Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Thoughts on Developing and Promoting Preservation Building Trades Training 

12-09-2015 17:35

The conservation of the built environment brings together educators with administrators, artists with engineers, architects with artisans, and historians with conservation scientists — creating an unusual mix of disciplines, orchestrated to preserve a place of significance. Much like musicians responding to a conductor, composer, promoter, and audience, the mechanics and technicians of the preservation trades are the people who actually lay their hands on what is being preserved, in concert with others who analyze the historic fabric, draw up the plans, raise the money, and interpret the history. Ultimately, the quality of performance depends on the virtuosity of the musicians. The conservation of historic places, under the direction of any number of planners and design professionals, is dependent on the proficiency of the conservators, the trade mechanics, and specialized technicians who have chosen to pursue careers in the broad field of historic preservation.

The Best Preparation

Serious academic preparation along with practical hands-on training is critical. Academic scholarship for building trades personnel provides tools for the preservation toolbox that, at a minimum, should include an understanding of preservation philosophies, architectural history, material science, and site management. Most trades training programs give students a focused experience with materials and processes. Equally important is a basic education in buildings systems, techniques of non-destructive investigation, modern conservation materials and methodologies, and planning and documentation.

Mastering a trade specialty and also understanding the broad overview of the complexities in the preservation field is ideal. The person who does this is truly a preservationist. He or she is comfortable contemplating traditional and modern approaches to building conservation and can communicate easily with the client, design professionals, and technicians on the scaffolding.

Some of the skills that we associate with preservation are simply the skills of the traditional building trades. In most building trades, if the technicians have been given adequate training, they are prepared for the work necessary to preserve old buildings. A good roofer, for instance, can work with slate, tile, and sheet-metal as well as modern materials used on contemporary buildings. Likewise, an apprentice mason needs to know about brick bonding, closers, and fire box proportions to master that trade—knowledge that can most easily be gleaned from working on historic structures and understanding how they are built. Carpenters get plenty of opportunities to disassemble, conserve, or replace wood, because it deteriorates faster than most other materials on historic buildings.

Trades training for preservation needs to strike a balance between the traditional skills and up-to-date conservation methodologies. A large proportion of work that trade mechanics, architects, and other professionals in the construction business encounter over the span of their careers entails the repair and maintenance of existing, and often historic, structures—not new buildings as many freshly minted trades people and designers may expect. Armed with fundamental skills in combination with specialized training in historic preservation, a tradesperson will have maximum flexibility to work on both new and old structures. Such an individual is more valuable to an employer and certainly will have greater opportunities to work as an independent, self-employed contractor.


Perhaps the final test in the resolve of preservationists to promote training in the trades will be to encourage the labor unions to adopt strategies for focused training in, carpentry, masonry, metal work, roofing, glass work, and mechanical systems for historic sites. Similarly, unions would benefit by integrating historic preservation training into their mandatory apprenticeships.

After graduating from one of the trades programs, an apprentice could sign on to continue learning in the work place under the tutelage of journey- and master-level technicians and mechanics. That experience would give him or her a generous length of time to get up to speed with the rigors and realities of the job site, while earning a decent wage and receiving health and pension benefits.

European models for specialized training programs offer us a paradigm for integrating rigorous hands-on training essential to a successful career in building conservation. A paint and finish conservator in Germany is expected to apprentice for six years, the same amount of time it takes to earn an undergraduate and masters degree in the United States. Today in the U.S., generally only unions require formal apprenticeship. Many superb mechanics manage to train themselves in a craft or trade, yet that haphazard approach is hardly recommended as the preferred way to organize an educational experience.

Career Paths and Benefits

In my experience, people are choosing to pursue preservation building trades as a career after getting a college education. I have seen them enter a variety of vocations in preservation work, ranging from those with traditional trade skills using fundamental methods and materials to technicians who specialize in something as focused as gilding or stained glass conservation to highly specialized conservators who lean heavily on material science.

In the process of recruiting students for training programs, I believe schools should broach the subject of money right off the bat. The prevailing wages in the trades are quite high, easily rivaling salaries at nonprofits! The work is varied, the job sites are interesting, and the various specialty fields in preservation are intellectually and physically challenging as well.

Beyond the comfortable wages and benefits that union jobs and established preservation contractors pay to employees, the field also offers workers the opportunity to move into management, start a company, or consult, as their skill levels and experience accrue. This ability to rise through the ranks, without tacitly acknowledged barriers blocking the way, is another aspect of this field that training programs should emphasize. Joining a crew, working up to foreperson, and crossing over into management, or ultimately owning a company are entirely possible and may happen with greater frequency in the construction and preservation building trades than in most careers.

Preservation Building Trades at National Trust Sites

The preservation story is always implicit in the interpretation of National Trust historic sites. We promote preservation education, whether it is research or a hands-on summer experience for preservation students from an academic program or the opportunity for students in a trades program to hone their skills. Over the years with the National Trust, I have worked closely with students from trades training programs as well as academic programs. Summer interns at the historic sites typically amass well over 300 contact hours on site, augmented by the opportunity to communicate with consultants, contractors, conservators, and Trust staff after normal work hours as well.

An innovative approach on the part of the National Trust, in conjunction with Hillier Architecture, in planning for the restoration of the exterior of Lincoln Cottage (centerpiece of the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument in Washington, D.C.) was to engage the National Park Service, Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Md., to conserve window sash and doors from six openings. The crew from the training center carefully removed the windows, doors, and associated hardware from the jambs. All elements were numbered and recorded and then transported to the workshop in Frederick. Conservators analyzed the windows and doors to develop a treatment plan that respects and preserves the wear and tear of time, and guarantees the repair of all of the deteriorated areas that affect the long-range performance.

Contractors bidding on the exterior restoration sent representatives to the training center for a demonstration of techniques, and a discussion of the methods and materials used to repair the windows, doors, and hardware. Many questions were asked at this session which resulted in a clear understanding by each of the representatives as to what level of quality and methods of repair the National Trust expected from the contractor working on the exterior restoration.

A set of written guidelines outlines the array of treatments and repairs needed to return the windows and doors to service. A conservation philosophy serves as a preface for the treatment protocol document that details how each type of repair should be accomplished, the choice of replacement glass, wood species for repairs, paint and glazing removal, painting methods, glazing, hardware conservation and carpentry techniques. The 11-page document sets criteria for wood repairs, including the use of Dutchmen repairs, slip tenons, putty bar repair, the use of epoxy both as an adhesive and as filler. The Preservation of Historic Window Sash and Doors from the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument, Treatment Protocol includes a breakdown of time spent on labor for the repair work. This document was turned over to the general contractor to use as a set of treatment guidelines. This project represents a successful collaboration with a training program — an educational component dovetailed into high-end conservation work with an outcome that can be measured and repeated. It exemplifies the type of challenging and satisfying work available to those who specialize in preservation building trades.

Publication Date: Summer 2005


Author(s):David C. Overholt