for project managers to creatively and carefully monitor all activities so problems—no matter the size—won't erode budgets and schedules. New technologies allow teams to develop virtual blueprints for buildings that lack original documentation and to precisely measure custom architectural elements. And across Europe, fashion companies using their financial and branding power have come to the rescue of irreplaceable monuments, including the nearly 2,000-year-old Colosseum in Rome, Italy (see “En Vogue,” page 32).

“Every one of these projects is different, so you learn as you go,” says Edward Lewis, construction project manager, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA. Mr. Lewis has managed dozens of historic restoration projects across England and has helped restore churches and timber-frame buildings that date to the 13th century—each of which required him to balance creating a better structure with maintaining historical authenticity. “It can be done, but it's a question of having the will and expense,” he says.


—Edward Lewis, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, Florida, USA




Restoration projects aren't cheap. And compressing schedules is rarely an option, because teams can't rush meticulous work or delicate tasks. Yet project owners often set unrealistic goals for time, cost and scope. As the voice of reason, project managers provide sponsors an eye-opening view of complexity from the start, says David Arnold, director and project manager, Herringbone Restoration Ltd., Huntingdon, England.

Mr. Arnold always builds time into the planning phase to educate sponsors and key stakeholders. For instance, he can explain how the need for every decision to be approved by historic preservation organizations can add months to a typical project schedule. An early and detailed overview helps sponsors understand how requirements management might force them to adjust their expectations—and why the team needs adequate time and resources to identify and mitigate risks.

Sponsors who underestimate restoration costs might be forced to suspend the project until they secure more funding. Sponsors who blindly forge ahead seldom meet their goals on time. “In a lot of cases, the money will run out before we even finish the floor,” Mr. Arnold says.

A strong contingency budget—10 to 15 percent, he suggests—or a funding angel can save sponsors from themselves. But neither will necessarily eliminate delays. In 2018, Mr. Arnold's team was contracted to restore a ruined castle in England so it could become a tourist destination. During the initial site review, his team found a hidden dungeon that introduced safety risks and a massive tree growing through a primary wall. Addressing those surprises added £70,000 to the budget in the first week, he says. Although the project owner was able to secure additional funds through an organization that supports historic restoration efforts, the new work added several weeks to the schedule.

Other renovation initiatives are less fortunate. Mr. Arnold regularly takes on projects that require two or three years to launch because owners still need to raise funds. In other cases, his team might find a problem but must merely document it and move on because there's no wiggle room in the budget to address it. When surprises grind projects to a halt, project stakeholders need to be creative in finding other funding mechanisms to compensate for budget shortfalls, says Jane Daniels, director, preservation services, Colorado Preservation Inc., a nonprofit organization that assists in the development and project management of historic properties, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Last year, during a project to convert a historic building into a community center, Ms. Daniels’ team discovered the site had far more asbestos than originally anticipated. The 10-year, US$4 million project was delayed for nine months as the team sought additional funds to cover the work. Such delays call for a charm offensive: Ms. Daniels summons her people skills to prevent discouraged stakeholders from bailing out and helps them look for alternative funding sources by emphasizing the public benefits of the project. “In the end, this restoration will generate public good and will have a greater chance of success with increased community support,” she says.


—Jane Daniels, Colorado Preservation Inc., Denver, Colorado, USA

Funding limitations sometimes tempt sponsors to cut corners on safety, Mr. Lewis says. Having a project manager on-site means that someone can constantly monitor contractors to ensure they are following requirements set by national, regional and local heritage restoration organizations as well as the safety regulations. “Nothing beats having a project manager on the job site checking progress and safety,” Mr. Lewis says. “From a safety point of view and a historical point of view, you want as many eyes on that project as possible.”

—Edward Lewis

En Vogue

Some of Europe's most famous fashion houses are digging deep into their pockets to dress up centuries-old landmarks across the continent. For instance, Chanel is contributing €30 million to a €500 million project to restore the century-old Grand Palais exhibit hall in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. And L'Oréal, Total, JCDecaux, LVMH and Kering pledged millions of euros to restart renovations at Notre Dame Cathedral after a fire in April torched the top of the 856-year-old church. LVMH even offered France access to its creative, architectural and financial experts for rebuilding efforts.

Fashion-funded renovation projects are a win-win proposition. Structures that help drive tourism are preserved without having to drain government funds that can be used for day-to-day infrastructure needs. And fashion giants get to play cultural hero, embellishing their brand reputations. But having sponsors from an industry sometimes known for excess adds another layer of complexity for project managers.

Establishing decision-making boundaries helps project managers set and maintain reasonable expectations throughout when fashion-first sponsors are involved, says Paolo Gasparoli, technical director, Gasparoli S.r.l., a historic restoration company, Gallarate, Italy. Mr. Gasparoli worked with Prada and Versace when those organizations sponsored a one-year project to restore the 154-year-old Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Italy, considered the world's first shopping mall.

Mr. Gasparoli helped the sponsors navigate myriad stakeholders that had to vet all decisions. But getting approval from the Superintendence for Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape in Italy, as well as structural engineers, plant engineers, diagnostic experts, firefighting experts and safety coordinators, didn't prevent that project from finishing on schedule. On projects with multiple public and high-profile private stakeholders, Mr. Gasparoli sees himself as a consultant with the “common sense and ability to mediate between different problems and utilities in the interest of the client, the historical building and the community.”

Here's a closer look at three historic restoration projects funded by fashion houses:



Grand Palais

Fashion sponsor: Chanel

Location: Paris, France

Budget: €500 million (€30 million from Chanel)

Status: Scheduled to launch in 2020 Chanel has used the century-old exhibition hall for many of its ready-to-wear and couture shows. Now it's helping the French government spruce up the space in time to host fencing and taekwondo competitions at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Renovations will include new auditoriums, a rooftop terrace and a grand entrance renamed after Coco Chanel.


Capitoline Hill

Location: Rome, Italy

Fashion sponsor: Gucci

Budget: Not available

Status: Scheduled to be completed 2020

In March, Gucci announced plans to fund work on one of Rome's original seven hills, which was damaged by a landslide in 2018. It will contribute €1.6 million to the 18-month project, which includes clearing paths and adding a new lighting system. But work must be completed in time for Gucci to host the Cruise 2020 fashion show inside the adjacent Capitoline Museums.


The Colosseum

Location: Rome, Italy

Fashion sponsor: Tod's

Budget: €25 million

Status: Phase 2 completed in 2017

The Italian leather-goods company funded the interior and exterior cleaning phase of the project to restore the nearly 2,000-year-old amphitheater. Scope included work on 31 arches, 44,000 square feet (4,088 square meters) of concrete facades and 33,000 square feet (3,066 square meters) of travertine, plus installing 3,000 square feet (279 square meters) of new iron gates and frames. The final phase is ongoing and includes work on the Colosseum's floor.



Restoring structures that are centuries old can send project teams on a virtual scavenger hunt to track down historic documentation, replacement materials or even talent with the right experience to assess and preserve historic landmarks. “The lack of specialized professionalization in conservation is an underlying issue,” says Lee Ho Yin, PhD, associate professor and head of the division of architectural conservation programs, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.

Even the most experienced experts can't bypass painstaking processes necessary to identify the sources of unusual materials so they can re-create 13th-century plaster or replicate stained-glass lead windows. Project owners might balk at the long planning time, but such steps can't be skipped.

For Stacy Albanese, associate director and project manager, Building Conservation Associates (BCA), New York, New York, USA, attention to detail and a streamlined approach have helped her effectively manage BCA's large and complex renovation projects.

“These places are sacrosanct,” Ms. Albanese says. “So accurate data has to inform everything we do, from preparing thorough technical specifications to providing organized and detailed bid documents to understanding whether recommended treatments by the building trades can be constructed. Conducting a thorough assessment of existing conditions will guide the entire project plan.”

—Stacy Albanese, Building Conservation Associates, New York, New York, USA

Next-gen tech is helping teams map reconstruction plans for medieval Notre Dame. A 3D laser scan of the entire structure has generated documentation that can tell teams the precise curves of a flying buttress or the original thickness of critical support beams that might need to be replaced. But even lower-tech approaches can yield comprehensive results.

Just Wright

A team kept a firm grip on precise requirements to restore an iconic architect's gem.


Protecting the legacy of one of the most famous U.S. architects means the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust must show as much attention to detail as Mr. Wright did. The organization maintains as tourist attractions some of the more than 500 homes, offices, churches and other structures he designed over nearly 70 years starting in the late 1890s.

Projects to restore and preserve these buildings require carefully vetted planning and decision making to ensure the structures stay true to the intentional vision of Mr. Wright's signature Prairie School designs, says Karen Sweeney, preservation architect, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “We often spend more time on planning than we do on the project,” she says.


—Karen Sweeney, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Such was the case during the three-year, US$3 million restoration of the Frederick C. Robie House completed in February 2019. Before fixing structural problems, crumbling masonry and leaking roofs and windows at the former private residence, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust project managers dedicated the first 18 months to analyzing the entire building and conducting extensive requirements research on how to return the home to its original state.

For example, a team from renovation contractor Bulley & Andrews created 25 different plaster mockups before settling on the right combination of limestone and sand for the exterior walls, and it tested dozens of paint samples to find a formula that was thin enough to show sand in the plaster underneath while still imparting color. While Bulley & Andrews began its work, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust required the team to allow house tours to continue. So the team worked on half of the home at a time and erected Plexiglas walls around construction areas so visitors could see what they were doing. “Part of our mission is to teach people about restoration,” Ms. Sweeney says. “What better way to do that than to show them a restoration project in process.”


There were no shortcuts at any phase, and the team made sure the schedule accounted for the extra time needed for specialized tasks. Team members numbered and cataloged every piece of trim, cabinetry, floorboard, glass and stone that would be taken out of the house so it could be put back in exact order, explains Mark Ristow, project manager, Bulley & Andrews, Chicago, Illinois. “Without those records, we would have been lost putting the house back together.”

Rather than using modern sanding equipment or potentially harsh chemicals, as it might on renovations for newer buildings, Mr. Ristow's team had to take a more delicate and deliberate old-school approach. The team spent days hand-scrubbing replacement plaster to expose the original surface without damaging it, and it sourced handmade bricks to match the long, thin design of the original exterior.



The contractor and sponsor also had to work together to resolve competing interests. Some of the original building materials didn't meet today's building codes. For example, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust preferred to keep the original floors of the house. The ground-level floors had a magnesite topping that was mixed with asbestos, which can't be used anymore, so the team created a new magnesite mixture using wood fibers in lieu of the asbestos that replicate the look of the original floors. During a previous project at the Robie House, the Bulley & Andrews team also installed a fire sprinkler system and exit signs—neither of which was original to the house, of course—to meet building safety codes, says Ray Wojkovich, vice president, Bulley & Andrews, Chicago, Illinois. “These are the decisions you wrestle with on restoration projects,” he says.

But the contractor made concessions on the exterior renovations. By design, Mr. Wright installed gutters with no downspouts so rain would splash onto the south porch balcony, creating a waterfall effect. Although the splashing water caused significant damage to patio doors and stained-glass windows, the contractor agreed to make exterior repairs without installing downspouts to retain the original design effects.

By knowing when to compromise and when to hold firm, the project team delivered much-needed renovations without destroying the unique history of the Robie House, Ms. Sweeney says. “You have to make choices that will give it the longest life with the least disturbance possible to the original building fabric.”

Ms. Albanese's teams capture each detail that requires restoration treatment in a database that links to the project computer-assisted design drawings. Using advanced data management tools helps BCA's teams keep a handle on thousands of conditions that need to be addressed, including removing and resetting displaced stones, replacing deteriorated cornice or roofing elements, or repointing masonry facades. “The database gives us the power to control and manage project progress for the restoration scope,” she says.

Compromise also is essential for keeping historic renovation projects on track. Teams must find creative solutions to keep structures safe and sustainable, such as hiding fire detectors in alcoves or incorporating steel reinforcements for stone facades. And they must adapt schedules and devise workarounds so construction won't interrupt the stream of daily visitors. During the last rebuild of Rome's Trevi Fountain—where tourists throw coins in the water—the team built a makeshift basin so nobody's luck would run out.

For renovations at iconic structures, anything short of safe, sound and satisfying would be an insult to history, Dr. Lee says. “Project leaders need to plan and manage conservation projects in a way that will meet global best practices and can stand the test of time.” PM


—Lee Ho Yin, PhD, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

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