The Special Challenges of Working on Historical Buildings

by | Sep 2, 2016

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elmore_county_1Schneider Electric is working on a far-ranging upgrade and capital improvement project in Wetumpka, AL. The project, which will impact several Elmore County municipal buildings, is expected to cut the annual utility budget by 38 percent and save more than $4.4 million.

The goals — to cut costs and increase efficiency and comfort — must be seen through the lens of preserving the historic nature of the buildings. Many of these projects tend to be far ranging. The buildings are old and may need more than incidental repairs. In addition, if there is a fear that the historical nature of the structure will be impacted, human nature suggests that projects will be delayed. In the case of Elmore County, significant work in a number of different areas was necessary.

The bottom line is that these are sensitive projects. The fact that people have an emotional attachment to the structures can impact the way in which the work is done and the nature of the communications between the people planning and executing the project. In short, working on buildings that have long been a part of a community is far different than a strip mall.

The companies working on such projects must show the community that they care. “The first thing is that these buildings usually mean something to the community,” said Todd Smith, the Schneider Account Executive on the project. “They have stories and memories associated with them. We have to be cognizant of that in any changes that we are going to make.”

Smith said that buildings that have lasted long enough to get official or unofficial landmark status usually are solidly built and structurally sound. Problems do crop up related to their age, however. The presence of asbestos is not uncommon.

Another problem can be finding room for telecom and IT cabling. Old buildings of course predate the Internet and the explosion of sophisticated telecommunications networking. Thus, finding proper space for cables can present a problem, Smith said. “It takes another layer of interface with client to coordinate with the IT department to make sure there is enough bandwidth, data lines or cables,” Todd Smith said. In addition, you must discuss how and where those all have to be deployed.”

elmore_county_2The two elements – the sensitivity that the community may feel and the likelihood that more extensive work will be needed to meet the energy efficiency goals – indeed do make these projects tricky. But it also usually makes them interesting and fun.

An example of the historical sensitivity was the placement of LEDs into old – very old – chandeliers. “You are always going to be surprised during an historical renovation,” said Chis Smith, the Construction Manager on the project. “You must pivot quickly and know all the stake holders.” Chris and Todd Smith are not related.

The ongoing project is extensive. The courthouse, the jail, the judicial trial center, the highway department and the extension office all got or will get interior and exterior LED retrofits. All water fixtures are being upgraded or replaced. Limited capacity toilets and updated kitchen appliances will be installed in the jail. The sheriff’s department will get limited flow toilets. The court house is getting a new HVAC system. The judicial building is getting a new chiller pump. All the buildings got envelope work, such as weather stripping. Solar blocking window film is being deployed as well.

The planning of the project took about nine months, Todd Smith said. He suggested that the emotional tie a community has with a facility makes close communications – both before and during the work – extremely important. The goal is to finish the by the end of the year.

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