Determining the Purpose of Investigation

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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

Both the purpose and scope of investigation need to be determined before formulating a particular approach. For example, investigation strictly for research purposes could produce information for an architectural survey or for an historic designation application at the local, state or national level.

Within the framework of The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, investigation is crucial for "identifying, retaining, and preserving the form and detailing of those architectural materials and features that are important in defining the historic character" of a property, whether for repair or replacement. A rehabilitation project, for instance, might require an investigation to determine the historic configuration of interior spaces prior to partitioning a room to meet a compatible new use. Investigation for preservation work can entail more detailed information about an entire building, such as determining the physical sequence of construction to aid in interpretation. Investigation for a restoration project must be even more comprehensive in order to re-capture the exact form, features, finishes, and detailing of every component of the building.

Whether investigation will be undertaken by professionals-architects, conservators, historians-or by interested homeowners, the process is essentially comprised of a preliminary four-step procedure: historical research, documentation, inventory, and stabilization.

Historical Research. Primary historical research of an old building generally encompasses written, visual and oral resources that can provide valuable site-specific information. Written resources usually include letters, legal transactions, account books, insurance policies, institutional papers, and diaries. Visual resources consist of drawings, maps, plats, paintings and photographs. Oral resources are people's remembrances of the past. Secondary resources, comprised of research or history already compiled and written about a subject, are also important for providing a broad contextual setting for a project.

Historical research should be conducted well in advance of physical investigation. This allows time for important written, visual, and oral information to be located, transcribed, organized, studied and used for planning the actual work.

animal nests yield unexpected evidence
An inventory of animal nests found within hidden spaces may yield unexpected evidence about food, decorative arts, and cultural or social traditions of everyday life. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

A thorough scholarly study of a building's history provides a responsible framework for the physical investigation; in fact, the importance of the link between written historical research and structural investigation cannot be overestimated. For example, the historical research of a building through deed records may merely determine the sequence of owners. This, in turn, aids the investigation of the building by establishing a chronology and identifying the changes each occupant made to the building. A letter may indicate that an occupant painted the building in a certain year; the courthouse files contain the occupant's name; paint analysis of the building will yield the actual color. Two-dimensional documentary research and three-dimensional physical investigation go hand-in-hand in analyzing historic structures. The quality and success of any restoration project is founded upon the initial research.

Documentation. A building should be documented prior to any inventory, stabilization or investigative work in order to record crucial material evidence. A simple, comprehensive method is to take 35 mm photographs of every wall elevation (interior and exterior), as well as general views, and typical and unusual details. The systematic numbering of rooms, windows and doors on the floor plan will help organize this task and also be useful for labeling the photographs. Video coverage with annotated sound may supplement still photographs. Additional methods of documentation include written descriptions, sketches, and measured drawings.

Significant structures, such as individually listed National Register properties or National Historic Landmarks, benefit from professional photographic documentation and accurate measured drawings. Professionals frequently use The Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for Architectural and Engineering Documentation: HABS/HAER Standards. It should be remembered that the documents created during investigation might play an unforeseen role in future treatment and interpretation. Documentation is particularly valuable when a feature will be removed or altered.

Inventory. The historic building and its components should be carefully inventoried prior to taking any action; premature clean-up of a structure or site can be a mistake. A careful look at all spaces in and around a building may reveal loose architectural artifacts, fragile evidence or clues to historic landscape features. This thorough observation includes materials and features which have fallen off due to deterioration, fragments removed and stored in basements, attics or outbuildings, and even materials which have seemingly been discarded.

In the beginning, anything that seems even remotely meaningful should be saved. A common mistake is to presume to know the value of artifacts or features at the beginning of a project. Even if the period of significance or interpretation is known from the beginning, evidence from all periods should be protected. Documentation for future study or use includes labeling and, if possible, photographing prior to storage in a secure place.

Stabilization. In many cases, emergency stabilization is necessary to ensure that a structure does not continue to deteriorate prior to a final treatment or to ensure the safety of current occupants, investigators, or visitors. Although severe cases might call for structural remedies, in more common situations, preliminary stabilization would be undertaken on a maintenance level. Such work could involve installing a temporary roof covering to keep water out; diverting water away from foundation walls; removing plants that hold water too close to the walls; or securing a structure against intruding insects, animals and vandals.

An old building may require temporary remedial work on exterior surfaces such as reversible caulking or an impermanent, distinguishable mortar. Or if paint analysis is contemplated in the future, deteriorated paint can be protected without heavy scraping by applying a recognizable "memory" layer over all the historic layers. Stabilization adds to the cost of any project, but human safety and the protection of historical evidence are well worth the extra money.

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