Q&A with Jeff Ryan - Architectural Renovation Specialist

Q: Renovation is defined as: the process of improving a broken, damaged, or outdated structure. Based on your experience how would you define the art of renovation?

I would compare it to juggling a series of demands with a fixed object or as my father use to say putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound sack. When working on a historical building I am juggling a budget that the client is often optimistic about, making sure the building is up to compliance with current building and safety codes, historical building guidelines and review, and sometimes a change of building use (train station into federal courthouse)

Q: How many years have you practiced historical renovation?

A: 27 years, starting in 1987. Most of the buildings I have worked on were built between 1888 and 1925.

Q: What was your favorite project and why?

A: Seriously? (Laughing) You are asking a tough question. It is like asking me which family member is my favorite. If I have to pick just one I would chose Jason Lee Middle School. The school was 100,000 sq. ft. built in 1924 in desperate need of repair and restoration. We also expanded the school with an addition of 40,000 square feet to provide an accessible link between the old and not so old portions of the building.

I started on that project day 1 and remained on the job through construction all the way to the opening. The school was set to be demolished by the district before the community voiced their concern over the possible loss of the building. Before we even began there was an unspoken assumption held that we would fail. There was no foreseeable way to make the necessary improvements to the building with the tight budget we had to work with. Jason Lee became the first test case for preserving a historic building by the school district rather than simply replacing it.

I was working with a demanding client who understood the work architects can provide and (for the most part) gave me control. Due to our team’s creativity and resourcefulness the project was completed successfully, on time and within budget, which led to the preservation of other historic schools in the district. ( Jason Lee Middle School completed in 2001 while Jeff was with Merritt + Pardini)

Q: Describe your role and responsibilities on this project.

A: I was the Project Architect responsible for program development, design, contract documents, design team coordination and construction administration.

Q: What were some of the lessons learned while working on this project?

A: I learned when working on historic sites that you can never investigate the site, building or materials enough. There will always be surprises and challenges to be discovered as you go, lesson learned: expect the unexpected and be ready with contingency plans.

Q: Can you give me some examples of the unexpected twists and turns you ran into while working on Jason Lee?

A: Where do I start? Perhaps the fact that Jason Lee was built on a lake? We discovered this when construction began, test wells were drilled throughout the site but somehow only around the lake not in it. We discovered we had hit the rim of the lake when a hole filled with water over night in the middle of August. The discovery of the water required piling to be driven under the building to stabilize the old foundations. We also discovered the school had been built on top of the abandoned foundations of the original University of Puget Sound campus, some of which had to be removed to allow for the new construction.

In 1924 the concrete floor system did not appear to have been shored properly when poured, the result was a bow in the floor up to 5” between the columns under the weight of the concrete. The original contractor had compensated for the uneven structure by shimming up the wooden finish floor to remove the dips. Unfortunately for us, the leveling work was originally done by room so when we removed a wall to build a bigger space we found up to 1 ½” difference in floor height between the rooms. Since we were already planning on the removal of the wood floor and a plywood replacement, the discovery only required additional time to shim the framing to accommodate the dips along with more aggressive leveling compound in the hallways. A contingency had been placed in the budget to cover unknowns. Fortunately, we were able to make the needed repairs and still stay within budget.

Q: What were some of the aesthetic challenges you had to overcome?

A: One of the best examples is the restoration we did in the theater. The ceiling had been dropped and walls covered over with falsework to cover the fire damage created during a 1970s Black Panther protest on stage. I conducted research and found historical photos showing the original vaulted plaster ceilings. We were able to remove the dropped ceiling to restore the original vaulted ceiling underneath thanks to the craftsmanship of D.L. Hendricksen the plaster restoration contractor. The 1,200 seat theater boasts completely restored and fully functional bent wood seating all original to the space. Additionally, the unique theater has a full fly loft which stands at 60 feet tall to accommodate scenery and curtains between the roof and the performance area not visible to the audience. These types of spaces are not typically found in middle schools; it is one that is used by a number of community groups.

Q: What stands out as a highlight of the restoration of Jason Lee?

A: How the community has embraced the building since its completion. From a design and construction perspective, without a doubt the quality of materials and craftsmen that I worked with on the project made it memorable and resulted in a number of awards upon completion:

  • AIA Civic Design Merit Award, Washington State Chapter, 2001
  • Outstanding Project of the Year Award for Commercial Interior
    Northwest Wall & Ceiling Bureau, 2002
  • Honorable Mention, Excellence in Masonry Design, Masonry Institute, 2002
  • Honor Award, Architectural Precast Association, 2002

Q: Do most of your historical restoration projects involve high quality materials?

A: Absolutely! I would say that my favorite aspect of working on historical buildings is the variety and quality of materials I have a chance to work with.

Q: What are your favorite materials to work with?

A: My favorite so far is copper. I thoroughly enjoyed working on the detailing work of the Union Station copper dome. I can also get a lot of beautiful results with Terrazzo which is a material made up of polished marble chips suspended in a concrete matrix. I have also worked on many projects that use slate, granite, sandstone and terracotta.

Q: What are the most challenging aspects of renovating historic buildings?

A: Structurally an old building is often difficult to bring up to modern building codes while preserving the recognizable historic elements and features of the building. Typically the building must be taken apart further than I, and most preservationists, would want just to make the proper structural repairs. Seismic regulations require reinforcements that were not considered in the original design. They are challenging to work around and always require a creative solution to allow the original character and charm of the structure to last for following generations.

Q: What would you say are some of the contributing factors that lead to a historical building being demolished?

A: The biggest factor is neglect. The building sits for years without proper maintenance; water leaks into walls for days, weeks or months until someone notices water running out of the door into the street. A simple roof repair would have saved many buildings from decay and demolition. Many of the older buildings were not built with considerations for fire prevention that we have today. For example, most did not have fire stops in the walls, all it takes is a vagrant to start a fire inside the building to keep warm to cause a building to burn to the ground quickly. Fire is a major cause of the loss of historic buildings.

Q: Why should communities restore buildings instead of tearing them down?

A: A historic building represents a community’s unique sense of place and a recognizable landmark that is not just appreciated for its historical value but how it builds civic pride. Once demolished the building is gone forever and the community loses a part of its character.

When a building is restored it benefits the local economy. Local labor is required as opposed to bringing in materials from outside sources. Demolition costs money which is not always taken into consideration when evaluating renovation vs new construction.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring architects that want to go into the restoration field?

A: Can I be sarcastic here? (Chuckling) In all seriousness, students need to do their research. Not many schools have architectural programs that teach preservation. I suggest they find a mentor and a firm that specializes in restoration and jump in. The only way to learn is to go do it. You have to enjoy the research to do the job well.