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Stanford Report, October 8, 1997

Dealing with buildings of the past: 10/8/97

Quirks in old buildings test workers' ingenuity

Construction experts say it doesn't cost more to renovate an old building than to build a new one, but secrets buried in construction often prompt workers to be inventive.

Maggie Burgett, construction manager for the museum, says it took weeks of trial and error before workers learned how to mix an exact color match for the red-, yellow- and blue-colored concrete floors in the building. Workers also had to reinvent a century-old tool used to score a tile design in the floor.

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"First they made a tool out of sheet metal but [the grooves in the concrete] looked terrible; too wobbly," Burgett says. Then came a brass tool that worked but wore out because concrete is so abrasive. Finally, a subcontractor machined a tool from stainless steel. That did the job.

While working creatively, managers sometimes get less than they bargained for with old buildings.

At Green Library West, construction/project manager Barbara Weber says, only the mechanical and electrical drawings were accurate. "When we got into the structural and architectural, there were a lot of bricks shown that weren't here," she says.

And sometimes, workers say, it's difficult to mesh the code requirements for new buildings with the constraints posed by historic construction.

"I'm used to new construction where everything is just [so]," says Jeff Dachauer, construction superintendent for Cahill Construction at Encina Hall East. The building was stripped to its stone and masonry shell after work started in May. "I have a hard time figuring out where you draw the line, when the historic building code supersedes the building code," he says. "There is no defining line."

The issue is magnified if a project receives funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This step triggers a review by the State Historic Preservation Officer, according to guidelines laid down by the National Historic Preservation Act. Both the museum and the library, which are eligible candidates for the National Register of Historic Places, have received FEMA funding.

Architects, preservation officers, university clients and contractors then have to find a balance between enforcing safety codes, meeting academic program needs and fulfilling historic preservation requirements. "There's a lot of juggling, especially when you weave in cost," says Steade Craigo, senior restoration architect for the California Office of Historic Preservation.

University archeologist Laura Jones says her training teaches her to preserve history although she understands the university's need to function as a working institution.

"We're not a museum of old buildings, we're a state-of-the-art university," she says. "It would be much easier to knock these buildings down but you would lose something." At the same time, cost is a key issue. "We look at every project and ask, 'Does this make sense?' " SR