On a historical restoration project where mistakes would be too costly to bear, the keys to success are simple: Develop a bulletproof game plan, pay careful attention to detail, and above all, remain as organized as possible.
“Our company was tasked with restoring a historic three-story residence in East Hampton, New York. The town owned the certified landmark project, which was to preserve the home of one of the town’s first settlers,” explains Joel Lipsky, president of Lipsky Construction, Inc. “Because tax dollars assisted with funding, it was designated a prevailing wage job.”
Lipsky turned to his longtime friend, Matthew Bruno, president of Palermo Flooring, Inc., to assist with the project. Bruno understood the nature of the job reduced his margin for error considerably.
“In a prevailing wage job, tax dollars pay for the labor, and we are given a labor rate that we must pay per hour to employees. Everything is tracked and every hour counts. As such, we want to make sure we’re working as fast as possible,” explains Bruno. “The problem is that should we move too quickly and make a mistake, we’d have to go back and do it again a second time, paying double. At the labor rates that were set for us, if there were any issues, we’d be personally responsible, and we’d risk going out of business.”
When Bruno and Lipsky first saw the home, they noted no care had ever been put into its preservation. While the house was in total disarray, project funding from the state was contingent on meticulous restoration. They would have to capture the original building’s exact look and feel. Not only that, but a large percentage of the floor would need to be restored, not simply replaced.
“My first impression was that each room was going to be a unique experience. From room to room, I could see a variety of different species of wood,” says Bruno. “The original builders seemed to have cut down and installed whatever they had around them at the time. I saw there was going to be a challenge matching the existing old-growth species to newer lumber species.”
Bruno eventually uncovered many species in the home, including Douglas fir, southern yellow pine, rift- and quartersawn clear grade white oak, and plainsawn red oak. Much of the material at the site was 1/2″ thick.
Bruno knew his best chance to complete the project quickly and accurately was to take meticulous notes and divide the project up by room. He noted each species and its location carefully and whether or not the flooring could be salvaged. Each room had a color-coded spreadsheet that contained information on species, repairs, square footage, and more.
“As a wood floor guy, it was fun to go from room to room and determine species, size, and thickness,” says Bruno. “I would then lightly sand different parts of the floor to identify species, but for some parts of the home, I removed boards so mills could assist me with matching them. I knew that finesse sanding and minor repairs in each location would take a lot of time, but it was the best overall approach for this job versus doing full rip-outs.”
While Bruno was tasked with preserving existing flooring wherever possible, this was not always possible.
“Unfortunately, some areas ended up being a safety concern. In those cases, I had to install new flooring,” says Bruno. “To procure the wood, I ended up reaching out to several resources, including Allegheny Mountain Hardwood Flooring, Sheoga Flooring, Brooks Lumber, Red Hill Lumber, and Appalachian Lumber Company.”
Once the new flooring was installed, Bruno’s final step was ensuring everything was historically accurate. He accomplished this by studying old photos provided by the local historical society. To complete the look of the floors, Bruno used DuraSeal stains and Bona Traffic water-based finish.
“On a job like this where we needed to get it right the first time, we needed to take the time to make sure the stain, the color, and patterns matched, based on careful examination and research,” says Lipsky. “My best advice is that when tackling a historical restoration, no matter the scope, be sure that whatever time you think you are going to spend on this project, double it. It’s going to take that much care dialing in the species, getting mockups approved, and everything else that is required.”
Looking back at the project, Bruno says it was one of his most educational and unforgettable.
“It was a lot of work, and it’s a project that I’ll never forget. Not only does the home stand out because of the sheer variety of the floors, but it also taught me a lot about the importance of commitment on the front end,” says Bruno. “By moving carefully, meticulously logging details, we were able to make what could have been a confusing, complex, and potentially risky job into something manageable and ultimately successful and rewarding.”