A Life in the Trades: October 2010

Series introduction. October 2009. November 2009. December 2009. January 2010. February 2010. March 2010. April 2010. May 2010. June 2010. September 2010.

By Nicholas Bogosian

I have now reached the fifth quarter of my training at the Building Preservation & Restoration Program of Belmont Technical College.  That’s five out of seven.  I started this series at the beginning of my training with the intent of highlighting the trades function in the preservation of our built environment and as an open scrapbook of my experiences through the duration of the training.  I am happy to say that the zeal I came into the process with hasn’t wavered a bit.  Now the time has come to begin seeking out internships and think more forwardly about my place in the field.

Sistering rafters in historic outshed until necessary structural repairs can be made. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

It’s a true challenge to define preservation, let alone decide where you fit into its expansive net.  Preservation is not something most of us hear about growing up, or see on career placement tests.  While attending a plaster demonstration at Sarel Venter’s plaster lab in Grafton, WV last Spring, he asked us what we wanted to do when we graduated.  A few of us only had vague ideas:  “I’m not really sure” to which he replied, “That’s probably a good thing.”

Renata Bruza working iron over an anvil in Metals class. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

I know, like most of my peers, that I find satisfaction in making an unhealthy structure healthy again.  I enjoy even more knowing why it is healthier and why it was unhealthy in the first place.  This maintenance ethic may seem concrete in our minds, but I bet most of the world doesn’t view maintenance as a technical skill, a science, or an art (or even a priority).  The beauty of the craftsman is not only their ability to work with their hands – truthfully, their handiwork would have no value without the intellectual understanding of the materials they are working with.

Windows & Doors class repairing windows at an 1880s one-room schoolhouse in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

It is not enough, however, to be proficient in the historic building trades (i.e. plastering, blacksmithing, masonry, timber framing, faux painting, etc.)  A modern preservationist (or conservator, or preservation technician) must take their knowledge of these highly specialized professions and view the building holistically and understand the process of deterioration.  What good is a plasterer’s handiwork in repairing cracks in a wall when significant differential settlement is taking place in the building?  A preservation-sensitive structural engineer would do more good.

Sandstone erosion due to face-bedding & improper Portland cement mortaring. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

At this point, if I had to describe my dream job in preservation it would be something like working for an Architectural Conservation firm that not only carries out laboratory testing of materials, but also completes the process of sensitive repairs.
I love the resolute and grounded quality of stone and the inspiring durability of wood and the careful chemistry of arranging a sophisticated three part plaster.  I love the investigation, the clues:  the face of a sandstone block exfoliating like pages of a book, the cambium layers of a hand-hewn joist letting go and falling to the ground, the way the paint bubbles on the clapboards during a heavy rainstorm.

Removing a corroded cast iron grate for repairs in metal lab. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Bogosian.

So I suppose the conservationist shares in the same delight of the chemist, in knowing something at its atomic and molecular level – to know something through and through.

Old Sheetrock

click and then zoom for larger image to read label

In architectural conservation class, my professor showed my class some old sheetrock from a historic house in Vermont. Normally we don’t count sheetrock as anything but modern, but the label here says 1921!  Anyway, maybe you find this label as interesting as I do. Enjoy!