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When flood waters recede, the old wood's still good

You won’t find any silver linings to the increased flooding caused by climate change, but at least we’re learning something – old growth wood is awesome, and even after submersion in flood waters, the existing wood may be a better choice than new wood.

25 October, 2023

With terrible floods becoming more common in the United States, more homeowners have to restore their water-damaged houses. And in the process, they’re learning about old-grown wood and all its advantages.

Ask any painter who has worked on these homes, and they can tell you that replacing a portion of window trim with new wood will look very noticeably different, even with several coats of quality paint.

From Ben Finley's piece for the Associated Press:

“Our forefathers chose materials that were naturally rot-resistant, like black locust and red cedar and cypress,” said Kerry Shackelford, who owns a historic restoration business. “And they actually survive better than many of the products we use today.”

Indeed, it isn’t just the fact that the wood used in these homes has had more time to grow and mature but that builders from previous generations used finer materials. Materials that were naturally resistant to rot.

“There are some companies that just roll through, and their job is just to come in and gut the place and move on,” said Jenny Wolfe, board president of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

But this isn’t just a case of restoration contractors trying to turn a quick buck by using the cheapest methods and materials at their disposal. A good portion of the issues faced by homeowners looking to restore their abodes to its former glory, is that the contractors simply lack the expertise and experience to properly restore these homes. 

According to the AP, Paige Pollard and Shackelford’s joint venture in Virginia, the retrofit design firm Building Resilient Solutions, opened a lab this year in which planks of old-growth pine, oak and cedar are submerged into a tank mimicking flood conditions. The tests are designed to demonstrate historic materials’ durability and were devised with help from Virginia Tech researchers.

Pollard and Shackelford say lumber in older homes is resilient because it came from trees that grew slowly over decades, if not centuries. That means the trees’ growth rings were small and dense, thereby making it harder for water to seep in. Also, the timber was cut from the innermost part of the trunk, which produces the hardest wood.

Plaster can also be water resistant, while common plaster coatings were made from lime, a substance with antiseptic qualities.

A recent study by the park service and Army Corps found that some historic materials, such as old-growth heart pine and cypress flooring, performed considerably better than certain varieties of modern lumber, Eggleston said.

“There’s no course that I know of that teaches you directly how to work on historical homes,” said Apter, a Maryland contractor. “It’s like an antique car. You’re going to be limited on where you can find parts and where you can find someone who’s qualified to work on it.”

The good news is that as more historical societies get involved and industry-specific groups like the PCA build free knowledge centers and learning activities, ignorance of the value and specialized techniques necessary for proper restoration will vanish. Until then, homeowners in need of historic home restoration should be extra weary of who they hire for the job. Asking simple questions like, “How many historic homes have you restored?” and “Can I see some examples of your work?” Can help protect them from destroying the value of a priceless home.

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