Investigators and Investigative Skills

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

observation and analysis are two investigator's skills
An investigator must have the skill and ability to closely observe and analyze the materials with a broad understanding of historic construction practices and technologies. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

General and Specialized Skills. The essential skill needed for any level of investigation is the ability to observe closely and to analyze. These qualities are ideally combined with a hands-on familiarity of historic buildings-and an open mind! Next, whether acquired in a university or in a practical setting, an investigator should have a good general knowledge of history, building design history and, most important, understand both construction and finish technologies.

But it is not enough to know architectural style and building technology from a national viewpoint; the investigator needs to understand regional and local differences as well.

While investigative skills are transferable between regions and chronological periods, investigators must be familiar with the peculiarities of any given building type and geographical area.

need for temporary structural support
Investigation frequently identifies urgent needs of stabilization. Supplemental support, such as temporary shoring, may be required to prevent collapse. Photo: Travis C. McDonald, Jr.

Architectural survey and comparative fieldwork provides a crucial database for studying regional variations in historic buildings. For example, construction practices can reflect shared experiences of widely diverse backgrounds and traditions within a small geographical area. Contemporary construction practice in an urban area might vary dramatically from that of rural areas in the same region. Neighbors or builders within the same small geographical area often practice different techniques of constructing similar types of structures contemporaneously. Reliable dating clues for a certain brick bond used in one state might be unreliable for the same period in a different state. Regional variation holds true for building materials as well as construction.

Finally, even beyond regional and local variation, an investigator needs to understand that each building has its own unique history of construction and change over time. Form, features, materials and detailing often varied according to the tastes and finances of both builder and supplier; construction quality and design were also inconsistent, as they are today.

Specialists on a Team. Because architectural investigation requires a wide range of knowledge and many different skills, various people are likely to interact on the same project. While homeowners frequently execute small-scale projects, more complex projects might be directed by a craftsman, an architect or a conservator. For large-scale projects, a team approach may need to be adopted, consisting of professionals interacting with additional consultants. Consulting specialists may include architectural historians, architectural conservators, craftsmen, historic finish analysts, historians, archeologists, architects, curators, and many others. The scope and needs of a specific project dictate the skills of key players.

Architectural investigation often includes the related fields of landscape and archeological investigation. Landscape survey or analysis by horticulturists and landscape architects identify pre-existing features or plantings or those designed as separate or complementary parts of the site. Both above and below-ground archeology contribute information about missing or altered buildings, construction techniques, evidence of lifestyle and material culture, and about the evolution of the historic landscape itself.

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