How to learn historic rehabilitation?
November 9, 2011 9:51 AM   Subscribe

How to learn historic rehabilitation? I'm interested in the historic home curatorship program in Massachusetts. Essentially, you take over a home owned by the state and rehabilitate it without having to pay rent. However, to be successful, you really need to have lots of skills related to construction and historic curatorship. I'd like to acquire this skills, any tips on how to do it?
posted by scottschulthess to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You don't say if you currently possess any construction skills. Obviously, you'd need to start there, while simultaneously learning about history and architecture.

You might want to talk to a contractor like Charlie Allen, who does this sort of thing around Boston. Perhaps he could give you some pointers. There are also some links on his site that might prove useful to you.
posted by bondcliff at 10:24 AM on November 9, 2011

You're talking about learning a trade. This can be done, but not quickly, and very possibly not for free.

The most straightforward way of acquiring these skills is getting a job at a renovation construction firm and working there for a spate of years.

Short of that, there are classes you can take. Perhaps an Associates in Construction Technology? Check community colleges and technical schools in your area. This will take a year or three depending on how much time you want to spend on it all at once.

Longer term, you can buy yourself a fixer-upper and spend the next three to five years figuring it out, then apply for the program. This may actually be the best way to do this, because the program administrators are going to want to see evidence that you've actually done this sort of thing before. Managing an entire construction project is a different thing from doing the various tasks involved in said project.
posted by valkyryn at 10:28 AM on November 9, 2011

You need to contact them directly to find out what they requisite skills are.

Their website has a dearth of practical information for an interested party...

One tiny piece of the process immediately springs to mind: I can't imagine how the remodel would be assured to meet code unless there was someone involved in the project who has an architectural or structural engineering license. Do they have consultants you can advise you/stamp the drawings? Do they even have someone to assist you with the drawings?
posted by Specklet at 10:45 AM on November 9, 2011

There are university programs in Historic Preservation. They can be located in a variety of university units such as History, Cultural Studies or Architecture. Programs affiliated with architecture departments will probably have classes in preservation technology and tools as well as theory and so forth. I happen to work for a college of architecture and planning that offers a MS in Historic Preservation. Looks like Boston University offers a Preservation Studies MA that may or may not help you build the skills you would need to take on a project like that. (I am assuming you are in MA).

Additionally, you might want to check out the National Council for Preservation Education to see what other types of educational resources are out there.
posted by rachums at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are ways to formally train yourself in this specialty of the building trades, but I don't think even a couple of years of classes is going to teach you nearly as much as you will need. The best way is almost certainly getting real-world experience by rehabbing an historic home or three yourself. The professional certs and so on are primarily for, well, professionals in the industry who get either government or private agency jobs supervising and consulting on projects, less so for the actual builders -- although there is also a burgeoning private sector of contractors and developers who specialize in historic rehab. This is what places like the Campbell Center (which offers a respected summer program in various specialties, but not a full degree program) cater to.

They probably expect that you will undertake some of the work yourself, but major things -- roof, foundation, utilities -- you'll almost always be hiring out to a contractor anyway. They will surely require adherence to the National Park Service preservation guidelines for all work, and even stuff you do yourself will need some sort of check-off or inspection before and after. It seems the application process also will require some knowledgeable interpretation of what the structure actually needs in terms of rehab, from life safety to structural to appearance. You can't get that in a class, I guarantee it, but only from close involvement in prior rehab projects.

I think the best way to think about this is as a master class itself, something that you work your way up to by doing work on a less sensitive or important building. Depending on how aggressive you are with the work, a single building rehab can take six months, six years, or even (!) decades. But I know a guy in his early 30s who's already rehabbed half-a-dozen buildings. Someone like him would have the background and the demonstrable sustained interest to apply for a program like this, even if he never took a single class. Another approach would possibly be that you'd already selected and pursued an academic career in historic preservation, and this was your field work.

Going in blind, though, as you suspect, isn't something they want to encourage. The biggest problem with a program like this is going to be weeding out the dilettantes, the over-their-heads, and the talks-a-good-gamers. It's very easy to start work in this and find out quickly you don't have the patience, the care, or the sheer ability to do it right (house rehabs have broken up marriages). So it's good you're asking.

But no, I wouldn't do this unless I already had a physical portfolio, so to speak.

In the meantime, I would religiously read magazines like This Old House (which is the glossy, home-makeover approach), The Old-House Journal (the technical, stuffy, musty, historically-accurate approach, more in keeping with the program), and my favorite, Fine Homebuilding. These will give you a layman's overview of the types of projects involved and the level of effort and skill necessary to undertake them. After a year or so, you should be able to decide whether you're really up for even a home rehab of your own. Good luck!
posted by dhartung at 11:59 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Drop a line to my colleagues in the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: They should be able to give you some pointers.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:07 PM on November 9, 2011

I would also find a property where this is being done and speak to a current participant in the program. It sounds like it could be potentially a big commitment. It also looks like many of the properties are somewhat open to the public, so finding a current curator shouldn't be hard.
posted by TedW at 2:18 PM on November 9, 2011

There are ways to formally train yourself in this specialty of the building trades, but I don't think even a couple of years of classes is going to teach you nearly as much as you will need.

As a former Historic Preservation professional with a MS in Historic Preservation I would say that going to school for Preservation (with a focus on hands-on rehab and preservation, as opposed to focusing on governmental regulation or preservation economics, say) would technically get you enough knowledge to begin a project like this, or would at least provide you with a good background from which to find the specific knowledge you need.

That said, if you intend on doing the work yourself, dhartung is right that it can take many many years to become proficient in much of the work that would go into rehabilitating an historic home up to the Secretary's Standards. Things like masonry repair and plaster stabilization are really more of an art than a craft, and when you are dealing with historic materials, it is quite possible to screw things up in a fashion that destroys the historic material and (potentially) damages your ability to meet the requirements of the program.

I have met with a couple of Curators of these types of properties (the Curator of the Royall House in Medford was a really nice guy when I met him back in the mid-90s) and they are, as far as I understand, generally people who already have careers (or other experience) in preservation and rehabilitation who take advantage of what they already know to join the program. Unless you were planning to contract out the majority of the work, I think it would be hard to succeed in that program with just "book learning".

Please MeMail me if you have other questions.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:52 AM on November 10, 2011

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