Construction Concerns: Remodeling Older Buildings

Article and photos by Gregory Havel

Older buildings have almost always been remodeled at least once. A building that is more than 100 years old has probably been remodeled several times, to accommodate the changing needs of the building’s occupants and permit the installation of utilities and conveniences as they became available. These utilities and conveniences include indoor plumbing, city water, central heating, insulation, electricity, telephones, air conditioning, TV and data cable, solar and wind power generators, and heat recovery. This new century and its new technology will surely prompt additional remodeling.

Photo 1 (above) shows a building of Type III (ordinary, or brick and joist) construction after a fire. The exterior walls are of three-wythe brick masonry, with pockets to support the wood floor and roof joists. The joists support the wood subfloor and tongue-and-groove hardwood floorboards. Since it was built, this structure has had mercantile (retail sales) or assembly (bar and restaurant) occupancies on the first floor with a cellar below, and residential on the second floor, with an attic above. The missing section of wall was removed during overhaul because of its instability.

On the first floor, much of the original lath and plaster had been replaced with gypsum drywall board, nailed or screwed to the original furring strips and wood studs. On the second floor, some lath and plaster remains; in other places gypsum drywall board was applied to the wall over the original wood lath. In the attic, the original masonry walls are visible, never having been lathed and plastered. (To examine the original structure of a building, visit the attic, cellar, or any unfinished storage or mechanical space, where it remains exposed.)

Photo 2 shows another view of the first floor of the same building. Note the steel beam, supported by concrete block pilasters that were installed during one remodeling project to replace a load-bearing wall that was removed. These now support the second floor.

 Another view of the first floor of the same building. Photo by Greg Havel.

Had the steel beam in Photo 2 been more exposed to fire, the beam could have expanded and tipped out one of the exterior walls; or it could have been restrained by the masonry, twisted, and dropped the wall it supported, causing an interior collapse.

Under fire conditions, firefighters should not assume that remodeling has used materials similar to the original construction materials. We should also not assume that the building department has records and plans of all remodeling, since these records are not kept forever, and since much building and remodeling took place before the building department existed, or more recently without permits or plans review by the inspectors.

The cause of this fire was undetermined, and the remaining parts of the building in the photos have already been demolished.

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Greg HavelGregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.

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