Conducting the Architectural Investigation

The Old House Web

Articles in this series: Determining the Purpose of Investigation  | Investigators and Investigative Skills | Studying the Fabric of the Historic Building | Looking More Closely  | Conducting the Architectural Investigation | After Weighing the Evidence | Keeping a Responsible Record  | Conclusion


Architectural investigation can range from a simple one hour walk-through to a month long or even multi-year project-and varies from looking at surfaces to professional sub-surface examination and laboratory work.

All projects should begin with the simplest, non-destructive processes and proceed as necessary. The sequence of investigation starts with reconnaissance and progresses to surface examination and mapping, sub-surface non-destructive testing, and various degrees of sub-surface destructive testing.

Reconnaissance. An initial reconnaissance trip through a structure-or visual overview-provides the most limited type of investigation. But experienced investigators accustomed to observation and analysis can resolve many questions in a two-to-four hour preliminary site visit. They may be able to determine the consistency of the building's original form and details as well as major changes made over time.

raking light showing surface irregularities
Raking light is used to show irregularities on flat surfaces. Patches, repairs, and alterations can then be mapped by the shadows or ghosts they cast. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Surface Mapping. The first step in a thorough, systematic investigation is the examination of all surfaces. Surface investigation is sometimes called "surface mapping" since it entails a minute look at all the exterior and interior surfaces. The fourfold purpose of surface mapping is to observe every visible detail of design and construction; develop questions related to evidence and possible alterations; note structural or environmental problems; and help develop plans for any further investigation. Following investigation, a set of documentary drawings and photographs is prepared which record or "map" the evidence.

While relying upon senses of sight and touch, the most useful tool for examining surfaces is a high-powered, portable light used for illuminating dark spaces as well as for enhancing surface subtleties. Raking light at an angle on a flat surface is one of the most effective means of seeing evidence of attachments, repairs or alterations.

Non-Destructive Testing. The next level of investigation consists of probing beneath surfaces using non-destructive methods. Questions derived from the surface mapping examination and analysis will help determine which areas to probe. Investigators have perfected a number of tools and techniques which provide minimal damage to historic fabric. These include x-rays to penetrate surfaces in order to see nail types and joining details; boroscopes, fiber optics and small auto mechanic or dentists' mirrors to look inside of tight spaces; and ultra violet or infra-red lights to observe differences in materials and finishes. The most advanced technology combines the boroscope with video cameras using fiber optic illumination. In addition to the more common use of infra-red photography, similar non-destructive techniques used in archeological investigations include remote sensing and ground-penetrating radar.

Small material samples of wood, plaster, mortar, or paint can also be taken for laboratory analysis at this stage of investigation. For instance, a surface examination of a plaster wall using a raking light may show clear evidence of patching which corresponds to a shelf design. Were the shelves original or a later addition? A small sample of plaster from the patched area is analyzed in the laboratory and matches plaster already dated to a third period of construction. A probe further reveals an absence of first period plaster on the wall underneath. The investigator might conclude from this evidence that the shelves were an original feature and that the plaster fill dates their removal and patching to a third period of construction.

use of exploratory testing
Exploratory testing was used to verify the location of an abandoned fireplace. Plaster and brick were carefully documented and removed to determine the fireplace's type, size, and location. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Destructive Testing. Most investigations require nothing more than historical research, surface examination and non-destructive testing. In very rare instances the investigation may require a sub-surface examination and the removal of fabric. Destructive testing should be carried out by a professional only after historical research and surface mapping have been fully accomplished and only after non-destructive testing has failed to produce the necessary information. Owners should be aware that the work is a form of demolition in which the physical record may be destroyed. Sub-surface examination begins with the most accessible spaces, such as retrofitted service and mechanical chases; loose or previously altered trim, ceilings or floor boards; and pieces of trim or hardware which can be easily removed and replaced.

Non-destructive testing techniques do not damage historic fabric. If non-destructive techniques are not sufficient to resolve important questions, however, small "windows" can be opened in surface fabric at predetermined locations to see beneath the surface. This type of subsurface testing and removal is sometimes called "architectural archeology" because of its similarity to the more well-known process of trenching in archeology. The analogy is apt because both forms of archeology use a method of destructive investigation.

Photographs, video and drawings should record the before, during and after evidence when the removal of historic fabric is necessary. The selection and sequence of material to be removed requires careful study so that original extant fabric remains in situ if possible. If removed, original fabric should be carefully put back or labeled and stored. At least one documentary patch of each historic finish should be retained in situ for future research. Treatment and interpretation, no matter how accurate, are usually not final; treatment tends to be cyclical, like history, and documentation must be left for future generations, both on the wall and in the files.

Laboratory Analysis. Laboratory analysis plays a scientific role in the more intuitive process of architectural investigation. One of the most commonly known laboratory procedures used in architectural investigation is that of historic paint analysis. The chronology and stratigraphy of applied layers can establish appropriate colors, finishes, designs or wall coverings. When conducted simultaneously with architectural investigation, the stratigraphy of finishes, like that of stratigraphic soils in archeology, helps determine the sequence of construction or alterations in a building. Preliminary findings fromin situ examinations of painted finishes on walls or trim are common, but more accurate results come from extensive sampling and microscopic laboratory work using chemical analysis and standardized color notations. Consultants without the proper knowledge have been known to cause far more harm than good.

Mortar and plaster analysis often provide a basis for dating construction with minimal intervention. Relatively small samples of the lime-based materials can be chemically separated into their component parts of sands and fines, which are then visually compared to equivalent parts of known or dated samples. A more thorough scientific approach may be used to accurately profile and compare samples of other materials through elemental analysis. Two similar methods in common use are Neutron Activation and Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS). Neutron Activation identifies the sample's trace elements by monitoring their response to neutron bombardment. EDS measures the response to electron bombardment through the use of an electron microscope. In both tests, the gathered information is plotted and matched with the reactions of known elements. The results provide a quantitative and qualitative profile of the sample's elemental components for use in further comparisons.

Dendrochronology presents a minimally destructive process for dating wooden members. Also called tree ring dating, this process relies on the comparative wet and dry growth seasons of trees as seen in their rings via a core sample. This technique has two limitations: a very extensive data base must be compiled for climatic conditions over a long span of years and matched with corresponding tree ring samples; and the core samples can only be taken from timber which still has a bark edge. Simple identification of wood species during an investigation can be determined from small samples sent to a forest products laboratory.

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