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Crimes Against Architecture & A Call To Arms

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by Mike O'Handley, Editor

Have you ever seen someone do something so monumentally stupid that you were physically sickened by it or enraged and frustrated to the point of tears? Well recently it happened to me and I'm still not over it. Just down the street from my home, tucked well back from the street in a u-shaped stand of high hedges, stood a little brick Tudor cottage with an English basement that was probably about 95 to 100 years old. Now, this building was pretty run down and badly in need of a complete renovation, but it was unique among houses in this area. I know, because I'm an old house buff and in 8 years on Puget Sound haven't seen another one like it.

Imagine, a brick and stucco exterior, arched doorways and windows set deep in the walls. Leaded windows with diamond-shaped lites, thick oak door with massive iron hinges and reinforcement and a steeply-raked roof with diamond-shaped French style shingles and a little upward flare at the ends of each ridge reminiscent of the flare seen on thatched roofs in Europe. In my entire life, the only places I'd ever seen others like it have been in Europe, while traveling through Normandy or Belgium. In fact, this home so closely resembled one I'd seen in Normandy that when I first saw it in 1996 I thought it must have been brought from Europe stone by stone.

So, when a sign appeared on the front lawn in 1998 inviting comments from the public about a proposed 10 unit apartment building on the site, I immediately tracked down the developer and asked him what was going to happen to the house. "Well," he drawled matter of factly, "I'm planning to bulldoze it. Why do you ask, do you want it?" "Hell yes!" was my response. "Well, have it off the lot 30 days before I'm ready to begin construction and it's yours. Just don't leave anything behind," he responded.

That set me off on a two year quest to find a lot not too far away that I could afford, a house moving company that had the equipment and skills to move a brick and stucco house in one piece without destroying it and someone interested in investing in the project with me. Little did I realize what tall orders those were. First, there were no reasonably priced lots in close proximity, the closest company with the technical know-how and equipment to move a brick home intact is in Victory, BC (http://www.nickelbros.com), and, try as I might, I couldn't get anyone interested in the project. Since I didn't have the financial means to take on this project myself, the project languished and I spend most of 1998 through 2000 fretting about that cottage.

In late 2000 I called the developer again and asked him for an update. "The whole thing is on hold," he told me, "The little old lady that lives there won't move out and my agreement is that I won't force her to leave, so we're gonna wait her out. I'm not worried about it, we've got lots of other projects going on right now and can always sell it to another interested party, if she doesn't move along pretty soon." I breathed a sigh of relief - maybe there was more time.

Still, I continued to check in every once in a while with the developer and continued to find the project in limbo. At one point I tried to get the local historical society involved and the President told me that they too were trying frantically to find a way to save the house. Hearing that, I breathed a sigh of relief because I was fairly certain they had the resources and the community interest to pull it off.

Time wore on and last summer the developer's sign came down. I watched the place closely and noticed that a new family seemed to have moved in. "Thank God," I thought, "The developer sold his interest in it and someone else has moved in."

So, imagine my feelings one day recently as I was driving by, noticed orange construction barricades in front of the lot, slowed down to take a look at what was going on and found the house was gone and most of lot was covered with a large concrete pad and a new condominium building was going up! There, off on a corner of the lot, was a large pile of brick, stone and wood rubble being loaded onto dump trucks for transport to the landfill.

I was sickened at the sight and actually had to pull off to the side of the street to retch. Sitting there infuriated by the sheer stupidity of what I'd just seen, I found myself gripping the steering wheel so hard it hurt and tears of rage were streaming down my cheeks. I was so upset that I turned around and went home, too depressed and full of self-loathing for not having been more proactive and staying on top of things in order to prevent this tragedy.

I know, it probably sounds stupid that I'd get so upset just over an old house, but to me these aren't just old houses. These are time capsules of our American existence and we're carelessly replacing them with pavement and vinyl-sided structures that will be gone in 30 to 40 years. This lunacy is what I call Crimes Against Architecture.

Recently, I read a HUD publication - Review of Structural Materials and Methods For Home Building in the United States: 1900 to 2000 (Number 20 on the list of downloadable pdf files you'll find in TIJ's downloads section) - and was shocked to learn that in the year 1995 less than 9% of US housing stock was 76 or more years old.

Living in a place like Seattle, a city that is barely 150 years old and where there is a huge stock of homes built between 1880 and 1920, I hadn't realized there were so few old homes left. I find it unconscionable that Americans are allowing the one thing in this country that is truly American, our architecture, to disappear before our very eyes, replaced by featureless artsy-fartsy pieces of crap, while we sit by, shrug our shoulders and not doing anything about it.

So, you might ask, that's the crime against architecture, but what's up with A Call To Arms? Well, we home inspectors are uniquely positioned to influence homeowners and dissuade them from making some of the remuddling mistakes that are destroying these old homes. I'm asking for home inspectors to get involved.

Have you ever inspected a grand old house for a couple and heard them conversing behind you, talking about tearing out the woodwork, tearing off the roof to reconfigure it and re-siding the home in E.I.F.S. or corrugated steel, in order to contemporize it? I have. And, even though I'm not being paid for my opinion of modernizing historic homes, I've never missed the opportunity to point out to the client any unique features of their old home and have always tried to impress upon them how important our older homes are to the preservation of our own heritage.

I admit that in most of these cases my opinion didn't sway the clients, but I have had some successes. When I began inspecting homes in Seattle in 1996, 1200 square foot bungalows were going for less than half of what they are now in the same neighborhoods. Being a bungalow fanatic, I never let an inspection of one of these homes go by without schooling the client, and any realtor present, about the history of bungalow homes and how uniquely American the genre' became after it was exported to the US late in the 19th century from England, and then from America around the world by way kits sold on every continent. I send clients various articles about bungalows and point them to various old home websites and publications where they can learn more and gain an appreciation of what they've bought.

Today, bungalows in Seattle are enjoying a renaissance, prices have doubled in just a few short years, and realtors that used to sniff and turn their noses up at Bungalows are parroting much of what I've been telling my clients for years. Best of all, there are now numerous bungalow neighborhoods where homeowners are enthusiastically restoring them instead of bulldozing them into the ground and replacing them. I'm not conceited enough to think that I single-handedly initiated an interest in Bungalows in the Seattle area, but I like to think that my efforts at educating my clients has had something to do with regenerating interest.

Now, I'd like to figuratively point my finger at all home inspectors and say, "America Needs You!". Learn a little bit about what makes older homes in this country uniquely American and never let an opportunity to educate your clients pass without educating them about what it is that they are purchasing. Point them to periodicals like American Bungalow (http://www.ambungalow.com), Old House Journal(http://www.oldhousejournal.com) and and websites like Historic Properties (http://www.historicproperties.com, where they can learn more about various programs across the country aimed at preserving this old housing stock.

Lastly, those of you who see a lot of old homes, and have also developed an appreciation for them, should consider joining the newest yet least-known of all professional home inspector associations, The Historic Building Inspectors Association (HBIA)(http://www.inspecthistoric.org). HBIA was founded in 2003 by William H. Kibbel III. According to Kibbel, the idea for HBIA stems from a need for inspectors who know and understand the unique historical and structural characteristics of vintage housing stock.

Kibbel says that, over the course of 18 years in the home inspection business, he has inspected nearly 10,000 homes or buildings that were between 100 and 350 years old, and has built a reputation for his expertise in historic buildings. However, he found himself turning down numerous requests to do inspections in other areas and states because the homes were just too far away. Because numerous disappointed home buyers often asked if he knew of anyone else experienced with historic homes that could do the job for them, Kibbel began to seek out other inspectors who had similar knowledge and experience and an interest in preservation of old homes.

This small group of inspectors, has now formed the nucleus of HBIA, and is seeking new inspector/members who have specific experience with, and an appreciation for, historic buildings.

What will it take to join HBIA? Well, the largest stumbling block is not the cost because dues are only $30.00 a year. HBIA will only accept members who meet very stringent membership qualifications - qualifications that require more selective experience than the average inspector has, but which should be easy enough for seasoned inspectors with an appreciation of old buildings to achieve.

To be a member of HBIA, inspectors must

  • be employed in the home inspection business full-time
  • have passed either the National Home Inspector Exam (NHIE) or the NAHI CRI exam
  • have completed at least 200 fee-paid inspections
  • must maintain at least 16 hours of continuing education credits annually
  • have been actively involved in historic preservation or have obtained a certificate in Preservation Skills and Technology
  • maintain a valid state or municipal license when required
  • maintain ethical standards as defined by individual state requirements or by the code of ethics of either ASHI® or NAHIâ„¢
  • pay annual dues of $30
In addition, applicants must submit at least two reports in a narrative-style format that meet either NAHI or ASHI standards that demonstrate the applicant's expertise in evaluating and reporting on structural and mechanical conditions observed in historic buildings.

Those requirements are a pretty tall order. Nonetheless, HBIA has grown rapidly over the past 5 months to where there are now members covering twelve states. Kibbel is convinced that, HBIA's website, http://www.inspecthistoric.org , will eventually become the source where historic home buyers will get connected to experienced home inspectors.

Do you think you have what it takes to be part of the smallest and least appreciated, but nonetheless extremely important citizen's army in the United States, devoted solely to helping home buyers find and preserve viable old buildings thus preserving our heritage? Or, are you content to sit by and watch crimes against architecture continue until we are all living in drab, featureless boxes devoid of historical context and personality?

If you think you have what it takes and want to join, contact The Historic Building Inspectors Association, P.O. Box 201, Springtown, PA 18081, or visit their website for more information and to fill out a membership application.

Now, is anyone interested in lobbying their legislators to push for a federal law making it a jailable offense to commit crimes against architecture?


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  • 2 weeks later...

Mike: I just finally read your 'Crimes Against Architecture" article. Good job. Stuff like that happens in the Boston area but not much. It tends to go the other way. I call it the "WGBH-effect". (CH2, the local PBS station that 'built' "This Old House" and all the associated blarney that has come from it).

We local Boston inspectors are inspecting in undoubtedly the best arena in the US. Literally. You can indeed hit a 1600's home along with the latest in construction in your career.

To top it off, a few of us locals do indeed get to check out the handiwork of the "This Old House" guys you see on TV. Makes for interesting fodder.

Keep up the excellent interest in 'stuff' Mike....

Rob Amaral

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